Monday, November 30, 2009

Hannibal the Cannibal

That's an appropriate topic after Thanksgiving, isn't it?

Last week I caught Hannibal, the last book in the Hannibal the Cannibal series, on BRAVO. That got me thinking about the first movie I ever saw focusing on Dr. Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter: The Silence of the Lambs. That, in turn, got me thinking about one of the most powerful reading experiences I ever had.

I first encountered Hannibal - on the printed page anyway, and he was not nearly as creepy or sinister as Anthony Hopkins' portrayal in the film version - when I read a book review on Thomas Harris's second Hannibal Lecter novel in Fangoria way back in 1988. I recall the reviewer saying how it was a bit misleading that the best horror novel of the year was being marketed as a suspense thriller and not a horror novel, because it was one of the most horrifying books he had ever read.

That was all I remembered about the novel until a few years later when my brother was staying with us and brought a copy of Harris' novel home from the Crookston public library.

Kevin read it and raved about it, so I thought I'd read it - especially since there was a film version coming out later in the year.

For the next week, I was totally absorbed into Harris' world. I had never read anything like it (I was used to the crap churned out by the likes of Dean Koontz, John Saul, and John Farris).

Prospective FBI agent Clarice Starling was unlike any protagonist I had ever read. So smart, thorough, and flawed.

Of course, Hannibal was unlike any villain I had ever read. First, I wasn't sure that he was really the villain. He was, after all, apparently helping Starling try to catch the killer Who else talks about eating a census taker or convincing another prisoner to swallow his tongue?

And Buffalo Bill? Come on! What villain had I ever read about that actually was making a suit out of girls' skin? I had read about vampires, werewolves, zombies, demons, mad scientist, and serial killers. But Buffalo Bill was so over the top, but - thanks to Harris' research and skill - he also seemed so real. It would be years later when I read a student's research paper on Ed Gein that I realized, indeed, that the truth is often stranger - and more horrifying - than fiction.

Even as a junior in high school I remember being impressed with the thoroughness of Harris' research and depth. This was one of the first novels I recall reading that actually felt like it was years in the making. I mean how much research did he have to do to find moths that actually live on tears? How long had he studied the FBI and it's internal workings to so vividly capture it?

I carried that novel everywhere. Any spare moment I had - usually during study hall - I would delve back into Starling's desperate search for Buffalo Bill and her attempts to make sense of Lecter's clues.

The climax of the novel - at least for me - was the scene at the courthouse in Memphis where Hannibal is able to escape the authorities. For those of you who have read it - or seen the film - you will know the scene: Hannibal is offering some vital information that will allow police to capture Buffalo Bill, whose latest abduction is the daughter of a senator. Of course, all the information Lecter offers is bogus - he just wants to escape.

And how he does!

In slow, excruciatingly slow detail, Harris sets up Hannibal's escape. And when he attacks the guards, Harris is sparse with the details. He just hints at the horrors that are to come. And oh how they do! The final detail in the chapter mentions how Lecter searches one officer's pockets and finds - best of all - a pocket knife.

Now what can he possible do with a pocket knife. Again, if you've seen the movie, you know all too well. And it's never described. Harris leaves it all up to the reader to imagine the carnage. I've never gotten over that (just like I'm still haunted by what Lecter could possibly have said to a fellow prisoner to get them to swallow their own tongue).

The next chapter chronicles the escape from the authorities' point of view as they hear two shots from where Lecter is being held. They find one officer barely alive with massive facial wounds. Another officer is strung up and gutted.

As the ambulance arrives and carts away the wounded officer, the police notice a body on top of the lone elevator. They figure it's Hannibal. When I was reading it, I knew it wasn't. Hannibal was far too smart for that. But where was he and what body was on top of the elevator?

Then Harris' next chapter flashes to inside the ambulance rushing the wounded officer to the hospital. My mouth fell open when I realized that it was not the officer at all . . . but Lecter wearing most of one officer's face and parts from the other officer.

Come on, man!

Who could think that up? (Of course, that scene was actually rivalled in the first Hannibal the Cannibal book, Red Dragon, (though I did not know of that novel at the time I was reading The Silence of the Lambs) where the Red Dragon killer catches a newspaper reporter who the FBI has used to run false stories on the killer to try and draw him out. The plan works, but that's bad, bad news for the reporter as he regains consciousness hypoxied to a wheelchair. His tongue is bitten off and he is set on fire and wheeled down a street. This, though, is mere child's play given what Harris concocts in the final Hannibal novel. To get revenge of the CIA agent, Krendler (who appears in The Silence of the LambsThe Silence of the Lambs down at that point and take a break.

Now re-reading it after all these years, I'm amazed at how much of it has stuck with me. Maybe that's because it was so horrifying and so utterly unlike anything I had ever read before.

Of course, there is so much that I missed. I must have had no clue about all of the FBI and psychological terminology back when I was a junior. But thanks to many, many episodes of Law and Order and the "profiler" genre that Harris' work ushered it, I found this quite interesting the second time around. Plus, I never caught all of the pettiness involved in climbing the ranks in the FBI that Harris dwells on at length. That added another dimension of drama to the story that I was oblivious too all those years ago.

Now, I'm anxious to go back and re-read Red Dragon. I don't know if I'm ready for Hannibal though. Maybe once was enough with that novel. I mean, how could Harris let Starling fall into Hannibal's clutches? And to live as his lover (at least that is how I remember it being implied) and companion?

I liked her better as the naive but confident officer in training who just turned the FBI on its head by tracking down Buffalo Bill and killing him. I liked it better with Starling living with the knowledge that Lecter was out there but enjoyed the world too much with her in it to ever come after her.

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