THE SCARF (1947 / 1966) by Robert Bloch

“I have the heart of a young boy. I keep it in a jar on my desk”

Robert Bloch was the prolific author of novels, short stories and screenplays in the horror, science fiction and mystery genres. He also possessed a wicked sense of humour, as evidenced by that macabre little quip attributed to him. Along with several treatments of the Jack the Ripper story (including one for Star Trek), the 1959 classic novel Psycho is the work that will forever be linked to his name (as a ‘for instance’, see the cover on the right). Too quickly classed as a horror author in the wake of Alfred Hitchcock’s hit movie adaptation (among its various sequels are two written by Bloch himself), nearly all his novels are actually psychological thrillers. A case in point is The Scarf, Bloch’s underrated longform debut after a decade of publishing short stories.

I offer the following review as part of Bev’s 2012 Vintage Mystery Readers Challenge for which I have selected to read and review at least eight mystery novels on the theme of amnesia published pre-1960 as well as Friday’s Forgotten Books meme run by Patti Abbott at her Pattinase blog.

“I didn’t realise it at the time, but what she really offered me was a womb to crawl into when I felt low. A spinster’s womb – safe, sterile, sexless. Antisocial, antiseptic, antiphysical.”

While still fairly short (it’s about 65,000-words in total), The Scarf more than justifies the transition to novel-length (and originally in hardback too) with a detailed look at the inside of a very damaged psyche. On top of that, its fascination with psychoanalysis, sexual derangement, first person point of view, and narrative surprise, clearly paved the way for Bloch’s later and better-known books and provides an interesting primer for his development. Indeed its remarkable how distinctively ‘Bloch’ this book already is (he was only 30 years old when it first came out), with much of it generating material – like the stay at a motel during a rainstorm and the psychiatrist’s climactic explanation -  that would reappear in Psycho. Bloch’s mastery of the short form is still well in evidence in the book’s impressive prologue, which could easily have been lifted out and marketed as a standalone story. It tells of a young and impressionable boy who is taken under the wing of a sympathetic English teacher, instilling in him a desire to become a writer. Shortly before he is due to leave for college, she invites him round to her home for a farewell celebration. This turns sinister when it becomes clear that the spinster has fallen in love with him.  She drugs him, binds his hands with the eponymous garment and turns on the gas with the apparent intention of killing him and herself. The boy survives, but from now on women and sex in general have become twisted in his mind, the scarf turned into a fetish linking sexual desire with death.

“You’ve heard of love at first sight?
Well, love had nothing to do with it.”

The bulk of the novel is set ten years after this traumatic episode as we follow the progress of Daniel Morley from Minneapolis to Hollywood via Chicago and New York in a black and scornful rendition of a ‘Horatio Alger’ style success story. Dan, tormented by his mother from an early age (and yes, there is even a textbook ‘primal scene’ when he catches his parents in bed), runs away from home to eventually emerge as a con artists of sorts, able to trade on his good looks and easy charm with the ladies as a means of survival. But he wants to be a writer and so uses his experiences with the women he exploits as literary source material. The only trouble is that just as his career starts to take off, so he finds it necessary to kill off the women he has sucked dry for his ‘art’ – using his totemic scarf. First up is Rena, a none too bright lush from Duluth with a husband currently serving a long stretch in prison who falls for the idea of being his muse. Dan uses her alright, steals her money, and then chillingly strangles her with his scarf. This is largely described in retrospect I hasten to add – Bloch can be mordant when he wants to be, but unpleasant physical detail is left off the page. This is nothing like the hideous brutality of Mickey Spillaine or the violent insanity of Jim Thompson’s otherwise fairly similar The Killer Inside Me (1952).

“The moment I hit Constance in the face, I knew I was in love with Pat Collins.”

The pattern is then repeated in Chicago when Dan hooks up with gorgeous model Hazel Hurley who gets him a job writing copy at a radio station – Dan uses her as the basis for the main character in his book, ‘Queen of Hearts’, but when she gets pregnant and wants them to get married, he deserts her. Ultimately this also ends in her death when they struggle near the City’s famed elevated train. Dan moves to The Big Apple when his book sells and eventually it becomes a hit as does he, becoming the toast of the town. This success is not least thanks to the intervention of another woman, the rather unbalanced Constance Ruppert, who happens to own half the company publishing Dan’s novel. But Dan has fallen for his young editor Pat, who is engaged to Constance’s ex-husband Jeff, an insightful psychiatrist but a pretty lousy doctor (he has no problem discussing his ex-wife’s medical history with Dan). Constance, who knows about Hazel and is using this as leverage to make him marry her, becomes ever more demanding and by this point we know where this is heading. Dan has become fairly good at covering his tracks, so when he comes up with an ingenious scheme to get rid of Constance, we are not surprised that he manages it even though by this point one would have though that someone would have noticed a new Bluebeard in town.

Dan now movies to Hollywood when he is hired to work on a movie version of his book – everything should be hunky dory, but he is hounded by his inner demons. Only confessing his darkest fears in a personal diary, to which we periodically return, it becomes clear that he can only write about what he knows and that ultimately he will kill the women he writes about – this terrifies him when he realises how much he loves Pat. Dan is also becoming increasingly paranoid, believing he is being followed by a man in a green jacket and convinced that even strangers can tell what is really going on inside his seemingly affable exterior. But perhaps Pat can save him he thinks – but does he deserve to be saved? Or will he succumb to his desperate urge and destroy the one thing he cherishes (Dan knows his Oscar Wilde).

At the start of my review I mentioned that the novel’s standout prologue, which is bookended with a sting-in-the-tale epilogue, could have been hived off as a stand-alone short story. Well, there’s a reason for that – in 1966 Bloch revised his first novel for a paperback reprint and in fact added various new elements like the epilogue, reinstated material that had been cut from the original version by the original editor, and also updated it (there are now references to Bob Dylan for instance). Like Gore Vidal with his breakthrough novel, The City and the Pillar, and Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, these examples of authors amending an earlier text have generally been considered worthwhile editorial endeavours – and have not led to howls of protest like those that keep meeting the latest bit of George Lucas meddling in his own work. It would be too big a spoiler to discuss the epilogue in any detail, but lets just say that Dan proves to be less than reliable as a narrator, and certainly pretty forgetful in some crucial aspects. This leads to a neat reversal in the finale, adding an extra frisson to the novel without in any way detracting from what has gone before and can be seen as being entirely beneficial, adding to the positive impression one has after finishing a dark but fascinating walk on the wild side.

I have included this title in my list of Top 100 Mystery Books and on re-reading it see no reason to amend my choice.

***** (4 fedora tips out of 5)

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This entry was posted in 2012 Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge, Amnesia, Chicago, Friday's Forgotten Book, Los Angeles, New York, Psycho, Robert Bloch, Scene of the crime. Bookmark the permalink.

37 Responses to THE SCARF (1947 / 1966) by Robert Bloch

  1. Randy Johnson says:

    Sounds like one I need to track down. I’ve read a bit of Bloch in my day, Psycho comes to mind. I remember reading an article on Bloch that mentioned his disgust over the publicity for the movie version and no mention of his novel that he took for a time to introducing himself as the author of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.

    • Hi Randy, thanks for the comments. If you liked Psycho then I think you’ll really enjoy The Scarf, though they are quite different, his previous book completely eschewing the Gothic trappings of the ‘old dark house’ for a much more contemporary take. The generally available version from 1966 is preferable for its revised ending though, to my eye, it still feel like a book that in its depiction of people and society at breaking point is very much a work tied to the immediate post-war period. Hitchcock was a shameless self publicist and tended to belittle his writers and the authors he drew on – I love Hitchcock and his movie of of Psycho is truly remarkable in its way and deserves all its accolades (the recent Blu-ray is beautiful looking). But it is also a very, very close adaptation of the book so Bloch deserves a huge amount a recognition for creating every part of the plot and story and virtually all the set-pieces as well as the characters (though Norman Bates, a pudgy middle-aged man in the book, is the big exception and an important one). In many ways Bloch’s version is less overt and more subtle, especially in its use of misdirection to surprise the reader at the end. Bloch also made very little money directly from the sale of the film rights (though the publicity had a big impact on his career) and I think it was only when the movie sequel was made 20 years later that he decided to write Psycho 2 (a book I really like incidentally, a much better than the average sequel; the third book, Psycho House, has a wonderful opening chapter but is otherwise pretty thin) to try and reclaim a littl of what was owed to him in that sense – and fair enough really!

  2. Colin says:

    I’ll have to try and actually read something by Bloch! I’m familiar with his work from the movie side of things but I’ve never gotten round to reading any of his source material.

    • Hi Colin – well, I would really reccommend this book (of course) and also Night World, which was one of his best-selling books at the time though now seems less well-known. I also think Psycho 2, which has no link at all with the movie sequel (which I also like a lot but which was written by Tom Holland) is a really excellent read and which might be particularly entertaining for those only familiar with the movie adaptation as it is partly set in the film world. Having said that, a lot of his screen work for Amicus, William Castle and Dan Curtis does give a fair indication of what his style was like (albeit mostly in the horror / macabre genres), though he was a much better-than-average wordsmith and had quite a jaundiced view, which I think might make him more appealing for contemporary readers.

  3. John says:

    Groundbreaking, I’d say. Follows the pattern of many of his short story themes and characters but expands it on deeper level. And daring, too. Who was brave enough to write about sexaul fetishes in crime ficiton at the time? This is one creepy book even when compared to today’s graphic violence and sexual prurience in crime fiction. I read a revised version that included an informative intro by Bloch on how the book came into being and why he revised it for a modern audience. he removed several outdated references, I recall. I’d like to find the original and read that as well.

    • Cheers John, glad you like this one, and Bloch’s work, as much as I do – I get the impression he isn;t much read anymore. I haven’t read that edition with Bloch’s intro, but it sounds great – I’ve got the Fawcett paperback illustrated at the top of the review. One thing that did strike me for the first time is how the extra twist at the end mirrors the finale of Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me, which I re-read fairly recently when the movie came out.

  4. Robert Bloch was a canny writer. I’ve read most of his work. If you haven’t read Bloch’s HUGO winning short story, “That Hell-Bound Train,” you’re missing something special.

    • Hi George – do you know, I definitely have that story, but I am not sure if I’ve read it – thank you for that, I’ll dig it out tonight. Weirdly, the first book of his I ever read wasn’t credited to him at all – it was a police procedural entitled The Todd Dossier, which I originally picked up because it was credited to Collier Young, onetime husband to Ida Lupino and later Joan Fontaine and a busy writer-producer for film and TV. It was only years later that I learned that Bloch had actually written it (apparently from a movie outline developed by Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne!).

  5. Todd Mason says:

    I’ll be darned. I knew Bloch used Young as a pseud, but didn’t know it was a ghost job for someone else.

    “That Hell-Bound Train” wasn’t the only fantasy worth looking into…my consistent suggestion to those looking to expand their Bloch reading is to pick up the two Ballantine 1970s retrospectives, THE BEST OF ROBERT BLOCH (devoted mostly to sf and fantasy, including “Hell-Bound” as inspiration for the cover image) and SUCH STUFF AS SCREAMS ARE MADE OF, devoted mostly to horror and suspense…these are better introductions, I’d argue than the SELECTED STORIES, widely reprinted here by Citadel for some reason as the COMPLETE STORIES (not even close).

    If looking for good “non-retrospective” collections (gathering from his previous several years’ worth of work), you could do much worse than PLEASANT DREAMS (mostly horror and fantasy) and BLOOD RUNS COLD (mostly crime fiction, with a little sf and fantasy included).

    PSYCHO even by its very name tells you it’s psychological suspense, rather than supernatural horror…THE SCARF, THE KIDNAPPER, and any number of others are very much in the same jugular vein, very much including up-from-giallo NIGHT-WORLD (the last line just punches it home) and I see what you mean about PSYCHO II (PSYCHO HOUSE is one of his weakest, however). AMERICAN GOTHIC.

    And he was all but professionally a comedian, having even sold jokes to pros as well as regularly serving as an MC at various events. See also Jerry House’s Bloch entry today…Jerry House: Lefty Feep stories by Robert Bloch

    • Thanks for all that info Todd, fascinating. On my shelves I’ve got a lot of the UK paperback collections of his stories (about 10 I think), including a couple that tied in with the anthology movies made from his stories, like Torture Garden and The Skull of the Marquis de Sade and I do have the Lefty Feep one too – thanks for pointing to that review as I’d missed it on Patti’s page. I also think Night of the Ripper, his much delayed yet seemingly inevitable novel on Jack the Ripper, was pretty good and I really liked his ‘Toys for Juliette’ contribution to Ellison’s classic new wave anthology Dangerous Visions. I hadn’t rally made the Giallo connection to Night World, but of course you’re dead right – no wonder I liked it so much. I haven”t read American Gothic though.

      • Todd Mason says:

        And Bloch’s “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper” is one of the most plagiarized stories of the last century…even if Bloch himself also worked the angles (as you note, for STAR TREK, for DANGEROUS VISIONS at Ellison’s request, and in THE NIGHT OF THE RIPPER)…he was certainly allowed to.

        My favorite mildly obscure Bloch novella is THE DEAD DON’T DIE! –like the Feep stories, in FANTASTIC ADVENTURES, filmed apparently ineffectually for television (haven’t seen it, unless when very young), and collected in one of the volumes of THE LOST BLOCH…

        • That’s really interesting about The Dead Don’t Die as I’ve never read the novella – I thought it was an original screenplay or ‘teleplay’ actually. I remember liking the TV-movie (and its companion piece, The Cat Creature) when i saw it sometime in the 80s (dubbed into Italian) but then I already loved the Val Lewton films at that point – but that really is the dim and distant past! Incidentally, it is available to view online here, as is The Cat Creature. I’ll definitely see if I can track down that collection with the novella – cheers Todd.

          • Todd Mason says:

            And the FANTASTIC ADVENTURES appearance is worth seeking out, too (but will probably have to be done through the mails in Europe), with Virgil Finlay’s illustrations portraying Bloch himself as the protagonist…properly. Thanks for the pointer to TCC online!

          • That sound really great – thanks again.

            Sergio

  6. Sergio, thanks for a very enlightening review of THE SCARF as well as the comments that follow. I have never read Robert Bloch’s work before so I can’t say much, though, only last month, I downloaded a novella by Bloch, THIS CROWDED EARTH, a title that speaks for itself. I haven’t read it yet or, for that matter, seen the short film THE HAUNTER OF THE DARK – PART ONE by H.P. Lovecraft, an “eerie tale of a young author” apparently based on his friend Robert Bloch. I intend to cover both soon. Typically, my association with Bloch is through his films, especially PSYCHO.

    • Thanks Prashant – THIS CROWDED EARTH is one his less frequent excursions into science fiction, though it did also generate THAT HELLBOUND TRAIN that Todd Mason mentioned earlier on in the comments and which won Bloch to coveted Hugo, though it typical fashion it has more in common with the macabre than with SF.

  7. Todd Mason says:

    “That Hell-Bound Train” was the first completely non-science-fictional story to have won the Hugo award…it was purely a mixture of the contemporary and the folkloric fantasy/horror story.

    Prashant, THIS CROWDED EARTH is not the place to start with Bloch. The novel PSYCHO would be a good place for you to start. (“The Haunter of the Dark” is about “Robert Blake”…Bloch wrote a story in which Lovecraft is killed off, as well. Bloch and Fritz Leiber were the youngest members of the “Lovecraft Circle” of corresponding friends, and they were the most important writers in the group to get their start essentially during those letter-trading sessions, as well as taking Lovecraft’s innovations and doing better things with them.)

    • To which Prashant I would add, “What he said”! I just re-read “That Hell-bound Train” after Todd’s mention of it and it still works like a dream. Along with Bloch and Leiber then there are so many other wonderful writers that emerged in the late 30s and 40s that straddled the world of weird tales, SF and occasional crime and mystery (like the marvelous Fredric Brown and Cornell Woolrich) that paved the way a little later for the likes of Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, Theodore Sturgeon …

  8. Todd Mason says:

    Actually, Sturgeon was an almost exact contemporary of Bloch and Leiber (all three published both UNKNOWN and WEIRD TALES in the late ’30s/early ’40s), and Sturgeon was the primary model for Ray Bradbury and not a few others, including (as has been discussed on a list I belong to) by her own admission Madeleine L’Engle. So, both directly and indirectly, he was hugely influential on the “little Bradburys” such as Beaumont and Matheson.

    • Absolutely Todd, though I suppose in my mind I tend to think of Sturgeon as more of a 50s author because of the success of More than Human – have yet to sample the delights of Madeleine L’Engle and it’s possible I might consider myself a little to old for her work now …

      • Todd Mason says:

        She wrote for adults as well, but her lasting work is indeed likely to be her YA science-fantasies. Sturgeon was also a formal teacher for all sorts of people…I try not to hold Anne Rice against him too hard.

        • Amazing – he taught (sic) Anne Rice? Wow, that I did not know – having dinner with one of her number one fans tonight and in fact got her to read Some of Your Blood , which went down (sic) reasonably well I think … I’ll have to ask.

  9. Todd Mason says:

    Publishe in, that is.

  10. Todd Mason says:

    Wow, I really can’t spell tonight. Yes, there are any number of folks who spread their talents between fantasy, horror, suspense, mystery, and sf…and the living exemplars include Joe R. Lansdale, Kate Wilhelm, Bill Pronzini, Marcia Muller, Barry Malzberg, and even some fellow FFB participants including Bill Crider and James Reasoner. All of whom will let you know what they owe at least some of these folks…Fredric Brown and Cornell Woolrich were aces, as well (as were such folks as Anthony Boucher and John Collier, Shirley Jackson and, later on, Patricia Highsmith and Joanna Russ)…amusing to me that Woolrich and I believe Dashiell Hammett both published minor works in THE SMART SET magazine, now better known for publishing early plays by Eugene O’Neill and the like, but would both soon prove their mettle in that little side-project/revenue-generator the SMART SET folks set up, BLACK MASK magazine. (Later, when Mencken and Nathan wanted a similar crime-fiction companion to their later magazine, THE AMERICAN MERCURY, ELLERY QUEEN’S MYSTERY MAGAZINE was commissioned, and has managed to do rather well for itself.)

    • Fascinating stuff Todd – just wish I could have had a gate-leg at the Algonquin or maybe just a cushion to perch on to listen to all the conversations that led to these …

  11. Todd Mason says:

    Manly Wade Wellman. Goodness, yes. And,starting in the ’50s, Avram Davidson.

    • Which of course brings us, (and not forgeting the likes of CL Moore and Henry Kuttner) a mere heartbeat away from the sheer wonderland wonderfulness of Harlan Ellison!

  12. Todd Mason says:

    And Algis Budrys (who won an Edgar, but never a Hugo, despite most of his fiction being sf), between whom there was a big breaking off. Or Leigh Brackett, of course.

    • It is interesting piecing together the Ellison / Budrys feud from different sources (I think Ellison is fairly oblique about it in the intro to their collaboration for Partners in Wonder if I remember correctly, but then provided a lot more detail in a different book later on without naming names but if you read both it is clear who he is talking about – right now can’t remember which was the other one, darn!). I really enjoyed re-reading Budrys’ Who? recently and thought it held up surprisingly well.

  13. Todd Mason says:

    Budrys at his frequent best is brilliant. But I’m prejudiced in his favor, perhaps, since he published my first professional short story sale.

    It finally occurred to me that the easiest access to THE DEAD DON’T DIE! you’re likely to have is in Stephen Jones’s anthology THE MAMMOTH BOOK OF ZOMBIES, in its UK edition from Robinson….

    • Cheers Todd – those Mammoth books are actually remamrkably good value (especially when edited by Mike Ashley). I just ordered it! Thanks again. And Budrys hardly requires any special pleading given the quality of the work – that must have been a terrific moment when it got accepted!

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