One of the most interesting writers on my bookshelf is Thomas Harris. I am especially taken with The Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs. The other novels in the Hannibal Lecter series are worth reading once, perhaps, but don’t deserve to be compared to the two mentioned above.
Thomas Harris can write about darkness like no other. It’s a shame to limit oneself to seeing the movies. The books have so many details that don’t show up in the movies. Like when Clarice is sliding herself through the very narrow opening in the storage facility and Mr. Yow says, “May I suggest you tie your cuffs snugly around your ankles. To prevent mouse intrusion.” Sure, in the movie, a mouse walks on piano keys to make the point that there were rodents. But the image of mice crawling up my pants leg informs me so well that I am (imaginatively) entering Hades.
The most fascinating thing in these novels is, of course, the characters. Unforgettable. Hannibal Lecter is a household word. And the Red Dragon has Francis Dolarhyde, perhaps even more fascinating than Lecter. At his birth, “The obstetrician remarked that he looked ‘more like aleaf-nosed bat than a baby,’ another truth. He was born with bilateral fissures in his upper lip and in his hard and soft palates. The center section of his mouth was unanchored and protruded.”
“He could breathe, but he could not feed… His crying on the first day was not as continuous as that of a heroin-addicted baby, but it was as piercing.” The staff was apparently content to let him cry his little life away but a cleaning lady saved his life. She held the baby until he felt her heartbeat and then popped a tube down his throat. Since he lived, the doctors consented to do some rudimentary surgery to enable him to live. His mother screamed at the sight of him and left the hospital without him. He was put in an orphanage and later adopted by his grandmother who only took him to spite his mother whom granny hated. She used the boy to hurt his mother who had married a politician who was running for office. She brought the boy to ever political event. The man lost by a landslide.
Such were the beginnings of Francis Dolarhyde’s life. He was constantly reminded of his ugliness. He grew up, joined the army and earned the money for better surgery but still believed himself ugly. He learned a skill in the armed forces and got a career at the Gateway Film Laboratory. Here, he was basically a loner but held his own. But his life was about something a lot more important than earning money at a career. He reinvented himself as a man who was becoming The Red Dragon in
Blake’s painting The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun. He believed he was becoming the Dragon by killing whole families and raping the woman. He found his victims at work. His company processed home movies. As he reached the apex of his development, he became extremely grandiose, as grandiose as his former self was degraded.
He was unrelenting in his cruelty, just as unrelenting as the cruelty of his past had been on him. He kidnapped a reporter who had disrespected him. He glued him to a wheel chair and showed him slides of his murders. “Before Me, you are a slug in the sun. You are privy to a great Becoming and you recognize nothing… Fear is not what you owe Me, Lounds, … You owe Me awe.” Then he made him record a message on tape and then bit his lips off. He pretended that he had the lips on ice in a thermos and would let him go, But, instead, he said, “I told you one fib… I really don’t have your lips on ice.” He poured gasoline on Lounds and set him afire. The wheelchair rolled toward the center of the street.
The most touching story in the book was when he met a female co-worker who was blind. Since she couldn’t see him, he felt freed to be himself. They have a beautiful but short relationship. The first and only time he makes love to a living being who could love him back. Sadly, he got the mistaken impression that she was untrue to him.
Freddy Lounds was an obnoxious, vulgar reporter of a tabloid but Harris was able to show the authenticity in even him. He realized one day that his career at the legitimate paper where he worked had reached a dead end. He saw his future in another worker who transcribed Dictaphone tapes. This was the “glue factory” for reporters at this paper. The man was an alcoholic and had bleeding hemorrhoids for which he used sanitary napkins. Lounds decided he would not let this be his future. He joined the staff of the Tattler where his skills were appreciated and where he got double the salary right away and worked his way up to a position of respect.
There are two movies made of this book, Manhunter and The Red Dragon, doesn’t have Anthony Hopkins in the role of Lecter which, anyway, was a small part. Brian Cox played Lecter. Some people prefer him to Hopkins. I prefer Hopkins. But the Dragon movie over used Hopkins to cash in on his brilliance in Silence. They add scenes and the effect isn’t as good. Dolarhyde was played by Tom Noonan in Manhunter. Edward Norton played him in Red Dragon. Norton emphasized the character’s suffering. Good. But Noonan emphasized his grandiosity. Better.