This isn't the first time I'd read Red Dragon.
I got it in my head at age 19 to get a big-ass dragon tattooed on my back. It was my first tattoo and it promised to be a doozy, so I took my entire rent check and wandered down to Telegraph avenue in Berkeley, CA. I walked in, paid my money, and sat in the chair.
Getting poked for seven hours isn't exactly a lot of fun but somehow I endured. In between the controlled karate breathing and occasional reminders to myself to uncleeeeench, I finished the book. The story of a man who believes himself to be ugly and reinvents himself as a dark, majestic god deeply resonated with me then and it still does now.
As a wanna-be writer, re-reading Red Dragon deeply intimidated me.
Sooner or later, all modern psycho stories become police procedurals. You have to have some reasonable grasp on how law enforcement works. I'm a research monkey in general, but if a serial killer was operating on the scale and violence of Francis Dolarhyde, then a writer would have to account for the massive amounts of resources and expertise that would be turned toward his capture. Harris has a background in crime reporting and, like The Wire's David Simon, he uses that insider knowledge to enrich his story. When I think about replicating it, I imagine having to know the structures and methodologies of federal agencies, the science of forensic pathology, and all the other details that make these sorts of stories work.
Granted, audiences are pretty forgiving. Cop shows on TV aren't particularly accurate, but people eat them up. But the smallest screw-up kills all that built up suspension of disbelief and I care about the small details. A good, effective, authentic police procedural is like a finely made watch and I don't know if I am a good enough watchmaker.
I'm going to get this out the way because I cover a lot of this ground in my Silence of the Lambs podcast, but I am kinda over Hannibal Lecter.
First, he's not really an authentic psychopath. He's too clever, too controlled, he lives in a creepy dungeon, and his abilities verge on the paranormal. He's basically a modern-day Dracula.
I like Dracula and Hannibal Lecter is one of the best monsters that has been created in the last 30 years, but I'm more interested in the psychological nuances of the other villains in Harris' work, both Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs and the Dolarhyde from Red Dragon.
Plus, frankly, for all the bluster about how clever Hannibal Lecter is, he always seems to be undone by his own arrogance. In their first encounter, he screws with Will Graham but immediately capitulates when Graham prepares to leave. He receives a letter from Dolarhyde and, rather than destroy the whole thing, he keeps the part that strokes his ego. Lecter is terrifying, but he's got a pretty significant achilles heel. It's the kind of thing comic book villains get tripped up on all the time.
Please don't tell him I said that.
On to Dolarhyde.
I sort of live by the philosophy of "fake it until you make it." If it were up to me, I'd spend my free time in blissful bookish solitude. But having friends and building a life and being popular has taught me savoir-faire and social adaptability. Those who know me (and I'm assuming most of the people who read this know me personally) can attest to my massive personal charisma, but it was a learned skill, not something that came naturally.
I cannot tell you how many times I've stared at my own reflection in the mirrors of nightclubs and douchey bars, looking at the fear in my eyes, and telling myself to put my game face on. The shortcut I used to developing a social persona was to copy the behavior of brighter, more charismatic people.
In other words, I created an avatar of the person I wanted to be. It's a much more minor version of what Dolarhyde did. I suspect every bullied, tormented, and angry kid does the same thing. When I was little, Jason Voorhees was my anger avatar. Dolarhyde's avatar is the Dragon. I sympathized with him, and it disturbed me.
Plus....sigh...let's just say I can empathize with Dolarhyde's body image issue. More than I'd like to admit.
If Dolarhyde simply remained a well-designed maniac then Thomas Harris would already be ahead of the game. But the thing that makes Red Dragon special for me is that he starts redeeming himself from his own madness.
Okay, Reba McClane is a little bit too perfect for the circumstances. She's blind, so Dolarhyde's body image issues aren't a problem. She was a trained speech expert so she knows exactly what to say to alleviate his fears. And, of course, she's sexually confident enough to break through his barriers. Suddenly he's fighting his psychosis and trying to make deals with the Dragon. It made him a deeply tragic figure and one of my favorite psychos. Most psychopaths in horror fiction aren't really crazy but are instead cookie-cutter pulp fiction cackling evil. They do terrible things because it's fun. Dolarhyde's actions come from human weakness and insanity. I don't know if I buy that Dolarhyde would backslide so far as to attack Graham in his home, though. He was too confused and conflicted by Reba to suddenly turn into a third act monster movie villain.
Still, Dolarhyde has the one thing that most fictional psychos lack: authenticity.
It probably is clear now that I really enjoyed this book, probably more now than when I first read it. Harris is a helluva writer and I enjoy it more now than I did when I first read it.
My final thought is something Hannibal says to Will Graham. Graham's big secret superpower is his uncanny ability to empathize with a killer's point of view and anticipate their behavior. Maybe it's the fact that I've always had a big imagination and it mostly turned to darker places, but the line "Fear is the price we pay for imagination" stuck with me. It's true, or at least it's true for my imagination. The upside? Fireworks behind my eyes. The downside? Lots and lots of sleepless nights with monsters under the bed.
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