"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Sunday, February 18, 2018

The naked face of oblivion: Night-World by Robert Bloch (1972)

“I shall not kill because you order me to kill; because you issue me a uniform, a weapon and a command. That is fraud.

“I shall not kill because of something that happened between me and my mother, father, sister, brother, wife. That is Freud, and he is a fraud, too.

“I shall kill because I am a brave man. And a brave man is true to his nature.

“It is the nature of man to be free, to resent confinement. It is the nature of man to oppose hypocrisy and injustice. I shall kill in the name of all mankind—all mankind confined hypocritically and unjustly in asylums, prisons, hospitals, rest homes. I shall kill in the name of those who have been punished for their courage in openly defying society. In the name of those who are labeled misfit and unfit. In the name of the bastard buried away in an orphanage and the millions dying neglected and forgotten, institutionalized merely because they have committed the crime of growing old.

“I believe in the principles of democracy. One man, one vote. And mine is a vote of protest—a vote that will register and be remembered. Mass murderers are famous….”

The Scarf  (1947) was a superb novel of suspense, a portrait of postwar alienation to rival Celine, Camus, Highsmith.

Psycho (1959) was an enthralling one-sitting battle of wits between the protagonist and himself. As well as some real-life opponents.

Robert Bloch's novels of the 1945-1976 period (prior to Strange Eons) are what I term non-supernatural weird suspense tales. Unlike many of his career-spanning short stories, they do not feature sardonic and "Runyonesque" narrators and story-lines. Instead, they foreground noirish aspects of crime: serial killers and their victims, the “you-can't-win” mis en scene.

Bloch is a meticulous plotter, and is always careful in such novels to contrast the madness of his antagonists with the generalized irrationality of society at-large. In this he echoes Chaplin's fine film
Monsieur Verdoux (1947).

Night-World was published in 1972. Say no more: Vietnam’s psychological ramifications  for U.S. G.I.s is foregrounded. Whitman, Manson, and the Zodiac killer get contextualizing mentions.

Night-World begins with typically apposite Blochian negations. Chapter One: an insane asylum; Chapter Two:  an advertising agency.

….They told him he was here for his own good, and the locked door was a protection against the other patients. But it couldn’t protect him against time. Gnawing away, night after night, so that he couldn’t sleep. And it couldn’t protect him against his protectors. They had a key….

….At the far end of the second corridor, Karen stepped into her own niche, put her purse in the desk drawer, pushed the telephone to one side, and sat down to study the approved and initialed rough layout for a full-page black-and-white scheduled to run in the fashion magazines listed in the accompanying memo and work-data sheet. She glanced at the notes and suggestions, then studied the rough, trying to visualize the finished artwork.

In the foreground, arms folded defiantly across his bare chest, a scowling young man with shaggy hair tumbling across his forehead, the slitted stare of his heavy-lidded eyes suggesting the acid-head. Striped trousers, very tight in the crotch, just suggesting.

Behind him, the girl—all angularity and elbows, hands on hips and legs outthrust. Long straight hair strand-strung on either side of exaggeratedly high cheekbones and sullen slash of mouth. The young witch, suffering from malnutrition or stardom in an Andy Warhol film.

Midway between the two, a chopper or bike. Not a motorcycle—only the pigs ride motorcycles; we ride hogs.

Karen made a mental note of the distinction: pigs are bad, hogs are good. If she referred to the machine at all in the copy block, she must remember that. On the other hand, the ad was for the striped pants, and she’d better concentrate on the merchandise. She began to run through phrases, discarding as she went. Dig, bag, with it, doing your thing—last year’s vocabulary, but a dead language today. And the Now Generation was presently known as the Beautiful People. Their clothes would be heavy, or funky. Gear. Karen reached for pad and pencil and jotted down a tentative headline—Geared for Action.

No sense bothering with an actual description of the trousers; no one buys striped pants, they buy a look. And the look was—what? In deep. Thrust. Put it all together—and today’s lexicon of popular phrases sounded like a description of the activities in a whorehouse….

Karen Raymond is Bloch's heroine. Eaking out a living in advertising in order to support her husband Bruce's stay at Dr. Griswold’s posh sanitarium, she lives a life if quiet desperation.

On the day the novel opens, she gets world her husband is about to be released. She makes a beeline for Griswold's madhouse. And the fun begins.

….The nurse strangled at her desk, Griswold dead, and two more bodies found upstairs. She knew who they were, now—an orderly named Thomas and an elderly woman patient. The orderly had been stabbed to death, and the patient apparently died of a heart seizure, but of course they couldn’t be certain of that. All they knew was that four people had died; three staff members and one patient.

Five other rooms upstairs showed signs of occupancy, so there had been five other patients in the sanatorium. But they were missing.

They were missing, and all their records, all means of identifying them, had gone up in smoke in Griswold’s fireplace.

Five mentally disturbed patients gone. Vanished. Only one—Bruce—known by name. And every reason to believe that one or more of those patients was a mass murderer.

But who were they?

And where could they have gone?

No wonder Lieutenant Barringer frowned when Karen shook her head.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t know their names. I never even set eyes on any of them. I told you I didn’t visit my husband while he was in the sanatorium.”

“Why not?”

“Dr. Griswold thought it best if I stayed away. Bruce seemed so disturbed—”


Barringer picked up the word, but Karen couldn’t help that. There was no avoiding the subject, and if she didn’t speak up, they’d hear it from Rita.

“Of course. That’s why he was under treatment, it was a nervous condition. Ever since he came back from Vietnam—”

“Was he a head?”

“No. He never got into drugs.”

“You’re sure of that?”

“Certainly. I’m his wife—if there was anything like that going on, I’d know.”

“Then in what way was he disturbed?”

“Just nerves—”

“Please, Mrs. Raymond. People don’t spend six months in a sanatorium unless there’s been some kind of diagnosis. Surely Dr. Griswold told you more than that. What were the symptoms? What did your husband do that prompted you to put him away—”

“I didn’t put him away! Bruce was the one who wanted to go!”

Hearing the shrill echo of her own voice, Karen realized she was close to hysterics. If she wanted to help Bruce, she would have to control herself….

Bloch plunges us into an inverted who-is-it? mystery.  Interlaced chapters braid back stories of victims: workers at the sanitarium, fellow escapees of the sociopathic mastermind. Any cop entering the room could be an escapee working on a diabolical plan. One of the escaped patients quickly begins killing fellow escapees and staffers who can identify him.

As bodies pile up, Karen defends her husband's innocence. But Bloch being Bloch, even when Karen has a clandestine meeting with Bruce, we are not sure of Bruce after all:

….Karen tried to keep her voice steady. “You can’t go on running forever.”

“I have to.” Bruce’s eyes never left her face. “They already know I was in the sanatorium. They’re bound to check my service record and the hospital reports. Between that and what we both know about me—” He broke off and for a moment his glance wavered. Then he stared at her again, and his words came with a rush. “Have you said anything? Have you told them about us?”

Karen shook her head.

“Good.” Bruce’s shoulders sagged in relief. Night after night. After a while, the two seem to blend. Not blend, really, because it’s as if the night swallowed the day. So you’re always in darkness, perpetual darkness—a night-world. That’s what you live in, a night-world, where all the sounds and shadows turn strange. And you think about those who’ve done this to you, and they’re your enemies. Then you think about those who aren’t directly responsible, but who don’t care. The people you call out to who never hear your voice—after a while you realize they’re your enemies, too. Everyone’s a part of the conspiracy, a conspiracy of silence and indifference. They’re all trying to get you. So you wonder how you can get them first. Punish them for punishing you. And you start to dream about it, and the dream becomes a plan and the plan becomes a reality.”

“Bruce, for God’s sake—”

“We don’t talk about God in the asylum. We talk about something called the Id and the Ego and the Superego. Father, Son and the Holy Ghost, all equally invisible.” His smile was bitter. “The gospel according to Griswold. According to him there are no accidents. The mind that makes one man a murderer makes another man a victim.”

“Is that what you believe?”

“Of course not.” Bruce sighed. “I’m only trying to tell you what it’s like, tell you how he thinks. I know, because that’s how I felt myself, at first. But Griswold helped me change. The thing is, he couldn’t help him.”


“The man they’re looking for. The murderer.”

“What’s his name?”

Bruce shook his head. “If you knew his name, he’d come after you. Do you want to be a victim, too?”

“I want to help you.”

“Then give me some money—let me get away before he finds me. That’s all I want.”

“Is it?”

“No.” And then he was holding her, his arms tight, his body close so that she could feel the trembling. “You’re what I want, what I’ve always wanted, I know that now. But it’s too late, after what happened I don’t blame you—”

“I love you. I always have.”

The trembling ceased. Now there was only a tautness. “You didn’t even visit me out there.”

“Griswold asked me not to. He must have told you that.”

“Yes. And I didn’t believe him.”

“I was coming to see you the other night. Griswold said you were probably ready to come home.”

“If I’d only known.” Bruce released her, stepped back.

“You didn’t?”

“Do you think I’d have gone along with Cromer if I had?”


“All right.” Bruce took a deep breath. “The man they want is Edmund Cromer. He never really talked about himself, but from what little I heard, he’s the only son of a wealthy family back in New York or New Jersey, I’m not sure which. They committed him about a year ago. In view of what’s happened, I suspect they sent him all the way out here because he might have been involved in something pretty horrible back East.”

“Did you know about his plan to escape?”

“Nobody did, except Rodell. And I don’t think Rodell realized he meant to kill anyone when he made the break. But of course Cromer must have had it all worked out. And after it started, there was no stopping.”

“How did it happen?”

“I’m not sure. I was upstairs in my room after dinner, and so were the others, all but Cromer. He’d gone down to talk to Dr. Griswold. He must have killed him first, in the electrotherapy room, then the night nurse outside. There was no noise. The first time any of us realized something had happened was when we smelled smoke from the burning papers in the fireplace.”

“Wasn’t there an attendant on duty with you upstairs?”

“That’s right—Thomas. He was playing checkers with Tony Rodell in his room. I guess that had all been arranged, just to keep him busy, because Cromer had no trouble finding him when he came in with the knife in his hand—”

Bruce broke off, frowning. “No point going into that,” he said. “Thomas was dead by the time the rest of us came running out of our rooms. The old lady, Mrs. Freeling, took one look at Thomas and keeled over. Cromer said she was dead.”

“You didn’t examine her?”

“No.” Bruce shook his head quickly. “And I didn’t try to stop Cromer either, if that’s what you’re wondering about. None of us did. Because Cromer had come upstairs carrying Dr. Griswold’s gun and he kept us covered. We had no way of knowing it wasn’t loaded—all we did know was that Cromer had committed cold-blooded murder and was perfectly capable of continuing.

“He gave us our choice. Go with him now in Griswold’s car or he’d leave us behind. And he didn’t say anything about leaving us behind alive.

“If we’d had time to think, maybe a couple of us could have gotten together and tried to jump him. But you’ve got to realize what it was like—the panic, the confusion. Edna Drexel was hysterical, Lorch was in a state of shock. Between Rodell and Cromer with his gun, I had no chance of doing anything alone. I guess all any of us could grasp was that we’d better get out of there.

“Cromer promised to take us into town. Before we drove off he gave Rodell the gun and told him to use it if anyone made a move. Then he took the freeway to Sherman Oaks. He left the car, saying he’d be back in a few minutes, and Rodell stayed behind with the gun. That’s when I made my move. I got it away from him, but while we were struggling, the others ran off. After Tony was knocked out, I found the gun was empty, but I had no way of knowing where Cromer had gone, or if he’d really come back. And perhaps, if he did, he’d have another weapon. What I wanted to do, of course, was drive off—but Cromer had taken the car keys.” Bruce’s voice dropped to a whisper. “So I ran.”

Five patients escaped. Cromer kills one by drowning her. Another is done-in with the blunt force of a liquor bottle. A third is killed by his own adoring dogs, whom Cromer has maddened with amphetamines.

But is Cromer real, or another personality residing in Bruce's war-stricken brain? Each declaration on fact by a character makes us suspect that fact is a lie or a self-delusion. This is, after all, a Robert Bloch story.

Night-World gives Bloch plenty of space to take on his own favorite targets: commercialism, advertising, TV, smog, the crackerbox landscape of suburbia.

Who better?

18 February 2018

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