Sons and mothers have a long and anguished history in fiction. Mythic monster Grendel had a vindictive mother who rivaled him in wrath. Oedipus exhibited such a passion for his mom that a whole psychological syndrome was named after him. Hamlet was as obsessed with his mother’s remarriage as he was with his father’s untimely demise. Then there’s the dynamic duo from The Manchurian Candidate who demonstrate that the familial ties that bind can indeed be killing. In the horror field, it’s hard to top Norman Bates and his mama. Their bond is so tight that it’s impossible to separate where one begins and the other ends. Each/both return in Psycho: Sanitarium, a hugely entertaining novel by Chet Williamson.
Williamson’s tale is set in the period between Robert Bloch’s seminal Psycho, published in 1959, and Bloch’s follow-up book released twenty-three years later. In the interim, Norman is incarcerated in the State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. His catatonic condition becomes the focus of an engrossed psychiatrist. The shrink has made contact with Norman’s twin sibling; a brother who was taken away at birth after being diagnosed as brain-damaged. Getting the boys back together may make strides in Norman’s progress. Norman emotionally embraces his brother, while keeping nagging dead mommy at bay. He remains reticent with the bulk of the staff, and this limited social interaction leads to talk of shock therapy treatment.
The facility’s vibe is profoundly unsettling. There are sadistic employees, and extremely violent patients who aren’t on the cure curve. The edifice itself has a macabre past and is allegedly haunted. A series of disappearances now shakes the institution to its foundations. Those who have gone missing represent some sort of threat to Norman, and he fears a fraternal connection to what is happening. His mother’s perception of events intervenes on his consciousness and makes him lose his bearings: “He wanted to appear friendly, but was afraid that the tense grin made him look cacklingly insane.”
Williamson is great at interior monologues. The points of view of each character display their fallacies and rationalizations, at times to a darkly humorous effect. Hospitals/mental institutions have built-in fear potential, and the author is adept at employing the phobia to achieve maximum unease. He also makes some very clever references to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which will endear him to fans of that expressionist film masterpiece.
Most of all, Psycho: Sanitarium is a love letter to the iconic Robert Bloch. Chet Williamson shows his profound reverence for the literary father of Norman Bates through paying attention to the established motifs and details. It’s no mean feat to create a seamless middle narrative that, in terms of temporal sequence, is bookended by previously published tomes written by a genre master. Kudos galore to Mr. Williamson!