There are few fictional characters that elicit the sort of feelings that you can get from Hannibal Lecter, who exists somewhere between horror and fascination for people. Either they want to put as many miles between themselves and the good Doctor as possible, or would really like to be invited to one of his parties. His status as one of the best villains is well documented. In both Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs Dr. Lecter is a palpable force of a character, an insidious yet charismatic man whose very presence warps the narrative around him for the better. Being cast as both sympathetic but with a past concealed with a steady smirk, Hannibal was rendered as a devil so good that it makes the Faustian proposition of his assistance tantalizing.
But then someone decided that they had bills/alimony/a crack habit to support and a new book featuring everybody’s favorite cannibal was coming soon to bookstores near you. It would do the cool thing that was all the rage back in 2006 – it was going to tell an origin story. The veil of mystery was going to be pulled back like infected foreskin to reveal the majesty hidden within. At least that was the idea. Instead what arrived on shelves was Hannibal Rising, a book so awful that it makes the rest of Thomas Harris’ books seem worse. Instead of making Hannibal Lecter more interesting, it strips him of his predatory violence, and the only emotion that Hannibal Rising elicits from the reader is a repugnant mix of loathing, dread, and pity. Between the prose, a lack of plotting that borders on obscene and laying one of the great villains low, Hannibal Rising manages to be offensive – rude even. So much so that, a better version of Hannibal would bake it in clay if it weren’t for the fact that it’s completely tasteless. This is the Takedown.
I’m going to keep on using the term “plot” for Hannibal Rising even though that is using it in the broadest and most generous of terms (like American “Cheese“). This book doesn’t so much as have a coherent “series of events” that forms the plot. Instead it prefers to go with “a bunch of shit happens” mixed with a gravy boat of pointless flashbacks. Even still, let’s give it a go.
Way back in WW2, young Hannibal Lecter and his family live an idyllic life in Lithuania. It’s almost Disneyesque in how perfect it is. There is his father Count Lecter, and a collection of the soon to be dead with names like “Chef” and “Mr. Jakov” that live in Hannibal’s castle with him. The most important is his sister Mischa, whom Hannibal dotes on to such saccharine effect, I’m pretty sure my endocrine system no longer works. Anyway, since Nazis are coming, they go and hide in their hunting lodge, since that is what the 1% does in times of trouble (other than having Mother Mary comfort them, of course). Because, well, WW2 is happening, the adults all get killed in an attack as pointless as it is poorly plotted/constructed/written leaving Hannibal and moppet Mischa all alone in the lodge.
But it’s okay! You see, a Nazi sympathizer named Grutas and the menu/his comrades finds the lodge. Long story short, a bunch of awful culinary things happen and the story picks up with young Lecter encountering a Soviet tank battalion all alone.
He’s mute for a while and taken into the care of his uncle in France. It only lasts for about 30 pages until he dies so don’t worry about him, he won’t be on the test later. Nothing of consequence happens except that Hannibal meets one Lady Murasaki, a character so stereotypically bland I’m shocked her name isn’t just Japanese Milf (thanks in advance Google search!). Anyway, after she is insulted in the market, Hannibal takes it upon himself to kill the man that was rude to her and eat his cheeks.
Once that happens, an Inspector Popil suspects Hannibal is the killer. He is torn though because he also suspects that Lady Murasaki is totally into him, because he is an idiot; and thinking that a woman widowed for like, a month, wants to get sweaty and acrobatic with you is the sort of nonsense that idiots think. While Popil is thinking wildly in-apropos sexy thoughts, Hannibal goes to medical school and starts looking for other members of the Grutas crew.
Hannibal starts his quest by taking a bunch of drugs and remembering the lodge. When he visits he is attacked by one of the crew (they have names, but no characterization, so let’s call this Dipshit #1). Hannibal kills Dipshit #1 by having his horse pull Dipshit’s head off, and finds the dog tags of the rest of the Dipshit Department. The cannibal now returns to France where Lady Murasaki throws herself at Hannibal like an underhanded slow pitch in exchange for Hannibal to stop, like, killing people. He rebuffs her for no reason that I will ever be able to comprehend, and goes on to hunt the rest of the Dipshit Department.
Somewhere along the line, Hannibal figures out his own terrible secret. Back in the hunting lodge the Department killed his sister Mischa and ate her. For extra lives they also fed her to Hannibal, which is apparently an act so heinous he couldn’t remember it, and once he does, Hannibal seems to somehow give no shits. It’s like he couldn’t have given a shit if somebody loaned him a shit with really great rates. People care more when they misplace their keys.
Eventually, Grutas discovers that Hannibal is chasing him, and decides to kidnap Lady Murasaki and take her to his riverboat. What follows is a gunfight with Dipshits #2 – #5 on a boat. Hannibal does what any dime store serial killer does and he kills everybody onboard. After rescuing Lady Murasaki she asks, “What is left of you to love?” before diving overboard and out of Hannibal’s life forever. What follows in a denouement that is such a waste of paper, I won’t bother you with it.
So that happened. I suppose if asked there is a 3 act structure in there, with Muppet Baby Hannibal being Act 1, France being Act 2 and the lead up to the boat being Act 3, but that is really being nice. You see, the ends of acts usually have events that propel the story forward in some way. For example, in Red Dragon the end of Act 1 is when Hannibal tells the Tooth Fairy the address of Will Graham’s family. That specific thing changes the stakes in the story and propels the protagonist towards the conclusion. The end of Act 2 raises the stakes further by cooking up Freddy Lounds like fajitas and pushing him down a hill. In other words, if the basic structure is: put character in tree, throw stones at character, get character down from tree, then the end of Act 1 should be the first really big stone, and the end of Act 2 should be a stone good enough to maybe cause some critical damage.
In either case, it would seem that in the rundown I skipped all of the important character pieces, and I can guarantee that I didn’t. That butcher that Hannibal kills for insulting Lady Murasaki is just the first guy to have his face eaten. There is nothing in the book that lets the reader know that Hannibal is even capable of this. The closest that we get is a couple of fistfights that Hannibal engages in, and I can tell you as somebody that went to public school – participating in fisticuffs is not some kind of gateway activity that leads to face eating. The way that this is plotted, with the “reveal” of Hannibal’s Mischa Stewpot happening at the end, just means that there is no development for the character of Hannibal. It’s as if he comes out fully formed and sees everybody on the planet as a serving of McNuggets just waiting to happen. If I put on my Editor hat, if that “reveal” was just something that Hannibal knew, then he could come to terms with it, instead of going full retard at the end and squealing “M is for Mischa!” like he’s a special needs Sesame Street character. In other words, there might be a book that explores dark impulses wrought via the spicy mechanism of childhood trauma, but this is not that story.
After looking at this prose, I’m trying to figure out what Thomas Harris was doing. Almost like one of the many killers he has written about, he’s kidnapped and murdered something. In this case the unfortunate victim is the English language. Hannibal Rising is what we get after he’s taken the desecrated corpse of our great lingua franca and twisted it into some abominable new form with its asshole where its mouth ought to be. This has the effect of making every word the characters say be actual, literal, crap. The resulting prose is so purple it’s as if the words themselves were bruised, and after reading some of these passages, I feel just as brutalized as the verbiage.
Let’s grab a muck rake and dig in. We’ll start with a wonderful example of something that a freshman year college professor would violently attack with a red marker:
This line is straight hackey sack, and the start looks like a Slug Line. I’m all for using words in the most economical way possible, but “MIDNIGHT, LADY MURASAKI” makes me feel like I’m reading a script. But it’s the rest of it that makes me cranky. The reason is that every line in a novel should do one of a couple of things. It should either create character, advance the plot, or create setting. The setting these lines create is immediately thrown out since the action moves elsewhere and it sure isn’t doing the other things. Instead this makes me want to take a nap on railroad tracks. If this was just a one off, sure, but that’s not the case. The entirety of Hannibal Rising is full of stuff just like this. There are either details for their own sake or a gauche attempt at creating texture though language to an extent that is downright masturbatory. Actually, scratch that. If it was masturbatory at least 1 person would be enjoying themselves, and the prose in Hannibal Rising doesn’t make anyone feel good.
Which isn’t to say that you can’t use language to create texture. Consider for example the works of HP Lovecraft, and this passage from Shadow Over Innsmouth:
“I was willing enough to stay mute while the affair was fresh and uncertain; but now that it is an old story, with public interest and curiosity gone, I have an odd craving to whisper about those few frightful hours in that ill-rumoured and evilly shadowed seaport of death and blasphemous abnormality. The mere telling helps me to restore confidence in my own faculties; to reassure myself that I was not simply the first to succumb to a contagious nightmare hallucination.”
Note the way that Lovecraft is able to combine the sounds of the words. Say the first line out loud, and hear how the words “blasphemous abnormality” get such great mileage out of the near-alliteration of the Bs. That passage drips with nuance and texture. There’s almost no place (other than maybe Perdido Street Station) this could fit into. At the same time the words are able to evoke a feeling that the author is going for. Let’s compare that with another passage from Hannibal Rising, half to illustrate the point but mostly so I don’t suffer alone.
“…intestines spilling in his hands, getting away from him. Hannibal stepping to the side and turning with the blow slashed Paul across the kidneys…
Swinging the sword to make Xs in Paul, now, Paul’s eyes wide in shock, the butcher trying to run, caught across the clavicle, and arterial hiss that splatters Hannibal’s face. The next two blows sliced…”
For those of you playing along at home, that is what we call a tense change. That “Swinging” sentence is in the present tense while everything else is in past tense, and in case you’re curious this shit doesn’t happen in the rest of the book. It’s an error, and a flailing attempt to make the reader feel like they are in the moment. At best you can do this sort of thing if you are William Faulkner, but that’s like saying that back-flips are easy if you are Peter Parker. You can try it, but you might end up in a chair with wheels on it. Maybe instead just do another draft and make the prose good enough to actually draw the reader in, and leave literary parlor tricks in the fiction you don’t publish in English speaking countries.
Finally, let’s talk about what we all came here for – quality discussion about Darth Vader. Basically, Hannibal Rising is to Doctor Lecter what The Phantom Menace is to Lord Vader. Both character’s power comes from their ability to be terrifying and alien. In A New Hope, Vader is rendered as a stupendous bad ass and a full write up of why his terrifying scary level is over 9000 is here. Later stories play on that initial monster version of his nature. So when Luke thinks that there is still good in him, as the audience we have only ever seen Vader be the dude that chokes other dudes. This creates fantastic tension because while Luke feels a certain way, as the audience we’re pretty sure Skywalker is an idiot and Vader is going choke that dude.
So when you get back to Phantom Menace, by making the nascent Lord of the Sith a precocious, bedwetting, 8 year old any and all of that perceived threat just evaporates. No, instead we find out, Darth Vader is really a good guy that’s made some poor choices for noble reasons. It also makes Luke Skywalker right about the true nature of his father, and anytime that happens somebody, somewhere, has done fucked up.
Which gets us back to Hannibal Lecter. In Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs he is terrifying. Even though he is locked up behind plastic glass we always have the impression that he is fully in control. Again, it’s that antagonistic nature that he holds that makes him so very good. Like in Star Wars (before TPM) as the audience we feel like we can trust Hannibal as much as a thumb-tacked condom and that narrative tension is palpable. It creates a situation where every encounter with him seems like it could end in bloodshed, illumination, or teenage pregnancy.
But really, Nazis? In an effort to find something bad enough to make Hannibal a murderer we needed to invoke the literary equivalent of Godwin’s Law? After all, by bringing up Nazis you basically lose any argument outright, or in this case the ability for the reader to remember how to turn pages and read words. Because of course Nazis and Nazi sympathizers are evil and everything they touch turns into Hannibal Fucking Lecter. Trying to paint with so large a brush implies that half of postwar Europe should be sociopathic murder franchises, you know, like Arby’s.
But you know, it’s not like the plot allows for any character development to happen anyway. Hannibal jumps right from happy go lucky smart kid to mute psychopath in 15 pages with nothing in between. Like it manages to simultaneously take away the thing that made Hannibal threatening or interesting while also not creating a backstory that anybody cares about. It’s the worst of both worlds. But at least we can be secure in the knowledge that the writing is so pedestrian that it always has the right of way. With Hannibal Rising, Thomas Harris was able to do what Mason Verger could only dream of – turn Hannibal Lecter into a sniveling child and feed him to the fucking pigs.
And that, is the Takedown.
Once again I ask, if I missed anything or you believe I’m some kind of apostate, grab your pitchforks, torches and whatever other sex toys you enjoy and let me know all about it in the comments. Or, if you feel I am unfairly accosted on all sides, feel free to serve up my attackers with a nice chianti. Fava beans are, of course, optional.
Until next time.