Review: Psycho: Sanitarium

Psycho_SanitariumBy Chet Williamson

Canelo, out now

Mother isn’t happy that Norman is in a state hospital for the criminally insane. But Norman is trying not to listen to Mother. After all, she hasn’t told him the truth about his birth – has she?

Norman Bates has become one of those figures in horror that has been subject to numerous interpretations, and not all of them, it has to be said, have lived up to the terror of Robert Bloch’s original creation – who, it should be remembered, is not the same as the character played by Anthony Perkins on screen in Hitchcock’s classic film. Perkins himself didn’t feel like the same character in the belated sequels (and prequel) in which he appeared, and Bates Motel’s Freddie Highmore is a very different take. (I’m going to ignore the 1998 film for the sake of my sanity.) For this new novel, though, Chet Williamson has returned to the characterisation of Norman from the 1959 original, physically very different from Perkins both in terms of his age and his size (he’s not exactly a small man).

Williamson populates the sanitarium with assorted people with secrets of their own, some of which are used against them – and which provide plenty of red herrings along the way, as those who have in some way upset Norman begin to disappear. Norman himself is plagued by dreams, although at least now he has someone to talk to them about – his brother, who has contacted the sanitarium after learning that he and Norman were separated at birth…

This isn’t a pastiche of Bloch, but a very well-constructed homage, emulating the twists and turns that the writer relished. The pulpy elements – the “romance” between characters, and the way in which they’re dispatched – work extremely well, and the chapters are interpolated with notes written half a century or so earlier that initially seem irrelevant but which provide vital clues to explain the seemingly inexplicable. It all leads up to an appropriately gorey ending.

If you only know Norman Bates via the TV series or the Hitchcock film, then firstly get hold of a copy of Bloch’s original novel and read it; if you already know his version, you’ll find this a very satisfying continuation of Norman’s psychosis.

Verdict: Mother knows best. 8/10

Paul Simpson

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