I don't know about anyone else but whenever the subject of Robert Bloch crops up I automatically think of the short story collections rather than the novels. Back in the 60s and 70s it often seemed as if a new Bloch collection was an annual publishing fixture. With nineteen original collections being issued between 1960 and 1980 it was to all intents and purposes.
OUT OF THE MOUTHS OF GRAVES is an especially interesting example for several reasons. Peculiarly it is the only Bloch collection that was never subsequently issued in a paperback edition. This makes it a difficult volume to collect, particularly for UK collectors on account of the fact that the publisher was Robert Hale who was - and indeed still is - principally a supplier of library stock. In the course of his career Bloch demonstrated an admirable if unfathomable loyalty to this British publisher. He surely can't have trousered much of a profit out of the association and yet between 1960 and 1986 Hale was entrusted with the issuing of all but a handful of Bloch's British editions. An impressive catalogue which even includes his most famous work. Presumably Bloch calculated that a residency in Britain's once thriving network of public libraries was worth whatever financial disadvantage it incurred. Certainly it ensured him a far greater and more durable exposure for his work than any bookshop sales could have guaranteed. And I speak as someone with his own good reason to be grateful for libraries for affording access to his books.
Whilst researching this piece though I was surprised to discover that although Bloch himself didn't pass on until 1994 OUT OF THE MOUTHS OF GRAVES - which appeared in 1980 - was the penultimate collection of his short stories to be issued in this country during the author's lifetime. Only SUCH STUFF AS SCREAMS ARE MADE OF issued by Hale in the same year came after. And the Hale edition of that book is as hard to find as a hen with dentures.
That's all very well and good I hear you say, but what about the contents? OUT OF THE MOUTHS OF GRAVES is primarily a collection of Bloch's crime fiction originally published in magazines in the late 50s and early 60s with a few 70s efforts thrown in for good measure. This was a rich period for Bloch creatively and most of his more memorable work dates from that time.
The demise of the pulp magazines in the early 50s is often characterized - erroneously - as some of sort of KT boundary extinction event for short story writing in America. While it is fair to say that it obliterated the careers of an entire sub-species of incorrigible hack, the true pros simply gravitated to other outlets. In some ways it could be argued that the death of the pulps was the making of Bloch. It forced him to leave behind the influence of Lovecraft (always a good idea) and forge his own literary identity.
Browsing the acknowledgements page of OUT OF THE MOUTHS OF GRAVES I found it interesting to be reminded of the fact that whilst the eponymous hero pulps of the 30s and 40s had gone the way of the dinosaurs by the late 50s eponymous crime author/character magazines were flourishing: Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Mike Shayne's Mystery Magazine, The Saint Mystery Magazine; there was even a short-lived Ed McBain's Mystery Book at one time and Bloch published in each and every one of them. Examples of his work from all of these magazines feature in the book.
Revisiting OUT OF THE MOUTHS OF GRAVES after a gap of a good many years I was initially a little disappointed with what I discovered. Its a book I had harboured fond memories of but the first few stories in it, whilst not bad, seemed to me now somewhat underwhelming. There always was a degree of artificiality and contrivance about Bloch's work, particularly in his later career when it often seemed as if his plots served no other purpose than to feed the punchline. None of the stories here quite stoop to the depths of something like "In the Cards" but there is a decidedly forced quality to stories like "Double-Cross" and "Crime in Rhyme". Fortunately the book begins to pick up about halfway through with "His and Hearse" (paradoxically one of the book's inclusions of Bloch's 70s output) in which one of Bloch's signature chancers murders his way through three marriages towards a poetic fate. "A Most Unusual Murder" continues the upward progression by recruiting one of Bloch's favourite themes, namely Jack the Ripper, and mixing it with a dose of outright fantasy in which he excelled. "The Warm Farewell" is another winner involving the Ku Klux Klan and which serves as a pleasing antidote to the casual period racism of "The Model Wife". "A Matter of Life" is an enjoyable and quirky little tale which wouldn't have been out of place in a John Collier or Ray Bradbury collection. For me though the best story in the book is "Man with a Hobby" which pulls the carpet out from under your expectations with a deft and ghoulish relish. The collection concludes with "The Closer of the Way". This is an amusing romp in which Bloch commits himself to an asylum for the purpose of psychoanalysing his own creative impulses. I guess some people might find this self-indulgent but it does provide a frank, fascinating and self-scrutinizing insight into Bloch's creative obsessions. And as Mike Moorcock likes to remind us all periodically there was a time when authors took themselves far less seriously than they do today. At any rate its a fitting end to an entertaining collection of stories culled from the author's most inspired period of writing.
Robert Bloch was never a writer who professed to penning great literature. A lot of his later writing when he took a reactionary stance to the youth culture of the late 60s has dated very badly indeed. That isn't a problem with the stories included here though which still afford a high degree of entertainment value.
Well, whaddaya know: a Bloch book review that never once mentioned PSYCHO. Doh!
Thanks for the excellent review - you've actually made me want to read him again. Don't have a copy of Out Of The Mouths ... but for the obsessives among us, here's the TOC - with alternative titles - as plundered from Graham Flanagan's indispensable Robert Bloch: A Bio-Bibliography. As with so many Bloch antho's of the day, several, but not all of the stories have been recycled from earlier collections. I particularly like The Closer Of The Way, A Most Unusual Murder and The Warm Farewell. Ramsey saw fit to include the malodorous Hobo in his children's selection, The Gruesome Book.
Night School The Model Wife The Beautiful People (Skin Deep) All in the Family Double-Cross (Double Tragedy) Crime in Rhyme His and Hearse (I Never Had A Christmas Tree) The Man Who Looked Like Napoleon Lucy Comes to Stay A Most Unusual Murder The Warm Farewell Man With a Hobby A Matter of Life Hobo The Living Bracelet (The Deadliest Art) The Closer of the Way
From the first, I set myself against "literature"; the story was the thing, and no amount of style could persuade me to select a story that lacked genuine, unadulterated horror. For those who wanted something high-brow there was plenty.
Thanks for the kind words Dem. Bloch is a writer whom I find rewards a revisit more often than he doesn't. There is never anything flash or pretentious about his stuff. By his own admission he never wrote for posterity. Unfortunately we live in an age when every old pulpster appears to attract his own cod academia of fans and scholars dedicated to manufacturing cultural significance for their icon's work. Just take the case of poor old Robert E Howard who is the object of an industry of pseudo-academic inquiry. The net result is that his wonderfully entertaining stories have been annotated to death. In contrast Bloch would have happily embraced being labelled an entertainer. Not a description that the self-appointed worthies even allow to be whispered about the bibliophilic shrines they've erected to Howard and Lovecraft.
Yes, that Flanagan bibliography really is an indispensible aid isn't it. So indispensible that it really warrants a revision now to take into account all the posthumous collections that have appeared since 1994. Things like the Subterranean Press three volume LOST BLOCH set, plus their ancillary publications THE FEAR PLANET and THE SKELETON IN THE CLOSET. And then there is Citadel Twilight's Trade Descriptions Act defying COMPLETESTORIES OF ROBERT BLOCH. All of them have brought many rare and uncollected Bloch tales back into print. Despite this though a fair few yarns yet remain uncollected and unanthologised. A high percentage of them belong to the long running Lefty Feep series it's true, which are stories very much of their time and which don't command anywhere near the interest that they once did. But there are SF stories too (hopefully better than the risible "The Tin You Love To Touch" which did get anthologised). More importantly there's still a number of crime stories from Bloch's 50s heyday which have yet to see a second light of day.
Speaking personally though, the story that intrigues me most is one of his rare westerns called "Chinaman's Chance". It comes from the August 1950 issue of Mammoth Westerns. And us cavemen simply can't help ourselves when it comes to mammoths.
Out of the Mouths of Graves was only published as a limited edition hardcover in the US, by The Mysterious Press. (So was his collection The King of Terrors.) I think the print run was 1000 unsigned copies and 250 signed copies.