Of all the insatiable human monsters in Thomas Harris’ Hannibal, the one who gives you the creepiest tingle is a man named Mason Verger. Mason has no lips and no cheeks. His wormy, paralyzed body is hooked up to a respirator, and an automatic lens mists his lone, lidless eyeball. Had the corpse of Norman Bates’ mother actually been alive at the end of Psycho, she might have looked something like this. Mason has retreated from the world, but not without purpose. Lying in his darkened chamber, he plots his revenge.
Mason, you see, is the sole surviving victim of Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Lecter was once his psychiatrist, and to amuse himself the good doctor fed Mason hallucinogenic drugs, handed him a shard of glass, and instructed him to peel his face off and feed it to some dogs. In the seven years since Lecter made his escape, Mason, the heir to a meatpacking dynasty, has committed his every resource to giving Lecter his just deserts. Actually, it’s Lecter who’s set to be dessert. Mason’s plan, orchestral in its sadism, is to have Lecter kidnapped by Sardinian thugs, placed in a barnyard, and eaten alive, slowly, by an army of giant, tusked wild boars. All the while, a camera will be fixed on Lecter’s face, recording his agony.
To anyone familiar with Dr. Hannibal Lecter — genius, aesthete, cannibal — it’s only natural to react to this plan with profoundly divided sympathies. Lecter, of course, is the most mischievously charismatic of all homicidal deviants. It’s not that he’s a psychopath, exactly. A ruthless, snuff-headline version of a Nietzschean superman, he’s brilliant and icy and witty and charming, yes, but unlike, say, a Nazi mastermind or Ted Bundy, he’s also supremely empathic. By killing and eating other people, he literally consumes their identities. (It helps that he feasts only on the rude.)
Mason, by contrast, is an evil shell, a pedophile who slakes his desires by lacing martinis with children’s tears. We can’t help rooting for Lecter to evade his clutches. Yet there’s also a fascination, a gruesome poetic justice, to the prospect of Mason’s mad plan succeeding. What if we did get to see Lecter consumed by outsize carnivorous pigs? Would that ghastly catharsis not shed the ultimate light on his mystery?
Hannibal is the third in Harris’ trilogy of serial mur- der and mayhem. The first of these novels, Red Dragon (1981), is a masterpiece of clinical horror; it remains his best. With The Silence of the Lambs (1988), Harris began to depart from the realities of actual psychopathic killers, and Hannibal is his gaudiest, most lavishly over-the-top book yet. It’s a purplish sick-puppy nightmare — Hitchcock by way of the Marquis de Sade. Yet it has Harris’ singular rapt malevolence. His brilliance as a writer has always been his ability to lure you into a conspiratorial relationship with the most scandalous extremes of his imagination. He dredges up seething, twisted rage, the worst that humankind has to offer, yet we keep reading, compelled to touch the knife edge of our dread. By now, many of us are so wired into Harris’ work that we practically have a pact with him (and with Hannibal Lecter himself). Hannibal fulfills that pact. Surgical in its suspense, Wagnerian in its depravity, it’s a baroque slaughterhouse spectacle of a novel — vast, pungent, pulpy, terrifying. It offers a mad carnival of demons.
Lecter, we learn, has been hiding in Florence, living in a cavernous palazzo under the assumed identity of ”Dr. Fell,” a Tuscan Renaissance scholar. He’s quite at home with his harpsichord and his truffles, surrounded by the beauty (and legendary violence) of Italian antiquity. His one tie to his previous life is a letter he sent to Clarice Starling, whose FBI career is in tatters due to a botched drug raid. Clarice’s connection to Lecter, on the other hand, is destined to be her undoing and, at the same time, her salvation.
Clarice, of course, was the heroine of Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (1991), a movie that did much to enshrine Harris’ work in the popular imagination. You can feel the film’s influence in Harris’ playful focus on Lec-ter the gourmand. Still, having been to this well twice before, Harris knows what we really want: a deeper probe into the recesses of Lecter’s psyche. The Florence section is hypnotic in its detail, a dazzling cat-and-mouse game that feels like more of a real movie than most of the movies I see for a living. We’re given tantalizing glimpses of Lecter’s ”memory palace,” the encyclopedic architecture of Proustian recollection he retreats to when threatened.
My one reservation about Hannibal, apart from its occasionally schlocky plotting, concerns the room in Lecter’s palace devoted to his own sentimental, Freudian Rosebud: his beloved little sister, killed (and eaten) by Nazis. Doesn’t Harris realize that humanizing — explaining — Lecter in this way only diminishes him? (At times, Lecter’s back story is a whisper away from Dr. Evil’s.) Then again, Harris is just setting up the book’s you-won’t-believe-it finale, a candlelit dinner for two prepared with diced shallots and autopsy saw. The sheer, triumphant audacity of this grand sardonic romance is its own justification. Bet you never thought you’d see Hannibal Lecter eating his heart out. A-