Is there another contemporary fictional character who exerts a more gruesome fascination than the murderous psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter? He is the defining Hollywood antihero of our times, with his own long and elaborately detailed entry on Wikipedia, and he returns early next month when his reclusive creator, Thomas Harris, publishes his first novel for seven years, and the fourth in the multimillion-selling Lecter series, Hannibal Rising, a prequel to the earlier books that follows Lecter from childhood to the age of 20.
Extraordinary secrecy surrounds the new book, which began as a script Harris wrote for a film that is out on general release in February next year. A worldwide embargo means that no proof copies are being sent out in advance of publication on Dec. 5. Harris, as ever, will be doing no interviews. Everything we need to know about him or his characters is there in the fiction. "You must understand that when you are writing a novel, you are not making anything up. It's all there and you just have to find it," he once said.
The profound mystery of the first two Lecter novels, Red Dragon (1981), in which the doctor appears only as a minor character, and in prison at that, and The Silence of the Lambs (1988), was that no psychological explanation was offered for his extreme cruelty. He was beholden to no one and seemed to have come from nowhere. "Nothing happened to me," he tells Clarice Starling, the investigator whose mission it becomes to trap him. "I happened. You can't reduce me to a set of influences."
But this, it seems, is exactly what Harris is now attempting to do: to reduce Lecter to a set of influences, to show how he became the man he is, without conscience or remorse. Recently, an extract from Hannibal Rising was posted on his official Web site, where you can also hear Harris reading from the book in his well-modulated, Deep South-inflected voice.
In Hannibal (1999), the third novel in the series, Harris had already begun to complicate and deepen Lecter's story and, thus, fleetingly, to explain him. As it turns out, Lecter did in fact come from somewhere after all — from eastern Europe, the son of Lithuanian aristocrats (he is a cousin of the artist Balthus). His childhood was marked by trauma and loss, not least when he witnessed the torture and murder of his only sister, Mischa, by army deserters.
All this was only hinted at, in sepia-tinted flashback, in Hannibal. Now, the full horror of his early suffering is to be revealed in garish Technicolor, as are the secrets of how, as a young boy, Lecter became mute and how his highly refined aesthetic sensibility was nurtured by a Japanese aunt.
What is going on here? Why is Harris, who delighted for so long in withholding so much about his diabolical creation, now prepared to tell all, at the risk, perhaps, of losing much of his readership?
"I'm not sure why he's doing this," says David Sexton, author of the fine critical study, The Strange World of Thomas Harris. "I know he gives a lot of thought to backstory and motive. I know he is interested in the dominant frames in people's lives. I have read the extract on his Web site and, I'm afraid, it's catastrophic. I believe in Harris as a writer and I'm sure there will be good things in the new book, but what we have so far is a disaster. He knows a great deal about crime and America, but when it comes to aristocracy in Ukraine he is, well, less secure."