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May 07, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

This article was originally published in the May 7, 1999 issue of Entertainment Weekly.

Like a hunk of space debris falling from the sky, two packages landed March 23, 1999 on the desks of literary agent Morton Janklow and Delacorte Press publisher Carole Baron. Inside was Hannibal, the long-overdue 600-page manuscript of author Thomas Harris’ follow-up to The Silence of the Lambs.

A fourth Star Wars movie? A new trove of Dead Sea scrolls? Forget it. In the publishing world, nothing could have landed with a louder or more unexpected crash than Hannibal — the novel nobody thought would ever come, by the author everyone figured had gone AWOL. After the best-selling success of Silence in 1988 and the blockbuster movie that followed three years later, publishers, studios, and fans alike licked their chops for the next installment. But instead, the sequel to Silence was…silence.

Now, the 10-year wait was finally over. And, a lightning-quick chain reaction was triggered, from New York’s publishing nucleus to the deal-brokering hub of Hollywood, from the set of Jodie Foster’s latest film in Malaysia to Anthony Hopkins’ home in England. Copies of Hannibal were locked away in safes. Confidentiality agreements were signed by the few souls lucky enough to see the manuscript. Rival publishers shooed their big releases out of harm’s way. Studio heads foamed at the mouth. And booksellers cleared their shelves for the novel’s June 8 delivery date. Meanwhile, back in Miami, the writer who had just ended 10 years of monastic silence by setting all this mayhem in motion had to be sighing the sigh of a man finally unburdened by a decade of expectations.

”On the afternoon of July 8, 1981, he complained of chest pains and was taken to the dispensary. His mouthpiece and restraints were removed for an EKG. When the nurse leaned over him, he did this to her…. The doctors managed to reset her jaw more or less, save one of her eyes. His pulse never got above 85 — even when he ate her tongue.” — The Silence of the Lambs

When we think of Hannibal Lecter, we immediately picture Anthony Hopkins, whose Oscar-winning performance in the film adaptation of Silence created an unshakable vision of pure evil. Locked away in the dank bowels of the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, Hopkins’ sociopathic prince of darkness seemed like a bloodcurdling spectre rotting in his own maximum-security circle of hell. With the Zen stillness of a cougar ready to pounce, the coldly measured sentences calculating the weaknesses of his adversaries, and the piercing arctic-blue eyes that made the hairs on the back of our necks salute, Hopkins’ Lecter was all the scarier because there was so much method to his madness. Try as we might to shut out his chilling voice, when he told Jodie Foster’s FBI trainee Clarice Starling, ”A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti,” it was all over — a pop-cultural bogeyman to end all pop-cultural bogeymen had been born.

First introduced by Harris in just a few pages of his 1981 best-seller Red Dragon (with some physical details — maroon-colored eyes, six fingers on one hand — that never made it onto the screen), Hannibal Lecter has become part of a particularly American love-hate phenomenon. After all, as much as we’d like to deny it, our culture is both horrifically repelled by and morbidly drawn to the fascinatingly sick deeds of madmen, routinely turning them into tabloid celebrities. Millions left The Silence of the Lambs or put down Harris’ brilliantly creepy page-turners taking some degree of comfort in the fact that Hannibal wasn’t real…maybe because he could so easily be real.

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