From what I’ve read about him, Thomas Harris is a notoriously reclusive writer. Perhaps this is why I can’t seem to find contact details for him and, by extension, obtain photograph permissions.
I could start talking about how it’s no surprise that a reclusive writer would be able to invent a character as morbidly curious as Hannibal Lecter, but I think that would be lazy analysis. I don’t think there’s a correlation between Harris’ preference for privacy and his (arguably) dark imagination. Imagination is just that, and I think it has little bearing on who we are as people. As I have touched on before, we all have unthinkable thoughts every now and then. To act on those thoughts is to change who you are.
Which of course, is where Harris’ greatest creation comes in: Dr Hannibal Lecter, A.K.A Hannibal the Cannibal. On the surface, Hannibal was a respectable forensic psychologist. FBI agent Will Graham discovered that Hannibal was in fact a serial killer, who murdered and consumed his victims. The struggle between Graham and Lecter is only framed in the background, as a means of establishing Lecter’s character. The Lecter we get to know in the books has been incarcerated in a mental institution for quite some time, and he is consulted by the FBI for his expertise (both as a forensic psychologist and a psychopath) to catch other serial killers: Francis Dolarhyde in Red Dragon, and Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs.
I must make a confession here; I haven’t read Hannibal Rising, and I don’t think I will. That’s not to dissuade you from reading it; there are many who think it’s a great story. However, for me, one of the appeals of Hannibal’s character is his lack of an origin story.
“Nothing happened to me, Officer Starling. I happened. You can’t reduce me to a set of influences. You’ve given up good and evil for behaviorism, Officer Starling. You’ve got everybody in moral dignity pants – nothing is ever anybody’s fault. Look at me, Officer Starling. Can you stand to say I’m evil? Am I evil, Officer Starling?”
– Thomas Harris, Silence of the Lambs
In an age of scientific enquiry, where everything must have a cause and effect, it’s refreshing to have an antagonist (or perhaps protagonist) who openly and knowingly defies this rule. The question of whether there are some evils that can’t be cured, that can’t even be understood, is a frightening one. It’s also a fascinating one. I think those two adjectives accurately capture the character of Hannibal: frightening and fascinating.
And while everything about him is deplorable, he is often so intelligent, articulate, and mild-mannered that we find ourselves reluctantly, disgustedly, agreeing with him:
“We live in a primitive time—don’t we, Will?—neither savage nor wise. Half measures are the curse of it. Any rational society would either kill me or give me my books.”
― Thomas Harris,
Harris’ genius was in having Hannibal already behind bars. It was such an original concept in crime fiction that is employed effectively to this day (Someone to Watch Over Me by Yrsa Sigurdardottir is a good example of this), and gives us a character who is villainous to the bone, but is not the villain. In fact, however unreliable, however traitorous, his core purpose is to act as an aide to the detectives. And while he has his own malevolent motives, Hannibal is instrumental in the capture of these killers.
Harris expertly toes the line between malicious monster and misunderstood madman. The confusion we feel towards Hannibal Lecter is what has captivated us for decades, and I think it will continue to do so for many more.