Stephen King? Robert Bloch? Bennett Cerf? Gahan Wilson?
Dear Quote Investigator: A famous horror writer employed a comically gruesome paraprosdokian when discussing temperament. There are many phrasings for this quip. Here is one:
I have the heart of a child. I keep it in a jar on my desk.
This joke has been attributed to horror luminaries Stephen King and Robert Bloch. Would you please explore this topic?
Quote Investigator: Stephen King has employed this line on multiple occasions. However, when he delivered it during a speech at a library in 1983 he credited Robert Bloch.
The earliest match known to QI appeared in “Weird Tales” magazine in 1942. Bloch sent a letter stating that he was crafting new stories that included more humor to accompany the macabre. He illustrated this new direction by providing an amusing self-description. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1
As a matter of fact, I am really a very loveable person, as my friends tell me—or they would, if I had any friends. Deep down underneath it all I have the heart of a small boy. I keep it in a jar, on my desk.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1945 the “San Francisco Chronicle” published a review by someone using the initials A. B. of a collection of stories by Bloch. The collection was panned, but Bloch’s originality was praised: 2
His specialty is a grisly gag-sense, best exemplified by his answer to a reader who expressed surprise at his turning from horror to humor. “But I’m a very un-horrible person,” Bloch protested. “I have the heart of a small boy—I keep it on my desk, in a jar.”
In 1947 “The New York Times” discussed a forthcoming book from Bloch which featured a humorous portrayal of the author: 3
Robert Bloch, author of “The Scarf,” which will be published by Dial Press on Aug. 28, has written a description of himself for its jacket. Says he: “I am tall, thin, lazy. My hobby is the collection of United States currency—large denominations preferred. I have the heart of a small boy; I keep it in a jar on my desk.”
QI has viewed pictures of the 1947 Dial Press edition of “The Scarf”, and Bloch’s self-characterization did appear on the back-sheet of the dust jacket. 4
In 1959 publisher Bennett Cerf printed an instance of the gag in his widely-syndicated newspaper column while crediting Bloch: 5
Accused by Critic Paul Nathan of being a ghoul, horror-story author Robert Bloch replied, “Not at all. I have the heart of a small boy. I keep it in a jar on my desk.”
In 1977 the “San Francisco Chronicle” printed an instance as the answer to a cypher puzzle. This version used “child” instead of “boy”: 6
I have the heart of a child — I keep it in a jar on my desk. — Robert Bloch.
In 1983 Stephen King delivered a talk at the Billerica Public Library in Massachusetts. A YouTube video of the event shows him speaking the following remarks: 7
People will say, “Why do you write that stuff?” . . . The first reason is that I’m warped, of course. A lot of people are afraid to say that, but I’m not. It’s because I’m warped.
I have a friend, a guy named Robert Bloch, who wrote the novel “Psycho” on which Hitchcock’s film was based, and he would always say in answer to that question “Actually I have the heart of a small boy. I keep it in a jar on my desk.”
A transcript of King’s Billerica talk containing the quotation was printed in the 1988 book “Bare Bones: Conversations on Terror with Stephen King”. 8
In 1990 King addressed a group in Portland, Maine, and he used the joke again. This time Bloch was not mentioned in the newspaper report: 9
“People want to know why I do this, why I write such gross stuff,” King told 2,300 fans at City Hall on Tuesday night. “I like to tell them I have the heart of a small boy, and I keep it in a jar on my desk.”
In 1992 “Good Advice on Writing” compiled by William Safire and Leonard Safir included the following entry: 10
People want to know why I do this, why I write such gross stuff. I like to tell them I have the heart of a small boy—and I keep it in a jar on my desk.
In 2004 a book of selected material from humor-horror cartoonist Gahan Wilson was published, and the introduction referred to the quip: 11
And, if you must have a reason why his work is so memorable, figure that it’s because, like Bob Bloch, Gahan has the heart of a young boy: he keeps it in a jar on his drawing table.
The magnificent 2021 reference work “The New Yale Book of Quotations” by Fred R. Shapiro contained an entry for the quip listing the crucial 1945 citation: 12
U.S. novelist and screenwriter, 1917-1994
I have the heart of a small boy—I keep it on my desk, in a jar.
Quoted in S.F. Chronicle, 4 Nov. 1945
In conclusion, the joke should be ascribed to Robert Bloch based on the 1942, 1945, and 1947 citations. Stephen King also employed this remark, but he credited Bloch.
Image Notes: Public domain image of a purple-colored heart suspended above a pool of water from Darkmoon_Art at Pixabay. Image has been cropped and resized.
(Great thanks to an anonymous Stephen King fan who was confused about the origin of this joke and desired clarity. Their inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to Bill Mullins who located the 1942 and 1945 citations.)
Update History: On September 28, 2021 the 1942 citation was added to the article, and the conclusion was updated.
- 1942 November, Weird Tales, Volume 36, Number 8, Section: The Eyrie and Weird Tales Club, (Letter from Robert Bloch), Quote Page 120, Column 2, Weird Tales, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1945 November 4, San Francisco Chronicle, Section: This World, Among the New Books (Review by A. B. of Robert Bloch’s “The Opener of the Way”), Quote Page 17, Column 3, San Francisco, California. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1947 August 19, New York Times, Books & Authors, Quote Page 21, Column 1, New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- Website: AbeBooks, Title of Book for Sale: The Scarf by Robert Bloch, Year of Book: 1947, Publisher of Book: Dial Press of New York, Book Seller: Curtis Paul Books of Northridge, California, (The webpage for “The Scarf” displayed images of front-sheet and back-sheet of dust jacket; the dominant colors were green and red; the quotation was visible on the back-sheet of the dust jacket), Website description: Global online marketplace for books and other items. (Accessed abebooks.com on September 26, 2021) ↩
- 1959 November 11, The Lancaster Eagle-Gazette, Try and Stop Me by Bennett Cerf, Quote Page 6, Column 4, Lancaster, Ohio. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1977 September 25, San Francisco Chronicle, Section: Date Book, Puzzle Answers – Cypher, Quote Page 43, Column 1, San Francisco, California. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- YouTube video, Title: Library Lowdown: An Evening with Stephen King 1983, Uploaded on Sep 12, 2017, Uploaded by: Lowell Sun, Description: An Evening with Stephen King at the Billerica Public Library on April 22, 1983, (Quotation starts at 12 minutes 12 seconds of 1 hour 31 minutes 34 seconds), (Accessed on youtube.com on September 25, 2021) link ↩
- 1989 (Copyright 1988), Bare Bones: Conversations on Terror with Stephen King, Edited by Tim Underwood and Chuck Miller, Chapter 1: Skeletons in the Closet (“An Evening with Stephen King at the Billerica, Massachusetts Public Library, 1983), Start Page 1, Quote Page 3, Warner Books, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1990 March 7, The Los Angeles Times, Rimshot for Master of the Macabre, (Dateline Location: Portland, Maine), Quote Page P9, Column 1, Los Angeles, California. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1993 (Copyright 1992), Good Advice on Writing: Great Quotations from Writers Past and Present on How to Write Well, Compiled and Edited by William Safire and Leonard Safir, Topic: Horror Story Writing, Author: Stephen King, Quote Page 111, A Fireside Book: Simon & Schuster, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 2004, The Best of Gahan Wilson, Edited by Cathy Fenner and Arnie Fenner, Chapter: Here Comes That Wilson Boy by Arnie Fenner, Quote Page 10, Column 2, Underwood Books, Nevada City, California. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 2021, The New Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section: Robert Bloch, Quote Page 95, Column 1, Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut. (Verified with hardcopy) ↩