Early in Hannibal, Thomas Harris’s hungrily anticipated sequel to The Silence of the Lambs, an Italian chief investigator on the trail of Dr. Hannibal Lecter–seven years free, with a huge bounty on his head–suspects the most-wanted man-eater may be in Florence, posing as an elusive, erudite medievalist, Dr. Fell. (“Fell,” says my dictionary, “adj. 1. Of an inhumanly cruel nature; fierce. 2. Capable of destroying; lethal. 3. Dire; sinister. 4. Scots. Sharp and biting.”) Investigator Pazzi spots “Dr. Fell” at a traveling show of engines of torture, the sensation of a jaded Europe:
The exposition of Atrocious Torture Instruments could not fail to appeal to a connoisseur of the worst in mankind. But the essence of the worst, the true asafoetida of the human spirit, is not found in the Iron Maiden or the whetted edge; Elemental Ugliness is found in the faces of the crowd.
It is the crowd, not the rack or the wheel, that Hannibal Lecter, “connoisseur of facial cheeses,” is raptly studying. He seems to look right out of the page at the reader, forcing the unpleasant recognition of one’s own face in the crowd attending a sensation: this novel, which features atrocious tortures all its own. Here you are, wolfing down a book in which people get their faces and their brains eaten–alive! You say you came for the fine writing, the mordant insights into the human condition? Yeah, sure. Tell it to the judge.
Maybe this is Harris’s little revenge on a public and an entertainment industry that have clamored “More Hannibal Lecter!” for eleven years now–or that concluded he couldn’t deliver. One can imagine how the sensation consumer’s happy, heedless “Feed me! Feed me!” impacts a writer of high ambition and deep integrity, a fearsome perfectionist (The Silence of the Lambs is nearly perfect, and Harris allegedly refused to change a comma of it), a born writer who, an editor friend tells me, “hates writing” because he has reason to dread both his superego and his id. Before Hannibal Lecter became an icon–blame it on Anthony Hopkins and the mojo of the movies–at least the doctor and his creator were free to grow at their own pace, unfolding like moth’s wings from some internal pressure toward an inevitable shape. Red Dragon, the book in which Lecter debuted, was a bestseller (as was Black Sunday, a journeyman work plotted with two Associated Press buddies), but of the sort that creates only generic anticipation of the next. This gave Harris the freedom to write a masterpiece. The Silence of the Lambs has the ring of a book so necessary to its author that it called forth the struggle and blessing required to get it right. While a crucial part, Hannibal Lecter is only a part of what makes Silence golden.
Red Dragon was a sympathy-for-the-devil book. By taking us inside the mind of Francis Dolarhyde, a killer as piteous as he is malignly magnificent and terrifying, Harris suggested that serial killers are made, not born; they are twisted sensitives avenging, misdirectedly, the murder of their own innocence, and so forging the next random link in an endless chain of suffering. No reader of Red Dragon can forget Dolarhyde or the extremity of his childhood torment, but his pursuer, Will Graham, fades away in the blaze of his prey. Not so with The Silence of the Lambs. Here FBI trainee Clarice Starling is the center, not Jame Gumb, not even Lecter–though the fell doctor is already taking form as a rival center, a dark twin star trying to pull the moral mass of the story his way. It is the tug of war and fatal attraction between them, and the way it’s left unresolved, that makes Silence–the book, not the movie–reverberate in the reader’s heart for life.