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I often wonder what fuels the human obsession with the macabre. Is it a suppression of our primal lust for death? Why is it that so many people and authors want to safely experience murder?

Then, once we have gotten this taste for killing -why is it that we need to explore it and see how far we can go?

Is it now okay to bathe in the blood of our pretend victims while eating a Bang-a-rang style feast of their flesh?

Maybe it has always been okay. Maybe we have just evolved into a soft shell wrapped around the harden core of iron and bloodlust that always was.

A few weeks ago I used some dialogue between Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling from Silence of the Lambs to illustrate a bit of something about values from Buffalo Bill (the killer not the Western Legend). This opened up a few old channels in my head and I decided to start where it all began.

Drag01bigEnter Thomas Harris in October 1981 with his novel Red Dragon published by G. P. Putnams, Dell Publishing (USA).

Red Dragon is a precursor to next installment of stories featuring our beloved cannibal therapist Hannibal Lecter. The next novel Silence of the Lambs (1988) was popularized in the 1991 movie adaptation.

Everyone knows that story. But what about the Red Dragon?

The story itself isn’t about Lecter but rather a retired detective (Will Graham) who fell victim to Lecter after discovering his TRUE nature.

Graham is called out of his early retirement at the desperation of his old colleague Jack Crawford to hunt down a new serial killer the task force has given the moniker of “Tooth Fairy.” The “Tooth Fairy” has already murdered two families leaving bite marks on some of the victims (earning him the name) when our tale begins.

The “dragon” is a reference to one of William Blake’s famed biblical water color paintings he was commissioned to do in the early 19th century. Our Red Dragon’s name is  Francis Dolarhyde and Mr. D is particularly keen on “The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun.”

Even with all the horror show Dolarhyde creates in the story Harris does an outstanding job of making him human. Most people never make it past their post murder orgasm afterglow long enough to actually ask the question: What made this human being into a killer? 

Harris dives right into Dolarhyde’s history and motivations for doing what he does. By the end of it I was starting to experience an off shoot bit of Stockholm syndrome for Dolarhyde. Mission accomplished Tom.

The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun

The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun

Lecter however almost feels like a footnote to the actual plot itself but Harris injects him where he is needed to steer the course of “The Dragon” and Graham, into a wonderful unfolding story that even without Lecter would stand on its own.

However you can’t help but feel a little joy inside when Lecter is on the pages. Even when Graham would read a letter from the good Doctor all I could hear was Anthony Hopkin’s voice in my head.

Red Dragon has all the twists, turns, ah-ha moments and carnage you would expect from such a story.

But the TRUE spirit of what Harris has done here and the REAL literary gems are in the simplicity of the mayhem.

One particular part keeps playing over and over in my head as it was just so powerful. Yet, written so simply.

(Spoiler Alert)

“He smiled at Lounds, a brown-stained smile. He placed his hand on Lound’s heart and, leaning to him intimately as though to kiss him, he bit Lound’s lips off and spit them on the floor.”

Do you see?

No wordy jump into Lound’s mind to describe the pain or fear.

Do you see?

No behind the eyes of “The Dragon” heavy description of what it is like to tear living flesh with your teeth.

Do you see?

He bit them off and spit them on the floor. Done.

Do you see?

Harris has dotted the landscape of Red Dragon with plenty of these little, “yea … that’s how you do it” tidbits. If only from a Writer’s perspective Red Dragon is worth a read.

It made me realize a horrible flaw in my own writing in that I am NOT good at knowing when to stop steering. Sometimes the power in what you write doesn’t come from you at all. The power of a great writer is in their ability to electrify the reader’s imagination and not tie them down to a single vision.

Give them something to argue about at the water cooler.

Conclusion: Read the book. Psychopath.

Read the review of the Red Dragon (2002) and Manhunter (1986) Movie Adaptations.

May 19th, 2015

Posted In: Book Reviews

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Into the Red Dragon Novel (Thomas Harris 1981)