Mother isn’t very well: Robert E. Howard’s connection to Norman Bates

Robert Bloch claimed the exploits of Ed Gein, Wisconsin murderer and grave robber, inspired him to write Psycho. After reading Bloch’s landmark novel for the article “The Forgotten Norman Bates”, I believe I’ve uncovered another inspiration for one of  Norman Bates’ personalities.  The Norman Bates who steals his mother’s body, dresses in her clothes, and murders Mary Crane is based on Ed Gein.  But the “Normal” Norman personality who takes care of his sick mother, shows a quick temper when his views are challenged, and cleans up after Mother whenever she makes a mess is based on a man who spent the last months of his life taking care of his sick mother.  The Normal Norman personality is inspired by the final days of writer Robert E. Howard.

In 1933, Bloch began a correspondence with H. P. Lovecraft which lasted until Lovecraft’s death in 1937.  Lovecraft’s letters are full of praise and suggestions concerning Bloch’s early steps in writing weird fiction, but they also contain many anecdotes about the other members in Lovecraft’s circle of friends, including Robert E. Howard.  Sometime in late June 1936, Lovecraft sent Bloch a letter detailing Howard’s suicide.  At first, Lovecraft doesn’t believe the news but states “I had a long normal letter from him (Howard) dated May 13th.  He was worried about his mother’s health, but otherwise seemed quite all right.”  Lovecraft ends the letter with a last moment addition stating “Just had word from Two-Gun’s (REH) father.  Sad report all too true.  REH shot himself when he learned that his mother’s illness was fatal.  REH’s melancholy streak must have run deeper than we thought.”

After finishing what turns out to be her final meal, Mary Crane sets Norman Bates off by suggesting he place his mother in an institution.  Robert E. Howard had plenty of bad experiences with placing a sick mother in sanatoriums.  Hester Howard spent several weeks in Torbett Sanatorium located in Marlin, Texas and another sanatorium near San Angelo.  Mrs. Howard’s tuberculosis would only get worse and the sanatoriums would send her to a hospital.  Eventually, Robert Howard would take his mother home so his elderly father, Dr. Isaac Howard, could treat her.

One of Norman’s duties as a good son is cleaning up when Mother makes a mess.  In Psycho, Norman cleans the bloody bathroom and hides Mother’s victims in the swamp.  Robert Howard, also a good son, had to clean a different type of mess.  A letter from Robert Howard to Lovecraft dated February 11, 1936 reveals Howard has “had little opportunity to do any writing of any kind” due to his mother’s deteriorating health.  According to Howard, his mother “requires frequent aspirations” and “is subject to distressing and continual sweats, and naturally has to have constant attention.”  The Howard family hired several women to help with Hester’s care, but none of them lasted very long.  Hester Howard’s constant care always fell on Robert’s shoulders.

There are a few other clues in Psycho linking Norman Bates to Robert E. Howard.  Texas, Howard’s home state, is mentioned many times because Mary and Lila Crane live there.  After Mary’s death, Norman keeps watch for cars with Texas license plates because he knows someone will come looking for the murdered girl.  Norman’s library includes volumes on ancient cultures, barbaric races, cults, and occultism which are subjects Howard researched before writing his weird adventure tales.  Lila Crane, while searching Bates’ house, discovers Norman’s hidden stash of pornography.  Robert M. Price, in his introduction for Robert E. Howard Selected Letters 1931-1936, claims Howard had a porn collection and used it for inspiration when writing tales for Spicy-Adventure Stories.

Robert Bloch was inspired to write Psycho after reading about Ed Gein’s exploits but I contend parts of the novel were inspired by Robert E. Howard’s last days as chief caregiver for his sick mother.  In Chapter Nine, Norman Bates realizes he will always be mommy’s little boy.  The only time Norman feels like a somebody is when he’s lost in a book.  Robert E. Howard could never escape being mommy’s little boy, either.  When he was writing for pulp mags or letters to friends, Howard was Two-Gun Bob, Terror of Cross Plains.  Howard had fans, admirers, and editors who wanted to publish his stories.  But in the end, Howard was just Hester Howard’s frightened little boy.  On June 11 1936, Robert E. Howard shot himself moments after he learned his mother would never awaken from a coma.  Why did the creator of Conan, Kull, Solomon Kane, and many other characters end his life when he was so close to being free from the burden that had crippled his writing for so long?  Maybe Norman Bates is right  when he says “I think perhaps all of us go a little crazy at times.”

I couldn’t have written this article without the following books: H.P. Lovecraft: Letters to Robert Bloch, Robert E. Howard: Selected Letters 1923-1930, Robert E. Howard: Selected Letters 1931-1936, and of course Robert Bloch’s Psycho.

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7 Responses to “ Mother isn’t very well: Robert E. Howard’s connection to Norman Bates ”

  1. You can bet there will be a host of replies to this article, but let me start the ball rolling by saying your entire premise is based on Bloch knowing details about Howard’s life which were not available to him at the time Psycho was written. So, that in and of itself invalidates your entire premise. I’ll let the rest of the gang have a go at this article, now.

  2. It’s a pity that you didn’t include Mark Finn’s biography of Howard, “Blood and Thunder,” in writing your piece. Everyone “knows” that “REH was a momma’s boy” who offed himself rather than live without her. Well, like most things “everyone knows,” any resemblance that this statement has with reality is completely coincidental. Finn rather handily refutes this thesis, first offered by L.Sprague de Camp and John D. Clark. It was not unusual for an unmarried child in rural America to live with his parents (so did Clark Ashton Smith, and nobody questions his sexuality!), especially during the Depression. Since the family moved quite a bit, it is hardly unusual, let alone pathological, for two people to become close. Howard’s suicide had a number of contributing factors, not the least of which was the failure of the most serious relationship that he had had to date with a woman, as well as the failure of WEIRD TALES to pay him several hundred dollars owed for published stories. What makes this piece even more objectionable is that it implies that Bloch engaged in the very type of amateurism psychobabble that he openly despised in so many of his stories (for instance, “The Grinning Ghoul” and “Enoch,” to name just two that come to mind readily). Truly this validates the axiom about a little knowledge being a dangerous thing.

  3. To Mark Finn: Robert Bloch certainly had information about the life and death of REH long before the Howard Revival. Lovecraft’s letters to Bloch contain a wealth of information concerning the adventures and tragedies of Two-Gun Bob. It stands to reason if Bloch had these details in the 1930s then he could have used them when he wrote Psycho in 1959. Bloch didn’t have to wait for Glenn Lord or de Camp to “uncover” details about REH’s life and death because he already had the info in June of 1936. My premise is valid.

  4. Thomas, I disagree that your premise is valid, even with your added explanation. In 1936 or whenever, Bloch only had the HPL side of the letters. Letters, at least prior to emails, were a conversation between two people. As most of us know, hearing only one side of a conversation can be *very* misleading. Of course when the three volumes of The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard were published by the Robert E. Howard Foundation it became possible to read between the HPL and REH volumes to get a more complete picture. Even better was the publication of both the HPL/REH letters together. But this was done only recently.

    And, as Al Harron said in his The Blog that Time Forgot, Norman Bates may have had lucid moments, but I doubt anyone would seriously consider his behavior normal. Those lucid moments did not prevent him from continuing his murderous behavior.

    I recognize the fun and excitement of taking something like the Norman Bates and Robert Bloch idea and going where no one has gone before with it. Trust me, I’ve had what I thought were *good* ideas shot down by other REH scholars who were much more knowledgeable. The problem here with your blog is it is presented as fact. Like Mark Finn and Scott Connors who commented above, I am a member of the REH United Press Association and I hope you are able to appreciate the concerns of Howard’s fans that this type of misinformation does not continue to be construed as fact in REH’s life.
    Barbara Barrett

  5. Your premise is an interesting one, and I certainly don’t think that it’s impossible that Bloch was influenced by Howard’s life and work. Your entire argument, however, rests on the following points:

    – Bloch was aware that Howard was his mother’s primary caregiver.
    – Bloch was aware that Hester Howard spent time in sanatariums.
    – Bloch was aware that Hester Howard had night sweats.

    In the letter you quote above all that HPL says to Bloch is that Howard was concerned about his mother’s health. Now maybe, there are other letters that go into more detail about the situation with REH and Hester, but until you can produce reasonable evidence that Bloch was aware of the above information prior to Psycho being written, then Mark Finn’s point still stands.

  6. Thomas,
    But Bloch didn’t have those details in 1937. Bloch only had access to what everyone else had–the official party line from Weird Tales, and the general concensus that REH was a great writer, if a bit of a tall tale teller, from Lovecraft himself. HPL passed on the general facts of the incident, but didn’t get into details or specifics. The letters you use for your argument (i.e. REH’s letters to HPL) were in the hands of private collectors, not disseminated, until long after Psycho was written. Bloch, in working out the details of his story, could have persuaded people to let him look at these private letters that he quite probably didn’t even know were still in existence, or he simply could have pulled from the wealth of material at his fingertips from the Gein case. Which do you think he was more likely to do?

  7. what bothers me is just this statement-

    Why did the creator of Conan, Kull, Solomon Kane, and many other characters end his life when he was so close to being free from the burden that had crippled his writing for so long?

    -what sort of morbid mentality does it take to propose such an idea? Most people are saddened when losing a parent. They don’t feel “freed” at all. Granted Howard’s suicide is an unusual response to such a personal tragedy, but its not that unreasonable given his sensitive nature and love for his mother. Also, REH certainly didn’t exhibit any of the key qualities that make up the Bates character-like murdering people while imagining he is his evil abusive deceased mother. Theres just no way in the world that Bloch concocted this story out of REH’s unfortunate life…

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