Thursday, August 19, 2010


Robert Bloch (1917 – 94) was, quite simply, one of the giants of fantasy fiction. Probably most famous as the author of Psycho, he also wrote many other novels, screenplays and some of the finest short stories ever committed to paper: Yours Truly, Jack The Ripper, That Hellbound Train, The Opener of the Way, Edifice Complex, The Man Who Collected Poe, The Cloak and many, many others.

Ranging from Lovecraftian cosmic horror to clever and thoughtful SF to urban horror and, on occasion, the downright bizarre (particularly with his Runyanesque Lefty Feep stories) Bloch’s work was frequently underpinned with a deadpan and genuinely funny sense of humour (check out the carnivorous huts of Edifice Complex for evidence of that).

Talent, first published in 1960, shows Bloch at his dark and playful best. The story of a foundling child, Andrew Benson, who has an unnerving knack of mimicry, Talent takes Andrew from his discovery on the steps of St Andrew’s Orphanage to the moment when… well, to the moment when Robert Bloch delivers a killer of a final line and suddenly the enormity of the preceding tale becomes apparent.

Mute and withdrawn until the age of six, Andrew only emerged from his self-imposed cocoon after seeing a screen of the Marx Brothers’ Love Happy at the orphanage:

“And it was then that he talked.

He talked immediately, he talked perfectly, he talked fluently – but not in the manner of a six-year-old child. The voice that issued from his lips was that of a middle-aged man. It was a nasal, rasping voice, and even without the accompanying grimaces and facial expressions it was instantaneously recognizable as the voice of Groucho Marx.”

Thereafter, Andrew continues to expand his repertoire depending upon which movie he has just seen - Jack Palance, Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Peter Lorre – with a particular fondness for horror films and for playing the bad guys. Naturally, his talent takes him onto the stage where he is nothing short of a sensation.

More sinisterly, it seems that tragedy and death follow Andrew wherever he goes, particularly for people who get in his way. His adoptive parents die in a boating accident – ‘you’ve probably seen something just like it in the movies a dozen times’ – his attorney is the victim of a hit and run accident after making certain allegations about young Andrew, a number of school friends suffer bizarre if non-fatal accidents, all of which have a distinct cinematic theme and five young women die in a brutal way after a reissue of the Universal Wolf Man movies.

Still, Andrew’s reputation as an actor and performer continue to grow, to the extent where movie stardom begins to beckon. But not everyone is particularly pleased about his meteoric rise or, indeed, the sinister import behind it.

“I don’t think the kid is even human, for that matter. Just because he turned up on those orphanage steps, you call him a foundling. Changeling might be a better word for it… it’s probably a more accurate term than the narrow meaning implies. I’m talking about the way he changes when he sees those movies… Yes, I mean he undergoes an actual physical transformation. Chameleon. Or some other form of life. Who can say?”

Related as a report rather than a more conventional ‘scene by scene’ narrative, Talent has a chilling distance to it, one that leads inexorably to its brilliant climax when Andrew is introduced to the joys of science fiction ‘creature features’ and suddenly realizes what he has been searching for all his life.

“Max Shick sat there in his chair and watched Andrew Benson change.

He watched him grow. He watched him put forth the eyes, the stalks, the writhing tentacles. He watched him twist and tower, filling the room and then overflowing until the flimsy stucco walls collapsed and there was nothing but the green, gigantic horror, the sixty-feet high monstrosity that may have been born in a screenwriter’s brain or may have been spawned beyond the stars, but certainly existed and drew nourishment from realms far from a three-dimensional world or three-dimensional concepts of sanity.

Max Shick will never forget that night and neither, of course, will anybody else.

That was the night the monster destroyed Los Angeles…”

A wonderful story from a writer whose imagination was a boundless as the many worlds he wrote about.

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