Book Review: Psycho: Sanitarium by Chet Williamson

“For the Psycho completist, there’s plenty here to enjoy above and beyond simply finding what happened next for Norman Bates but for the casual reader, there are perhaps alternatives out there within the genre that you might get more from.”

Anyone who has even a passing interest in the murder thriller genre will be familiar with Psycho. The story of Norman Bates, the matricidal motel owner who goes on to personify his own mother as he kills first a female guest and later the detective sent to track her down. Those who haven’t read Robert Bloch’s original 1959 novel will surely have seen Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece of the same name or, worst luck, the inferior Gus Van Sant remake of 1998.

In taking on writing a sequel to such a seminal work, Chet Williamson has set himself quite a task. The publisher acknowledges as much in the press release, with claims that he first approved his concept with the family of the since deceased author of the original.

Psycho: Sanitarium finds Norman Bates incarcerated, after his eventual capture in Fairview State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, and being treated by a doctor Felix Reed, who has noble intentions of the normalisation of Norman. Inevitably after the traumas he has suffered, this is a difficult process for Bates, still haunted by the additional, fictional personality of his mother. After some time, mother is supressed and the priority for his treatment shifts to his integration into normal society, beginning of course with the other inmates of the facility.

When this starts to show signs of going wrong, Dr Reed discovers that Norman has an until-now-unknown non-identical twin brother, who was adopted at an early age, and who now wants to meet Norman. Norman agrees and, while at first it brings a great response from Norman, he quickly begins to detect a dangerous side to Robert, his new found brother.

The problem with the story is that the major plot devices are executed clumsily. At times, it even feels like the manuscript would benefit from a further edit. One example is the first time his brother comes to see Norman in his cell. The prose feels so laboured and ultimately even a little patronising to the reader, as we are told that Dr Reed introduces Norman to his brother, then tells him he will wait outside, then closes the door, then that Norman is alone with his brother. Breaking down scenes in such a fashion is tedious, unnecessary, and takes readers right out of the story .

Equally frustrating is the character of the hospital’s superintendent. He is a character who, at almost every juncture that we encounter him, says something about the fact that he is Jewish. In the course of the plot, it becomes apparent that this is an important detail, but the way it is rubbed in the reader’s face is, at times, bizarre and actually made me laugh out loud on a couple of occasions.

Perhaps the most frustrating part about the novel is that, when the reveal comes, it’s actually quite intelligent and that just makes the clumsiness of the tacked together plot all the more exasperating. In the epilogue, the author hints at a further sequel, and it is to be hoped that, should one be written, he can maintain the chilling atmosphere he creates so artfully while returning with more convincingly written plot devices.

As a concept, the book is intriguing and, by no means is it a total loss. Much of the descriptive language is convincing and there are times when the confines of the asylum, or the procedures which some of the more sadistic attendants employ to sedate or otherwise treat patients can really make the hairs stand on the back of your neck. The intrusive nature of Norman’s mother as an independent agent within his psyche is also depicted in a way that makes you feel genuine empathy for him, as a victim of his mental illness as much as a cold blooded murderer. For the Psycho completist, there’s plenty here to enjoy above and beyond simply finding what happened next for Norman Bates but for the casual reader, there are perhaps alternatives out there within the genre that you might get more from.


Publisher: Robert Dunne Books
Paperback (288 pp)
Release Date: 1 April 2016

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