By Tea Krulos
“WI Words” is a new series in QQ that spotlights writers with Wisconsin ties that have contributed significantly to various fields of writing and publishing.
Since it’s fall time, aka the scary season, we thought we’d start by looking at the life of Robert Bloch (1917-1994), an influential horror writer who spent his formative years living in Milwaukee.
Born in Chicago, Robert Bloch and his family moved to Milwaukee when he was 12-years-old, settling into an apartment on the East Side. While on a train ride to Milwaukee, Bloch fostered a true love for a pulp fiction magazine he bought at the station titled Weird Tales. Pulps flourished in the 1920s and 30s and you could find racks filled with titles specializing in western, adventure, war, romance, mystery, and “weird fiction” (as the genres of horror, sci-fi, and fantasy were then called). Weird Tales, originally published 1923-1954, was among the most well known of the weird fiction titles. Bloch would save a quarter (one-fourth of his monthly allowance) so he could buy a copy each month.
Bloch’s favorite Weird Tales author was Howard Phillips Lovecraft, now considered to be one of the most influential American horror writers, who inspired future writers like Stephen King. Bloch was so taken with Lovecraft’s stories about the ancient monster Cthulhu and other hideous beings, that he wrote Lovecraft a letter care of Weird Tales, asking where he could find more of his stories. To his surprise, Lovecraft wrote back and offered to send some copies of stories to borrow.
“The notion that a full-fledged adult literary celebrity would make such an offer to a half-fledged teenage entity was as astounding to me as it was commonplace to Lovecraft,” Bloch wrote.
Equally as valuable was Lovecraft’s introduction to other members of his correspondents circle, which included several other weird fiction writers like Clark Ashton Smith, Robert Howard (creator of Conan the Barbarian), and many others. Hundreds of stamped envelopes traveled around the country, exchanging critiques, story ideas, and well wishes.
Lovecraft encouraged Bloch to take up writing and after a few rejections, Bloch started his long career with a story titled “The Secret of the Tomb,” published in a 1934 issue of Weird Tales. Bloch quickly developed his own style– creepy tales with a macabre sense of humor, and a keen sense of wordplay. He titled one short story “Time Wounds all Heels,” for example.
Lovecraft and Bloch’s friendship was so strong that they gave each other the ultimate compliment– killing each other in horror stories. Bloch’s came first and featured a stand-in character for Lovecraft being devoured by a monster in his story “The Shambler from the Stars.” Lovecraft was delighted and retaliated with a story called “The Haunter of the Dark” in which a “Robert Blake” of Milwaukee (with the same street address as Bloch, 620 E. Knapp St.) meets his own gruesome fate.
Bloch and another Lovecraft correspondent and Wisconsin writer, August Derleth, had plans to subsidize a trip to bring in Lovecraft for a visit. Derleth was a prolific writer from Sauk City, who wrote in a wide variety of genres, including weird fiction. Lovecraft probably would have crashed on Bloch’s couch on Brady Street (after getting married, Bloch moved to an apartment above the Glorioso’s location at 1018 E. Brady St.) before going to visit Derleth. That trip never happened. On March 15, 1937, the poverty-stricken Lovecraft died of cancer of the small intestine and malnutrition.
After Lovecraft’s death, Derleth began his own publishing imprint– Arkham House, with the initial goal being to publish a collection of Lovecraft’s work for the first time. Arkham House went on to publish works by many other notable authors, including the first book by sci-fi legend Ray Bradbury as well as Bloch’s first book– a collection of stories titled The Opener of the Way (1945).
When Bloch’s wife became ill in the mid-1950s, they moved to Weyaweuga, WI to be closer to her family. It was there, inspired by the horrific case of murderer and grave robber Ed Gein, that Bloch wrote his best known work– Psycho. Published in 1959, Bloch’s agent soon got a blind offer from someone representing an unknown director who wanted to adapt the book to film. After negotiations, Bloch and his agent were paid $9,000 for the movie rights to Psycho. As Bloch soon read in the newspaper, the director turned out to be master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock, and his 1960 adaptation is one of his most well-known works.
Bloch had proven himself and he moved his family to Hollywood to pursue new opportunities, finding good gigs writing scripts for movies and TV shows like Star Trek, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and Night Gallery. He continued to write short stories and novels (he wrote over 30). One of his last works before his death in 1994 was his autobiography, Once Around the Bloch: An Unauthorized Autobiography, which shows his morbid humor and details several chapters of his life in Milwaukee.
This article originally appeared in QWERTY Quarterly #2. You buy single copies or a subscription here: www.etsy.com/shop/qwertyquarterly
–Once Around the Bloch: An Unauthorized Autobiography by Robert Bloch (Tor Books, 1993)
–H.P. Lovecraft: Letters to Robert Bloch and Others, edited by David E. Schultz and S.T. Joshi (Hippocampus Press, 2015)
“The clouds were thick overhead, and the field mists rolled like a cold fog in a November midnight. Even so, Martin should have been able to see the headlights as the train rushed on. But there were no lights. There was only the whistle, screaming out of the black throat of the night. Martin could recognize the equipment of just about any locomotive ever built, but he’d never heard a whistle that sounded like this one. It wasn’t signaling; it was screaming like a lost soul.”
–from Robert Bloch’s Hugo Award winning short story “That Hell-Bound Train,” originally appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, 1958