Harris’ Hannibal


I remember my parents driving my brother and me through the Florida Everglades in 1999 and roadside shops had announcements they were stocking the new Thomas Harris novel, the sequel to The Silence of the Lambs:


It seems strange in today’s post-digital multimedia age that a paperback book could generate that much anticipation and interest.

The major pleasure in Hannibal is the continuation of his relationship with FBI Agent Clarice Starling, who, after helping her catch a transgender serial killer in the previous book, like Euripides’ Dionysus, he has escaped his cell and has been free for seven years.

The sole surviving victim, Mason Verger, a disfigured and paralysed child molester, uses Clarice to tempt the Doctor out of hiding so he can capture him and feed him to wild pigs on camera.

The shock ending where, after all the torture and murder, the FBI agent and serial killer become lovers, horrified Jodie Foster, who said she would not do the 2000 film “out of respect for Clarice.”

Anthony Hopkins also found it “strange and disturbing.”

In the twenty years that have passed I am endlessly drawn back to the Lecter Trilogy (as a purist I discount his franchise attempt Hannibal Rising, which was, at best, inept) and if I ever lose a copy, I always find them in charity shops, and tend to always buy them and read them again.

Stephen King, whose seventies novel Pet Semetary was recently made into yet another successful film, (proving his formidable influence has not dulled with the decades) wrote that the best two popular horror novels were The Exorcist and Hannibal.

There had already been two Lecter films before the book came out – Manhunter in 1986, which was a cult-flop, and the smash hit Oscar sweeper The Silence of the Lambs in 1991, which of course was the root cause of a lot of the borderline hysteria that met the book’s release eight years later. Both Foster and Hopkins were iconic in popular culture by then; their strange chemistry on screen much written about.

Roald Dahl (who died some years before he could get his hands on a copy of Hannibal) had said of Lambs that “here was a book with a real plot at last – splendid and awful and delicious – it is infinitely superior to any book published this year.”

For the New York Times Book Review an enthusiastic Stephen King wrote on Hannibal: “novels that bravely and cleverly erase the line between popular fiction and literature are very much to be prized.”

The original Lecter book, Red Dragon (1980), formed the basis for the recent Hannibal TV show, which removed heterosexual love between Clarice and Lecter and replaced it (amidst the massive body count) with eventual homosexual love between Will Graham and Hannibal. This proved contentious, and it only managed three seasons before being cancelled.

Harris has an extraordinary ear for dialogue, the most important part of any novel, but his prose is clean and crisp and the story moves quickly, like a John Grisham paperpack. Beaches all over the world have seen sunbathers reading the Lecter Trilogy like another Airport Paperback, and finding themselves still reading at three in the morning in their hotel room.

The 2000 Ridley Scott film, with a tender but doomed kiss between Julianne Moore and Anthony Hopkins before she slams the cuff on his wrist, (and the honourable old devil chops off his own hand rather than hurt her) has become an “old movie” so most people who haven’t read the books recognise an erotic element in Clarice and Hannibal’s relationship that had been there, carefully wound into the previous book.

Four years after The Silence of the Lambs, Bret Easton Ellis sought to wring the fun and romance out of the serial killer thriller and rub our faces in the horror of American Psycho (for reasons I believe he has never fully explained) but I avoid that book now.

Like The Exorcist, The Lecter Trilogy has terrified readers worldwide, preying on their worst fears of the organised serial killer and a psychiatrist who would just as soon as eat your liver than diagnose you with Bipolar.

The three books took nineteen years to write, from 1980 to 1999, but don’t be deceived by the reputation and the commercial success – they are special, and to be respected.

Follow Andrew Moody on Twitter @VoguishFiction

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