Thursday, May 27, 2021

"Sweets to the Sweet" (1947)

How do you solve a problem like Robert Bloch (sung to the tune of "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?" from The Sound of Music)? I mean, he has all the bona fides: corresponded with H.P. Lovecraft as a teen when he first started publishing, wrote the literary property behind Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, grew up in Milwaukee, published hundreds of stories in all the right places (from Weird Tales to Playboy), wrote scripts for Alfred Hitchcock Presents and many others, and won enough awards to melt down and build a tank, if he were so inclined. The My Favorite Horror Story anthology, published in 2000, asked leading horror lights of the day to name and write an intro about [the title]. Bloch and Lovecraft were the only writers with two stories, and this story by Bloch was the choice of Stephen King. How can I argue with that? I can't. "Sweets to the Sweet" is not a bad story and even very good of a type. The main feature is its twist ending, which is hard to see coming because Bloch uses misdirection well (the misdirection is child abuse but apparently we are letting that pass because 1947 or something). But "Sweets to the Sweet" is also entirely typical of the problems of Bloch's stories, which is that if he can't scare you at least maybe he can make you laugh or if not that force a groan with some terrible pun. I’m addicted to brake fluid, but it’s OK because I can stop at any time. Let's not forget the jokey undercurrents about mothers in Psycho (Norman Bates: "Well, a boy's best friend is his mother")—that's Bloch as well as Hitchcock. "Sweets to the sweet"—well, you'll have to read this one to get that because I'm not going to give too much away. You may as well enjoy Bloch at about the best I've seen him while I complain about everything else. Instead, I'll give away "Catnip," a minor effort from the following year published in Weird Tales. Like a lot of his stuff, it feels like a hurry-up first draft never looked at again. All you really need to know about it is its dependence on hatred and fear of black cats and the old figure of speech, "Cat got your tongue?" to understand the arc and get the joke of this story about an unlikely bully and a witch. In Playboy in the early '60s, for another example, Bloch published a story called "The Traveling Salesman," which features the alleged actual traveling salesman from all the jokes I'm pretty sure nobody tells anymore, now more or less relics from the Johnny Carson era. This guy's life is hell because he has to go and act out every new traveling salesman joke that comes along. Hyuk-hyuk. It's not horror, it's a gag. In a lot of his stories Bloch comes across like a stand-up comic teetering on the verge of a bad flop sweat episode. He evokes the elements of horror—gore, mayhem, grotesqueries—but they're more like shtick on the way to the punchline. And if that don't work: What did one eye say to the other? Just between you and me, something smells. I understand the impulse to laugh at the whole horror game because, yes, it's all pretty silly when it comes down to it. These are just make-believe stories, of course! But uh the wise-guy routine sort of spoils the mood, and even if Bloch did hit a few twist endings pretty well—no small feat, I admit—I can't help feeling just a little bit taken by most of his stuff.

My Favorite Horror Story, ed. Mike Baker & Martin B. Greenberg (out of print)
When Evil Wakes, ed. August Derleth (out of print)
Listen to story online.

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