Hannibal Lecter Judges Me When I Cook
a Milford Blog essay by Anthony Francis
So, let’s set the stage: I’m a writer, learning to be vegan … and a fan of Thomas Harris’s Hannibal series about an erudite cannibal. Hannibal itself is one of my favorite books: while the world Harris creates is dark and depressing, that world feels compellingly real to me — which leaves me in the unenviable position of having a mental model of Dr. Hannibal Lecter, as played by Sir Anthony Hopkins, leaning over my shoulder and judging me while I’m cooking.
Now, don’t get me wrong – he’s not judging me for my plant-based cooking (I’m not a vegan, but I am married to one, and I’m trying). He’s judging me based on my poor technique, my unrefined tastes, and my willingness to prepare quick meals when I’ve got work to do. But as a writer, I’m fascinated with how Harris created a world so realistic that I’ve built up a mental model of a nonexistent person.
Ever since I started reading Harris, I’ve been struck by how real his worlds seem to be. They’re not real, of course – they’re stuffed chock full of unrealistically terrible people with a salting of unrealistically competent heroes and antiheroes, a stew designed to create the stage for a suspense drama to play out between our heroes, antiheroes, and villains. But these worlds possess verisimilitude – the appearance of reality – because Harris uses well-chosen writing techniques to bring them to life.
First among these is a third-person omniscient perspective, normally close to a single viewpoint character — in Silence of the Lambs, augmented by occasional filter phrases like “Clarice could see that he was small, sleek” to indicate in whose head we’re riding, or tentative attributions like “as though he chose the distance” to indicate characters whose thoughts remain hidden. But Harris is willing to step back to show the full picture to ratchet the tension or to even comment upon it to provide additional color – in one notable scene in Hannibal, several characters speak for a few pages before Harris compares the strange sound of their voices in the room, getting to the meat of the conversation before adding the garnish of description.
Harris also plays with tenses. Most of the book is in past tense, as is typical of much contemporary fiction; but to make characters seem more real, he mixes in present tense, often in chapter beginnings in Silence of the Lambs: “Doctor Lector has six fingers on his left hand.” and “Jack Crawford, fifty-three, reads in a wing chair by a low lamp in the bedroom of his home.” These present-tense intrusions stand out because of their rarity and suggest that the details being presented are about a real person alive today, not historical details presented about someone dead and gone.
But perhaps the most important technique Harris uses to create verisimilitude is the presentation of concrete details about the subject at hand – and I don’t simply mean concrete descriptions, though Harris uses those too; I mean well-researched details about the real-life subjects. Whether it’s sordid details about pig farming to make a villain seem unsympathetic or technical details about criminology to make our heroes seem competent, facts drawn from real life fill Harris’s scenes in an attempt to make us believe that the scenes, too, are drawn from real life. Now, this perhaps works best in the suspense / thriller genre, whose audiences eat this kind of thing up; for escapist science fiction set in wholly unreal worlds, it may be better to pull a “the door dilated” a la Heinlein rather than to bore the reader with details about the design of diaphragm shutters (or, worse, made-up details about nonexistent warp drives, though there are those readers, like me, who will eat such things up too).
But in Hannibal, Harris does something more to make the world seem real: he takes us inside Lecter’s decision-making process. Instead of seeing Lecter from the outside, supervillain in his cell, safely separated by a physical barrier from the protagonist, we go inside his head as the actual protagonist. We see Lecter, confronted by a nosy Karen on an airplane, deciding discretion is the better part of valor and meekly surrendering his wine to the flight attendant. We see Lecter, realizing he’s overdone a table setting, deciding the solution is to “go big or go home” and add way more flowers. We see Lecter, preparing one of his infamous meals, deciding to cook a delicate sauce “following Alexandre Dumas’s inspired example.”
Wait, that Alexandre Dumas?
Yes, that Alexandre Dumas author of The Count of Monte Cristo – a novelist who, allegedly, wrote primarily to support his cooking habit, and who over the years collated his thoughts in a magisterial tome called The Grand Dictionary of Cuisine (published posthumously, and only available in English heavily abridged — I checked). It’s a testament to Harris’s research that he uncovered this bit of culinary trivia in his search for details to make a cultured cannibal more realistic.
But there’s more. My French isn’t good enough to pull a Hannibal and read Dumas’s original, but, shamed by the specter of Lecter judging my cooking — back off, man, I make some pretty mean tabbouleh — I got the abridged English translation, and discovered something far more interesting: Hannibal Lecter is Alexandre Dumas!
Unpacking that a bit, the Dictionary of Cuisine isn’t just a cookbook: in each entry, Alexandre Dumas tells stories about the ingredients, often drawn from his own life – and he tells us about his decision-making process. Like Lecter, Dumas is creative, has high standards, and is insanely skilled at whatever he does — but he also is polite and respectful of the people around him … again, just like Lecter. Yes, yes, Lecter’s a cruel man who eats people, but that’s his depressing function in Harris’s dark landscape of suspense; when he neither wants to eat them or hurt them, Lecter is surprisingly polite and considerate of the people around him, even asking for a chair so Clarice Starling could sit in comfort for their first interview.
Comparing the way Dumas talks about his own thought processes and how Harris describes Lecter’s, it’s easy to imagine that Dumas’s character inspired Hannibal’s, and that Dumas’s writing style inspired Harris’s presentation of Hannibal. I doubt that’s actually true — Lecter was inspired by Harris’s encounter in prison with a real-life surgical killer — but it’s a testament to Harris’s research ability that this small detail was so resonant. And look at the restraint with which he did it: a single reference, a few words confined to a small snippet of a scene. If I came across such a factoid, I’d have to restrain myself mightily from filling in of how Lecter came across Dumas, where he bought his copy of Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine, and in what condition it was. But following Hemingway’s iceberg theory of fiction, Harris leaves the bulk of those details, real and imagined, beneath the surface, leaving only the tip above water, fin of the shark, there to cut the waters silently, leaving only a chill.
There are two morals to this story. First, writers can use many techniques to bring a story to life, and perhaps the most important for verisimilitude is doing the research — but the concrete details we find are best treated like spices and garnish, changing the flavor of the text and occasionally appearing on the surface in a bright flash, never as a substitute for the core ingredients of character, plot and theme.
And second, be nice to the people you meet, or one of them might eat you.
By day, Anthony Francis teaches robots to learn; by night, he writes science fiction and draws comic books. He’s best known for his Skindancer series featuring magical tattoo artist Dakota Frost, including Frost Moon, Blood Rock, and Liquid Fire; he also writes steampunk, including a dozen anthologized short stories set in the world of his novel Jeremiah Willstone and the Clockwork Time Machine. His most recent publication is “Long-Range Indoor Navigation with PRM-RL” in IEEE Transactions on Robotics. You can follow Anthony at his blog http://www.dresan.com/. Anthony lives in San Jose with his wife and cats but his heart will always belong in Atlanta.