Final Reckonings: The Complete Stories Of Robert Bloch (Volume 1) (book review).

Final Reckonings: The Complete Stories Of Robert Bloch (Volume 1)’ is a collection of twenty-seven short tales by the eponymous author from the years 1939-1956. Eight of them, mostly the early ones, were first published in ‘Weird Tales’. The others were scattered across a variety of venues during the early 1950s, the last great days of the short story magazines. ‘The Complete Stories’ is a misnomer as he wrote a lot more than this but it’s a fine selection, anyway. Here are some highlights.

In ‘Mannikins Of Horror’, Doctor Edgar Colin is in a lunatic asylum with bad nerves following shell shock at Ypres. He had been a brain surgeon. To keep himself occupied, he now makes little mannikins, recreating man in exquisite clay detail so perfect they seem to be alive. They are alive! Bloch suspends disbelief by exquisite detail and builds suspense, too.

Bloch can write in different styles to suit the genre, from Lovecraftian to hard-boiled noir crime. This hard-boiled noir is mixed with a bit of Science Fiction, though, or even sorcery. Junior is a big powerful robot but he’s ‘Almost Human’ because he’s been raised like a baby by Professor Blasserman and developed like a human being. Unfortunately, young humans are easily influenced so when a gangster named Duke takes Junior away, it’s bad news. Duke believes he has the robot under complete control. Bloch gets the 50s film noir gangster speak just right and delivers a creepy and powerful yarn.

‘The Skull Of The Marquis de Sade’ starts off brilliantly with occult collector Christopher Maitland being offered the object by sleazy dealer Marco and a nice resume of de Sade’s life for good measure. Tension mounts as Maitland speaks to his old friend, Sir Fitzhugh Kissroy, about the thing and is advised to avoid it. The story builds strongly but it all ends rather conventionally. In fact, it’s a bit silly. Oh, well. This was made into a film titled ‘The Skull’ with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. In real life, the skull was exhumed for phrenological study but then lost and its fate remains unknown. If anyone offers you a cheap skull, avoid.

Bloch started out as a protégé of H.P. Lovecraft and a few tales hark back to his old master. ‘The Unspeakable Betrothal’ is about Avis, a little girl who likes to sleep and dream in her room because she can see them out of the window. Yuggoth is mentioned, a planet in the Lovecraft mythos where the Old Ones stay sometimes. The ending is suitably spooky.

‘The Shadow From The Steeple’ is definitely part of the Lovecraft mythos. The Master gave young Robert Bloch a starring role in his story ‘The Haunter Of The Dark’ under the name Robert Blake and killed him off. I’m sure he was deeply honoured. At the heart of the yarn was a small church in Providence where a cult gathered around The Shining Trapezohedron, an ancient and deadly object. Bloch tells the story of Edmund Fisk, a friend of Blake’s investigating his death and ties it all together nicely.

Of course, Poe preceded Lovecraft, so he gets a look in too with ‘The Man Who Collected Poe’. Launcelot Canning, a gentleman of leisure, has the greatest collection of Poe memorabilia in the world, one started by his grandfather Christopher Canning, a respected merchant of Baltimore back in the day. A fantasy fan with a mild interest in Poe soon learns that there is a dark secret in the many-roomed mansion where Canning lives. The prose style suits the theme.

Writers love writing about their trade and Bloch does it in the novelette, ‘The Thinking Cap’ Barnaby Codd is a thirty year-old author who has had some success but now has writer’s block. He’s dried up. His mind spins with words but he can’t organise them into a tale. At a party, a beautiful lady takes him home and offers him a strange helmet which allows him to dream complete and wonderful stories. He types them up and finds success. Then he makes the mistake of trying to find out more about her. An enjoyable yarn for writers. Did Bloch ever get block? From his output, it would seem not.

There’s not a lot of science in Bloch’s Science Fiction stories but they’re still interesting. ‘Constant Reader’ features that classic scenario of a small team exploring an unknown planet and getting into trouble. In the introductions to his collections, Stephen King refers to his fans as ‘constant reader’ and I wonder if this is where he found the term. I prefer story collections with notes by the author but sadly you don’t get that here, just the tales. They suffice.

Painter Barton Stone rents a cheap attic flat in ‘The Pin’ but finds it occupied by some madman who spends all day feverishly sticking pins into telephone directories, electoral rolls and other lists of people’s names. Just for fun, Bloch went mad with alliteration in this story: ‘He scanned, scrutinized, then sighed, stabbed, sobbed.’ It seems to be a homage to Ray Bradbury’s ‘The Scythe’.

‘The Pin’ is followed by some Science Fiction yarns. ‘The Goddess Of Wisdom’ is about a spaceman in port seeking female company and no doubt had a surprise ending when it was first published but a certain modern film series has made it predictable. ‘The Past Master’ is cleverly told through the testimony of several witnesses who met with a time traveller out to collect great paintings and has a neat conclusion. ‘Where The Buffalo Roam’ starts like a wild west yarn but turns out to be a post-Apocalyptic setting where technology is no longer used. Do they want it back? ‘Dead-End Doctor’ is about the last psychiatrist on a future Earth where robots do virtually all the work and is basically a Feghoot, but fun.

They all are. Bloch’s style is easy and pleasant to read and features many examples of apt phrasing that will make you smile if you like good prose. Even if the plot isn’t brilliant or the endings a little weak, the narration makes it enjoyable. He could rightfully claim, as the old Irish comedian Frank Carson used to say, ‘It’s the way I tell ‘em.’

This first volume of ‘The Complete Stories’ is widely available for about £10 or less on various sites and that’s a bargain. For some reason, the next two volumes are rarer and much more expensive. If this gives you a taste for Bloch, you may have to seek out other collections, open libraries and eBooks to see what you can find. It should be worth the effort.

Eamonn Murphy

April 2022

(pub: Kensington Publishing Corp, 1998. 384 page paperback. Price: I paid about £13.00 (UK) for a new copy but can be got as little as £ 7.00 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-80651-144-3)

Eamonn Murphy

Eamonn Murphy reviews books for sfcrowsnest and writes short stories for small press magazines. His eBooks are available at all good retailers or see his website: https://eamonnmurphywriter298729969.wordpress.com/

2 thoughts on “Final Reckonings: The Complete Stories Of Robert Bloch (Volume 1) (book review).

  • King may well have lifted the ‘Constant Reader’ from Bloch but in turn Bloch probably picked it up from Dorothy Parker’s reviews in The New Yorker in the 20s and 30s (the most famous of which, and the one that is firmly stuck in my memory is for The House at Pooh Corner by A A Milne: ‘Tonstant Weader fwowed up’.

    Most of the reviews were collected and published under the title ‘Constant Reader’ in 1970 so it’s not inconceivable that King found it there…

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