Friday, September 30, 2016

Book Review: 'Hannibal' by Thomas Harris (1999)

Forget the lackluster 2001 movie - this is Hannibal the way you were supposed to experience it. 

By: Jimbo X

When it comes to celebrating  the cinematic form, very, VERY rarely do hardcore horror fans and "mainstream" moviegoers intersect. By and large, the stuff “normal” film watchers and critics like fall under the umbrella of “suspense” or “thrillers” – i.e., the kinds of movies that are too classy to load up on the buckets of fake guts and gore, while the stuff the hardcore are into are super obscure, super-artsy (sometimes, to the point of being transgressive abstractionism) and filled with so much excess sex and violence that most countries won’t even let you import them on DVD. Jonathan Demme’s 1991 Best Picture winner Silence of the Lambs, however, is one of the very, very few movies embraced by both “normal” folks and the wackos who spend all night torrenting weird-o Japanese fetish movies about people painting pictures of daisies using mermaid pus. Sure, a lot of snobs and other varieties of hoity-toity people try to say the flick ain’t your run of the mill splatter movie, but let's face it, Silence of the Lambs, categorically, is hardly any different from stuff like Silent Night, Deadly Night and Last House on Dead End Street. Granted, the acting is way better, but the star attraction is still downright gross and discomfiting, genre-standard shock and schlock. You can say the thing you remember most is Anthony Hopkins' performance, but we all know the first thing that comes to mind whenever you hear the title brought up is Jodie Foster having spunk thrown on her and a naked transvestite dancing around his bedroom with his wing-wong tucked up his bunghole. Yeah, some real “high art,” all right

In hindsight, it really shouldn’t be shocking at all that 2001’s follow-up Hannibal failed to recapture the magic of its predecessor. I mean, sure, the movie did have its fair share of gross-out moments, but it didn’t have that same degenerate cinema mentality. The problem there is that Ridley Scott and pals were TRYING to make a movie that appealed to the Oscar voters, instead of just making a great pukeola creepfest like the first time around. It was just too subdued and regal a motion picture, especially considering how over-the-top its source inspiration was. Now, I’ve never read Tom Harris' earlier Hannibal Lecter novels, so I can’t give you any insight into how the dude’s writing style and take on the central character has developed over the years. But what I can tell you, however, is that Hannibal, the novel, is way, way more messed up than Hannibal, the movie. Had the filmmakers stuck more closely to the book,  the final cinematic product undoubtedly would’ve turned out a million times better.

Never got around to reading Tom Harris' original literary sojourn, or just too damned lazy to flip through the 400 page tome yourself? Well, old Jimbo here has done you a kindness and drawn up a special Cliff's Notes version of the 1999 novel, which really, is the absolute perfect kind of Grand Guignol nonsense to churn your way through in the lead-up to Halloween. Strap on your reading glasses, folks - it's time to revisit one of the classics of mainstream, modern horror nonfiction. 

The novel begins with Clarice Starling and her FBI pals sitting in a van with a 150 pound block of dry ice. They storm a fish market during a meth raid and Clarice winds up gunning down an African-American woman while she was holding her infant (all the while, "La Macarena" plays in the background.) Oh, and the woman (no innocent bystander, mind you, but the HBIC of the meth running operation) is known to have AIDS, so Clarice has to be extra careful spraying down her infant with a hose. Making matters worse, a couple of Crips got ran over during the raid, and at least one other FBI agent got killed. 

So Clairce heads back to her duplex in Maryland where she is splitting rent with Ardelia Mapp (a.k.a., that fine Rae Dawn Chong looking cadet from Silence of the Lambs) and she cries on top of her washing machine while reading tabloids about the botched raid. After that we get the Dummy's Guide to Silence of the Lambs for those of you who missed out on it and we learn that the FBI is really, really enthusiastic about shitcanning Starling for the shootout. She rues her agrarian roots thusly: 
"What do you have when you come from a poor-white background? And from a place where Reconstruction didn't end until the 1950s. If you came from people often referred to on campuses as crackers and rednecks or, condescendingly, as blue-collar or poor-white Appalachians. If even the uncertain gentility of the South, who accord physical work no dignity at all, refer to your people as peckerwoods - in what tradition do you find an example? That we whaled the piss out of them that first time at Bull Run? That Great-granddaddy did right at Vicksburg, that a corner of Shiloh is forever Yazoo City? There is much honor and more sense in having succeeded with what was left, making something with the damned forty acres and a muddy mule, but you have to be able to see that. No one will tell you."
Almost on cue, she then receives a letter from our good pal Hannibal, who mocks her for her recent fuck-uppery and says something about  cryptically meeting her "between silver and iron." 

Now we meet Mason Verger, this really rich dude whose daddy was a pork kingpin back in the day. He's also paralyzed, on a respirator and hideously disfigured from .... something. The author describes in excruciating detail how he can't make plosives sounds and a mechanical apparatus has to moisturize his eyeballs because he doesn't have any eyelid left. Also, he is really, really fixated on a pet eel, for some reason. 

Clarice has a meeting with the FBI and she talks with Jack Crawford, who is a smug piece of shit who has it in for her. They talk about Hannibal rumors on the Internet and the recent execution of Fou-Tchou-Li - you know, that whole "death by a thousand cuts" metaphor. Starling then meets with Verger, who explains his meat packing fortune background. His mansion, for some reason, has a bunch of welfare kids playing in a daycare center. Starling takes one look at his sister, Margot, and automatically assumes she is on steroids. As it turns out, Verger got off light on some child molestation charges back in his youth, and instead of a lengthy jail sentence, all he got was community service and court ordered treatment - with Hannibal. Let's let Mason himself explain just how well his therapy went, why don't we? 
"So I pulled down the noose in front of my big mirror and put it on and had the release in my hand, and I was beating off with the other hand watching for his reaction, but I couldn't tell anything. Usually I can read people. He was sitting in a chair over in the corner of the room. His legs were crossed and he had his fingers locked over his knee. Then he stood up and reached in his jacket pocket, all elegant, like James Mason reaching for his lighter, and he said, `Would you like an amyl popper?' I thought, Wow! He gives me one now and he's got to give them to me forever to keep his license. Prescription city.Well, if you read the report, you know it was a lot more than amyl nitrite ... I mean whoa! He went over to the mirror I looked at myself in, and kicked the bottom of it and took out a shard. I was flying. He came over and gave me the piece of glass and looked me in the eyes and suggested I might like to peel off my face with it. He let the dogs out. I fed them my face. It took a longtime to get it all off, they say. I don't remember. Dr. Lecter broke my neck with the noose. They got my nose back when they pumped the dogs' stomachs at the animal shelter, but the graft didn't take."
After that, Mason makes himself feel better by ordering a young black child into his darkened living quarters, where he demands the child feed rat poison to his pet cat. After that, Verger's orderly dabs away the kid's tears, and puts the salty remnants inside Verger's chilled martini glass. Yep, this sumbitch is so evil he literally drinks the tears of children.

Starling decides this is the most opportune time to pursue a lead she got on some x-rays, so she decides to visit the old abandoned mental institution in Baltimore. She decides to sneak into the dilapidated building, where she runs into a deranged (but fairly harmless) homeless man and learns that Barney, a former security guard, stole all of Hannibal's records before the facility shut down. Oh, and this was never really expressed in the movies, but apparently, Hannibal himself has six fingers on one of his hand. And hey, you know Miggs, the dude who threw his own spunk on Clarice in Silence of the Lambs? Well, we learn that Hannibal didn't take to kindly to that kind of tomfoolery, so he killed him afterwards. 

Next, we get some exposition on Mason's plan to kidnap Hannibal and kill him with a platoon of wild hogs he's been breeding over the last 20 years. If you thought the main character in American Psycho was autistic, just wait until you hear how detail-oriented this motherfucker is about pig teats. 

As it turns out, Hannibal has been living in Florence since the end of SOTL, using the alias Dr. Feel (not to be confused with Dr. Feelgood, naturally.) He's being pursued by some guy named Pazzi, a disgraced investigator whose claim to fame is catching some dude who spree killed a whole bunch of Italian couples. He's been offered a cool million by Mason to capture Hannibal, but he'll get a smaller amount if he can just obtain his fingerprints. So he hires a gypsy to go grab him so he'll get his thumbs all over a bracelet, but she freaks out when she sees Hannibal and calls him "the devil." Pazzi then hies a pickpocket, but LOLOOPS, he has his femoral artery sliced open by Hannibal during an attempted wallet-thieving. 

So Pazzi hires these goons to help him capture Hannibal. They do a practice run for Hannibal's execution by stuffing a business suit with chicken guts and boiled eggs and record the feral pigs tearing it to shreds. 

Following a scene in which Hannibal draws a picture of Starling's face on a griffin (apparently, he's part Napoleon Dynamite, it appears), he apprehends Pazzi, guts him, hangs him and defenestrates him with, of all things, a floor buffer. Oh, and one of the hired goons gets killed too, while Hannibal drones on and on about Dante's Inferno imagery and shit. The author lets us know a vacationing Swiss family recorded the entire thing and they sell the rights to the video to some National Enquirer like shit rag, and Starling wonders what kind of car Hannibal is driving these days (she correctly assumes it is a Jaguar.)

Up next, Hannibal trolls Mason with a letter, which is definitely worth printing in full:
"Dear Mason,   
Thank you for posting such a huge bounty on me. I wish you would increase it. As an early-warning system, the bounty is better than radar. It inclines authorities everywhere to forsake their duty and scramble after me privately, with the results you see. 
Actually, I'm writing to refresh your memory on the subject of your former nose. In your inspirational antidrug interview the other day in the Ladies' Home journal you claim that you fed your nose, along with the rest of your face, to the pooches, Skippy and Spot, all waggy at your feet. Not so: You ate it yourself, for refreshment. From the crunchy sound when you chewed it up, I would say it had a consistency similar to that of a chicken gizzard - "Tastes just like chicken!" was your comment at the time. I was reminded of the sound in a bistro when a French person tucks into a gesier salad. 
You don't remember that, Mason? Speaking of chicken, you told me in therapy that, while you were subverting the underprivileged children at your summer camp, you learned that chocolate irritates your urethra. You don't remember that either, do you? Don't you think it likely you told me all sorts of things you don't remember now? There is an inescapable parallel between you and Jezebel, Mason. Keen Bible student that you are, you will recall the dogs ate Jezebel's face, along with the rest of her, after the eunuchs threw her out the window. 
Your people might have assassinated me in the street. But you wanted me alive, didn't you? From the aroma of your henchmen, it's obvious how you planned to entertain me. Mason, Mason. Since you want to see me so badly, let me give you some words of comfort, and you know I never lie. 
Before you die you will see my face. 
Sincerely, Hannibal Lecter, MD  
P.S. I worry, though, that you won't live that long, Mason. You must avoid the new strains of pneumonia. You're very susceptible, prone as you are (and will remain). I would recommend vaccination immediately, along with immunization shots for hepatitis A and B. Don't want to lose you prematurely."
Up next, Mason talks with the U.S. Inspector General about the Humane Slaughter Act. The general says he prefers Hannibal be apprehended on the state level, while Margot symbolically crushes walnuts in the background.

Margot tells Mason she wants his sperm so she and her lesbian partner can have a baby. She can't have one of her own because her ovaries are shot from hormones and anabolic steroids. You see, their deceased daddy's lawyers won't give either of them any money unless they produce a biological heir, and Margot's gal pal getting knocked up is the only thing standing between them and their fortune going to Baylor University or the Southern Baptist Convention. Oh, and Mason apparently did a lot of sister raping in his youth. You ... probably don't want to know the details. 

...but here they are anyway, you sickos. 

Next scene, Hannibal is on an airplane, in Canada, en route to Detroit - wearing a Toronto Maple Leafs shirt with a ton of cash taped to his body. He feeds figs - or, at least that's what he says are figs - to this annoying kid beside him and has a nightmare about his sister being kidnapped by Eastern front fighters in 1944 (yeah, more on this in just a bit.) Hannibal wakes up screaming and calms himself down by fantasizing about his dream study, complete with frescoes of Starling, J. Edgar Hoover and Jesus in a '27 Model T. No, I'm not making any of that up.

After Starling recreates the botched raid at Hogan's Alley (apparently, it's not just a NES game), she meets with Deputy Assistant General Paul Krendler, who says he thinks Hannibal is gay and calls her a "corn pone cunt." Afterwards, Krendler, Mason, Margot and the psych department chair at Baylor discuss Hannibal's past and his connections with Starling. The Baylor rep says they are both orphans and raises questions about Starling being a lesbian. He ultimately diagnoses Hannibal with "avuncular disorder," that being, a desire to manipulate younger prey by posing as a mentor. Mason changes the discussion by bringing up the time he visited Idi Amin and discussing the proper way to crucify people. 

By now, Hannibal has made his way stateside and is stalking Clarice. He breaks into her car and breathes in her scent and has flashbacks about his younger sister Mischa (I promise, we'll get back to this one in just a moment.) 

So Barney works for Mason now. He explains his credentials and recounts Hannibal killing Miggs. Meanwhile, Hannibal decides to go buy a crossbow and some arrows at a gun show. He then tests his new equipment by going out into the woods, killing a hunter and flaying him beside a deer. 

You know that disadvantaged black youth from earlier? Well, apparently, he went home and ate rat poison and is now hospitalized. 

Barney comes on to Margot in the shower, they fight, and apologize to each other. Margot then asks Barney if he will kill Mason for her. 

Hannibal goes to Texas and pays to have a coffin exhumed. But whose corpse is it? 

Starling is officially shitcanned by the FBI for engaging in correspondence with Hannibal. During her hearing, Krendler fantasizes about saying all sorts of nasty things to her. 

Hannibal rents a room and watches the Errol Morris documentary A Brief History of Time and thinks about entropy for a bit. The scene when a teacup shatters into a million billion pieces - never to re-assemble itself - makes him yearn for his deceased sister. You see, growing up in Lithuania, Hannibal's younger sister was kidnapped by a ragtag group of Nazis led by a particularly nasty S.S. commander, who axed her to death and then ate her remains right in front of Hannibal. So, yeah, that's pretty much the origin point of his psychosis, canonically. 

In diegetic time, Hannibal goes to a hospital, knocks out a doctor, leaves him on a toilet, steals a ton of drugs and hijacks a truck. He stalks Starling at a grocery store, and that's when Mason's Italian goons hit him with a tranquilizer to the neck. They pull him into a van and whisk him away to Mason's place out in the sticks. 

Mason tells Hannibal he's going to start by making the pigs eat his feet. One of the goons busts Hannibal's eyes with a stun gun. Hannibal talks with Margot (she was one of his patients as a kid and knows all about the evil shit Mason did to her) and he tries to goad her into killing her brother. Hannibal suggests using the stun gun to stimulate his prostate and scoop up his precious, precious sperm before he dies, though. 

One of the goons tries to drug Hannibal so he bites off his eyebrow. The goon responds by poking Hannibal's nipple with a red hot poker. Hannibal is hoisted over the pigs with a forklift, but here comes Clarice to make the save. A shootout ensues and Hannibal is freed. He carries Clarice out of the mansion - the pigs, apparently afraid of him out of pure instinct, refuse to pursue him. And now? We come to Mason's supremely over the top demise. There's no point in diluting Harris' own verbiage, so I'll just copy and paste it straight from the source: 
"She bent over the aquarium with her great arms down in the water. She held the carp by the tail down close to the grotto and when the eel came out she grabbed it behind the head with her powerful hand and lifted it clear out of the water, over her head. The mighty eel thrashing, as long as Margot and thick, its festive skin flashing. She gripped the eel with the other hand too and when it flexed it was all she could, do to hold on with the spiky gloves embedded in its hide.
Careful down off the chair and she came to Mason carrying the flexing eel, its head shaped like a bolt cutter, teeth clicking together with a sound like a telegraph key, the back-curved teeth no fish ever escaped. She flopped the eel on top of his chest, on the respirator and holding it with one hand, she lashed his pigtail around and around and around it. 
"Wiggle, wiggle, Mason," she said.
She held the eel behind the head with one hand and with the other she forced down Mason's jaw, forced it down, putting her weight on his chin, him straining with what strength he had, and with a creaking, cracking sound his mouth opened.
"You should have taken the chocolate," Margot said, and stuffed the eel's maw into Mason's mouth, it seizing his tongue with its razor-sharp teeth as it would a fish and not letting go, never letting go, its body thrashing tangled in Mason's pigtail. Blood blew out Mason's nose hole and he was drowning. Margot left them together, Mason and the eel, the carp circling alone in the aquarium. She composed herself at Cordell's desk and watched the monitors until Mason flat-lined. 
The eel was still moving when she went back into Mason's room. The respirator went up and down, inflating the eel's air bladder as it pumped bloody froth out of Mason's lungs. Margot rinsed the cattle prod in the aquarium and put it in her pocket."
Oh, by the way, Mason had a condom sacked over his paraplegic dong before the eel-assisted fratricide. And yes, in case you were wondering, the excitement of having the creature tear his esophagus to shreds did indeed make him come

Hannibal takes Clarice back to his rented place and pumps her full of the stolen drugs. Then, he decides to perform some hypnotherapy on her. He pretends to be her deceased father and then takes her into the bedroom, where the exhumed remains of her actual father are splayed out on the mattress. He then tells Clarice he knew Krendel bugged her car, and that gave away his location to Mason.

We jump ahead a couple of days. Mapp interrogates Barney at gunpoint for info on Clarice's whereabouts, and he's got nothing. Then, he gives Margot Hannibal's old mask, so they can plant DNA on the crime scene. For his efforts, he gets a quick, tongue-less smooch from Margot.

Meanwhile, Hannibal is still drugging Clarice. He wheels out Krendel, cuts opens his skull, carves out a chunk of his brain, fries it, and makes him eat it (basically,it's  the exact same scene from the movie, except Hannibal is considerate enough to kill him with an arrow after all the tomfoolery.)  

Denouement time, and it's way different from the cinematic treatment. Get ready shippers - Harris is about to give you the sick shit you've long been clamoring for: 
"When she replaced her glass on the table beside her, she pushed off her coffee cup and it shattered on the hearth. She did not look down at it. Dr. Lecter watched the shards, and they were still. 
"I don't think you have to make up your mind right this minute," Starling said. Her eyes and the cabochons shone in the firelight. A sigh from the fire, the warmth of the fire through her gown, and there came to Starling a passing memory - Dr. Lecter, so long ago, asking Senator Martin if she breast fed her daughter. A jeweled movement turning in Starling's unnatural calm: For an instant many windows in her mind aligned and she saw far across her own experience. She said, "Hannibal Lecter, did your mother feed you at her breast?"
"Did you ever feel that you had to relinquish the breast to Mischa? Did you ever feel you were required to give it up for her?"  
A beat. "I don't recall that, Clarice. If I gave it up, I did it gladly." 
Clarice Starling reached her cupped hand into the deep neckline of her gown and freed her breast, quickly peaky in the open air. "You don't have to give up this one," she said. Looking always into his eyes, with her trigger finger she took warm Chateau d'Yquem from her mouth and a thick sweet drop suspended from her nipple like a golden cabochon and trembled with her breathing. He came swiftly- from his chair to her, went on a knee before her chair, and bent to her coral and cream in the firelight his dark sleek head."
And three years later, Barney and his new gal pal (not Margot, he apparently failed in his quest to turn her straight) sees Starling and Hannibal at a Buenos Aires opera house. Apparently, Clarice and Hannibal have been an item for quite some time now. He's still acting as her "therapist," so to speak, but he no longer drugs her up before sessions. Instead, he's taught her how to enter her own "special place" in her head like he does. We learn that Jack Crawford died and Mapp sends Clarice a ring. The book ends proper with Hannibal making an allusion to that scene in A Brief History of Time, stating that he now has no qualms watching the teacup shatter anymore. 

Well, told you it was different from the movie, didn't I? Obviously, there are a lot of major omissions from the novel in the 2001 film adaptation, including the deletion of several characters (most notably Margot), the total elimination of the background on Hannibal being hunted down by Nazis in his youth, and of course a lot of stuff excised concerning just how fucking horrific of a human being Mason is. Oh, and the finales are way different - in the movie, Hannibal has to hack off his own hand to evade authorities and the flick concludes with him feeding mysterious stuff to some Asian kid on a flight. Needless to say, the book kicks the shit out of the movie, in every conceivable way.

Now, I've never read any of Harris' other Hannibal books, nor have I seen Hannibal Rising or watched a single episode of the TV show. From what I've collected from my Internet skimmings, however, that media apparently does a pretty solid job filling in the gaps the 2001 movie left out, so if you just have to know everything there is about the Dr. Lecter canon, you've got plenty of stuff out there to chew through. 

Personally, I don't really consider it a proper Halloween without gutting my way through at least one high-caliber horror novel (which is really out the normal for me, seeing as how I usually disregard all forms of fiction that aren't hilariously overbearing propaganda.) I really can't say I was totally enthralled by Hannibal from start to finish (indeed, there are periodic 20-page gulfs you'll feel like skimming through to get to the next kill), but overall, it is a fairly enjoyable little read that offers way more sex, violence and nightmare fodder than the ill-fated '01 film adaptation.

This stuff is just tailor-made for reading at 3 in the morning, bundled up in a blanket as the chilly autumnal wind creeps its way through your bedroom, or perusing next to a rainy windowsill on a Saturday morning while sipping on warm, store-brand pumpkin spice coffee. It's trashy literature, yes, but it's the good kind of literary trash - the kind that you can wrap yourself up in for an entire month, digest like an whole package of Little Debbie's Bat Brownies and immediately shuck away as soon as November rears its turkey and stuffing-scented head. 

Or in other words? Yeah, it's pretty much the ideal kind of instantly disposable, instantly gratifying, decadent pulp fiction for Halloween readin'.


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