The Strange World of Thomas Harris

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The Strange World of Thomas Harris by David Sexton (London: Short Books, 2001), ISBN 0-571-20845-2,157 pp., $9.07.

I believe it is fair to say that Thomas Harris is to contemporary Gothic fiction what Bram Stoker was to Gothic fiction in the nineteenth century. Both men are famous chiefly for authoring one extremely successful and enduring novel - for Stoker it is Dracula (1897); for Harris it is The Silence of the Lambs (1988). True, The Silence of the Lambs has not been around as long as Dracula, but if critical praise of Harris's third and most successful novel is any indication, The Silence of the Lambs will endure the test of time; it will, like Dracula, one day be considered a masterpiece of Gothic fiction. Indeed, at least one critic, David Sexton - literary editor of The London Evening Standard -has already placed Harris among some of the great Gothic and mystery writers: 'Thomas Harris easily stands comparison with the great melodramatists of the past: Bram Stoker, Conan Doyle, Wilkie Collins or Edgar Allan Poe, say, perhaps even Robert Louis Stevenson. He will last as they have lasted' (153). Another British reviewer also lauded Harris when Silence was published in the United Kingdom in 1989, writing that Harris is 'the finest living exponent in English' of 'Gothic fiction' (Sexton, 154).

Sexton's primary goal in this book is to analyze Harris's 'monsters' (Sexton's term) and show how they become, with each succeeding novel, both scarier and more human. Indeed, Sexton claims - and I agree with him here - that Harris's monsters become scarier because they become less one-dimensional, more complex - in short, more human. Sexton discusses all four of Harris's novels in the order in which they were published, beginning with the earliest - Black Sunday (1975), Red Dragon (1981), The Silence of the Lambs (1988) and Hannibal (1999).

'There's a lot of Thomas Harris in Black Sunday', writes Sexton, 'but not all his talent. It's an efficient thriller, not much more' (47). International terrorism is the book's subject. Black September, a Palestinian terrorist group who plans a massive attack on the United States, enlists the help of the deranged Michael Lander, an American Vietnam veteran, and now a Goodyear blimp pilot and a madman who also wants to kill as many Americans as possible. The plot is simple: Lander 'has dreamed up a form of gigantic claymore mine to be suspended beneath the blimp, . . . and studded with thousands of lethal darts, to kill all the spectators at the New Orleans Super Bowl at once, including, he hopes, his former wife and the American President' (48). The only problem Black September has to worry about is being found and killed by the Israeli secret services. Sexton, quite rightly, points out that Black Sunday serves primarily as an experimental novel for Harris: 'Harris appears to have used the book to learn how to make a thriller work. ... But the book's basic premise Israelis good, Palestinians, in fact Arabs, bad - is none too subtle' (49). Even Harris's writing is inferior in this book. As Sexton points out, 'There are... plenty of clunky thrillerwriting-by-numbers sentences here, including the first: 'Night fell as the airport taxi rattled along the six miles of coastal road into Beirut.' But there are, too, some phrases reaching towards the oracular manner of Harris's later books. 'Black September lives within Al Fatah as desire lives in the body" (50). Sexton concludes his discussion of Black Sunday by pointing out other ways this novel is inferior to Harris's later novels:

Black Sunday... lacks the deep contextualising, the depth of secondary characterization and the awareness of universal struggle that makes the later books so unsettling. The later books present a fiercely coherent view of life as we all must endure it. Black Sunday merely presents Arab fanatics hooking up with a raging lunatic. (53)

That Harris's first novel is inferior in every way to his later books is blatant to anyone who has read Harris's canon. …