Thursday, November 7, 2013

Red Dragon by Thomas Harris (1981): Terror the Human Form

Featuring the infamous first appearance of dreaded Dr. Hannibal "the Cannibal" Lecter, perhaps the most iconic, most powerful, most thrillingly nightmarish of modern pop-fictional villains, the bestselling Red Dragon is a police procedural par excellence, depicting the cutting-edge techniques of serial killers and their profilers with utmost clarity, thanks to the brilliant honed sheen of Thomas Harris's prose. I don't have the space to go into everything I enjoyed about Red Dragon; the entire story and characters are perfectly imagined and executed (sorry). We peer not only into the broken jagged minds of murderers driven mad by an early life of neglect and deformity, but also the brilliant, tireless lawmen who go after them no matter the personal consequences.

While The Silence of the Lambs is much more well-known both as book and movie, I'm sure many readers are on familiar terms with Red Dragon as well. Again, Lecter isn't necessarily the main villain. Will Graham, only 38, is an early-retired "special investigator" for the FBI, asked by his former supervisor, Jack Crawford, to help find the serial killer dubbed "The Tooth Fairy" (because of his biting fetish) who has just murdered two whole families in their homes. Graham left the force when he was very nearly killed by Dr. Hannibal Lecter several years earlier. Lecter was captured and imprisoned right after but Graham still lives with the scars, mental, emotional, physical. This is a brilliant backstory for both characters; putting such a dramatic event in the past is a stroke of genius on Harris's part. For Graham, going back into the field looking for a monster, just as he's started a new life with a woman and her son... well, it's beyond the last thing he wants to do.

Back cover of reprint, Bantam Mar 1987
No surprise, Red Dragon can be depressing reading, a grim, immersive experience one can get uncomfortably lost in, unable to come up from its suffocating depths for breath. Airless, without any attempt at a creeping atmosphere that would place it firmly in the horror genre (yet it is rightfully included in Newman and Jones's Horror: 100 Best Novels), this is realistic fiction told in a toneless prose that withholds judgment. It is amoral and matter-of-fact about the grossest of human depravities. This is precisely Will Graham's grotesque talent, what makes him the only man for the job, why Crawford is so desperate for his help: Will Graham can slip inside a killer's mind and see all from his perspective without the clouding effects of socialization, morality, and compassion:

 Often his thoughts were not tasty... His learned values of decency and propriety tagged along, shocked at his associations, appalled at his dreams; sorry that in the bone arena of his skull there were no forts for what he loved... His value judgments... could never keep up and direct this thinking.

Obsessed with an apocalyptic painting by English poet William Blake, from whose works the title comes, Francis Dolarhyde is the 42-year-old serial killer Graham is after. With grandiose fantasies of his Great Becoming, Dolarhyde is held in a strange thrall to Blake's painting The Great Red Dragon: Never before had he seen anything that approached his graphic thought. He felt that Blake must have peeked in his ear and seen the Red Dragon. For weeks Dolarhyde had worried that his thoughts might glow out his ears. When the narrative begins Dolarhyde has already murdered two families, the Jacobis and the Leeds - he chose them after seeing their home movies, which he develops in his day job at a film processing company - and is planning on a third (Families were mailing their applications to him every day). A classic if over-melodramatic psychopath, he is utterly detached from his victims; they are only a means to an end: becoming fully the Red Dragon itself. The dead were not people, they...

are not flesh, but light and air and color and quick sounds quickly ended when you change them. Like balloons of color bursting... they are more important for the changing, more important than the lives they scrabble after, pleading.

Dolarhyde bore screams as a sculptor bears dust from the beaten stone.

Original 1981 hardcover with Blake's conception of the Red Dragon
Francis Dolarhyde's dire childhood is relayed in all its sad and shocking array, a tale we know all too well now that serial killers are cultural mainstays (thank in large part to Harris's fiction). These may be the most gripping parts of the novel: born with facial deformities (he looked more like a leaf-nosed bat than a baby... Springfield in 1938 was not a center for plastic surgery. In Springfield you wore your face as it was), abandoned by his mother, left in an orphanage. Five years later, his grandmother comes for Francis. For the first time someone smiles when they see him. His deformed mouth makes speech nearly impossible. However, Grandmother Dolarhyde insists he tell her his name. We are shocked, heartbroken, and filled with the knowledge that it all begins here.

The child's face brightened. The big boys had helped him with this. He wanted to please. He collected himself.
"Cunt Face," he said.

And eventually, grandmother threatens to cut off his penis if he continues to wet his bed. Her mental health collapses. Francis learns to cope through killing chickens on his grandmother's farm (the peace was endless and all around him). The horrifying connection is made, the emotions become entwined in a waking nightmare: Francis sat silently at his place, opening and closing his hand on the memory of an eye blinking against his palm. Sometimes in bed he held himself to be sure he hadn't been cut. Sometimes when he held himself he thought he felt a blink. God god that line crawled up my spine. There are plenty others.

Original paperback, Bantam Oct 1982
Today we are also familiar with the people who chase these killers, the profilers who can parse out their identities from things insignificant to the untrained eye. The agents and detectives after Dolarhyde are professional men who, with icy resolve, do a very serious and very dangerous job. Underneath they are sick with fear that they will not find Dolarhyde before he slaughters another thriving American family. Harris engages in no cop-show hysterics, no macho thundering, no young hotshots fighting against the system and defying their by-the-book superiors. Nope. Jack Crawford, based on the first FBI profiling expert John E. Douglas, knows he has to stand back and let Graham do the ugliest work inside his head and at the scenes of the crimes, and he needs calm, reflective quiet. And a good chilled martini or three doesn’t hurt either.

Will Graham's bravery is a testimony to this commitment and seen early. At night he walks through the home of the Leeds family, the second group of murder victims, after investigators have left. What clues did they miss? All that's left are the bloodstains, whose patterns hold secret codes that Will must crack. He was an old hand at fear. He could manage this one. He simply was afraid, and he could go on anyway. He could see and hear better afraid... Walking around a bloodstained house at night in which people had been mass murdered only days before? Holy shit that freaked me out. Imagining myself doing it? Out of the fucking question.
Early '90s Dell reprint after Lecter became famous
It's no surprise Dolarhyde is a Lecter fan, and his letter to the good doctor is discovered just after Graham visits Hannibal in the Chesapeake Hospital for the Criminally Insane. This really sets the chase in motion. While not as dramatic or intimate as Clarice Starling’s visit to Dr. Lecter, Graham’s seeking out of him is an act he realizes that he must do if he is to stop the Tooth Fairy. Unlike Starling, Graham has a past with Lecter, so he's unnerved to talk with him again. Why wouldn't he be? Lecter makes the most of this time to fuck expertly with Graham's head: "Do you dream much, Will? Do you know how you caught me? The reason you caught me is that we're just alike!" Good God. I know that's become a cliche, killer and cop psychological twins, but Harris makes it work. We revisit how Graham realized Lecter was the killer he was looking for years before. It was this image, the Wound Man illustration from a Middle Ages surgical text, that was the final clue.

It's this kind of esoteric detail that makes Red Dragon an especially fascinating read, one that makes you want to - carefully! - Google asides in the story and dialogue, like references to medical textbooks and forensics methods and physical deformities and psychological tests and of course Blake's biblical art and poetry. Harris inserts tiny details about people's lives and possessions that read like real things observed with a restless mature eye, not simply made up on the spot and tossed into the mix. Even while writing of monsters, Harris is a fully sensitive humanitarian, taking a minor note - the rising color of someone's face, a deft hand on a shoulder, a speech tic, a particular lack of sympathy - and letting it bloom with import. Characters, even ones we meet a single time, live and breathe and exist; we can imagine them outside the narrative itself. Harris follows the stone-carved dictum for all creators of fiction: show, don't tell. Harris implies; the reader infers. Harris can do more damage with one understated sentence - "Cunt Face," he said - than many horror writers can do in a 400-page novel. The ending? Fine and deep and true and haunting. I fucking love it.

Wow. Maybe I need to start looking into large-print book covers too.
If not the equal of Silence of the Lambs, Red Dragon is as good a precursor to it as possible (I find Clarice Starling a more captivating and sympathetic protagonist than Will Graham). It is not a novel to approach lightly; it is not simply a popular bestselling thriller to kill a few hours on a flight or waiting at the dentist (oof). Yes, it moves with lightning speed but Harris never lets the reader to get lost in the settings. Whether it’s a film processing lab, an insane asylum, a police headquarters or a newspaper-printing press, Harris writes of them with an authenticity and economy learned from his days as an AP reporter. Sometimes the suspense is unbearable as we move between two worlds so effortlessly, sucked into a drama filled with moments we recognize - the frustrations of work, fraught relationships with spouses and offspring, even budding romance - and those we hope in a million eternities never to face.  

Red Dragon needs nothing supernatural or otherwordly to horrify, it simply and honestly confronts and exposes a nightmared world. It's one of those books whose unrelenting nature will snatch you up and carry you away, leaving you bleary-eyed and sleepless, an aching emptiness inside you from peering into all the darknesses people can hide... and the flesh- and mind-rending terror they can visit upon their fellow man without remorse.


Professor Brian O'Blivion said...

Great write up! I remember reading Red Dragon after seeing Manhunter on TV back in 1990 when I was in High School. It's my favorite Harris novel and Manhunter my favorite adaption, the Hannibal series on NBC is quite good too.

AndyDecker said...

While "Silence" is undoubtly the patient zero for the serial killer genre, Red Dragon is a great book and often unjustly overlooked.

Everything is there, Hannibal, the profiling, the serial killer as an evil genius and a kind of pop star. It was a clever idea to not put Lector into the middle of the tale. It created a rock solid foundation.

I also loved Manhunter. So much superior to the boring Remake.

Jay Rothermel said...

The most heartbreaking part of the novel is that Francis almost pulls himself back from destruction. Harris pities his monsters, which breaks my heart.

Jonathan said...

The Glass Cage by Colin Wilson also involves a serial killer obsessed with the work of William Blake. Hmmmm....

Ron Clinton said...

Terrific write-up. Not much I can add, other than to echo your acclaim for the book. I have signed HC 1sts of both RED DRAGON and SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, and am very pleased to have them on my shelf -- to me, they partner to make a saga that is a modern masterpiece of terror.

Will Errickson said...

Wilson's GLASS CAGE:

Looks cool...

jeremy said...

Awesome post, as usual. (Tangential question ahead) Although Douglas was the go-to man for Crawford's character in book and movie, isn't Robert Ressler considered the first to launch criminal profiling in the US as a legitimate big deal? He trained Douglas. Btw, I still would love for you to put all this blog into a book. Great stuff, man.

Will Errickson said...

Thanks Jeremy.Yes, I think Ressler is considered the first, but I've read that Crawford was specifically based on Douglas. I see Wikipedia notes Douglas as "one of the first" profilers.

A book, you say? Maybe some day...