I would like to spend a year with Thomas Harris. Maybe even two. I want to get up when he gets up, eat breakfast at the same table, go with him to shop for produce, and simply follow him around to see what he does on a day to day basis. Perhaps, standing in his shadow, I can see why it takes him so long to write the books he does.
I realize that the detail he incorporates into his novels–the history, the art, the languages–require a great deal of research and thought. I understand that the stories are complex and portray characters with psychological issues far beyond the range of the average person’s comprehension. Still, since Black Sunday appeared in 1975, Harris has written only four novels, including his breakout work, The Silence of the Lambs. In the past four, the role of Dr. Hannibal Lecter, arguably one of the greatest characters in modern culture, has increased until Hannibal the Cannibal has become front and center in Harris’s writing. In Hannibal Rising, Harris expands what we learned of Lecter’s past in Hannibal by describing the events that led to the rise the monster we know from his earlier books. We see the gruesome murder and consumption of his sister during the second World War. We see Lecter’s development through adolescence, his education, and his early adult life, along with the beginning of his homicidal yearnings.
As a fan of Harris’s early works, I was eager to read Hannibal Rising, but not with the same interest that I read Hannibal and I place the blame for this mostly on Harris himself. Lecter is a wonderful character in Silence, all the more threatening because of his intelligence, his unknowable mind. It is this enigma, this sense that what happens behind those piercing blue eyes is beyond our understanding, that makes Hannibal Lecter one of the greatest villains I’ve ever read about. So, when Harris sets about in Hannibal and Hannibal Rising to explain how that evil mind works and, worse, gets you to identify with him, to assume his point of view, it completely dispels the magic draw the character has for me. I don’t want to relate to Hannibal Lecter. I don’t want to feel sorry for him, to support him in his quest for vengeance against those who killed and ate his sister. I want to relate to those trying to stop him, trying to understand him. I want to be the common man–Will Graham or Clarice Starling–who must fight my awe of his genius, swallow my fear, and beat him at his own intellectual game.
For me, Hannibal Rising is a case of infatuation gone wrong. Harris seems too enamored by his ability to add depth to his creation to realize that, in doing so, he shows us the zipper running down the monster’s back. His tale is still rich in detail, but seen from Lecter’s end, this serves only to give the novel a snobby, elitist feel, further alienating me from the writing. In making Lecter shine, Harris casts a shadow over the other characters in the book, leaving them small and one-dimensional. There are still several scenes that display the author’s mastery of the gruesome and unexpected, but even these feel like a overblown curriculum vitae for the young Lecter.
I remain a fan of Thomas Harris and, even though I found this book disappointing, I will pick up his next one when it comes out. What Harris does well–pulling the psychological strings of our terror and setting it all to classical music–he does better than almost everyone. Hannibal Lecter is a cultural icon, his place in society enhanced by the brilliant acting of Sir Anthony Hopkins, but I’ve seen things through his eyes long enough. It’s time to look through someone else’s, someone who will be assigned the task of chasing down the monster without becoming his next victim. Let us return to Graham or Starling or some other figure who must rise up to face the threat of Lecter. Let us, Mr. Harris, be the common man again, facing the terror of Hannibal the Cannibal.