Review: Hannibal

Hannibal by Thomas Harris
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is one of those books which I’m sure came with very high expectations, sort of like the second Matrix movie. It winds up being very different from its famous predecessor [b:The Silence of the Lambs|23807|The Silence of the Lambs (Hannibal Lecter, #2)|Thomas Harris||22533], but y’know, that’s not a bad thing. Just unexpected, perhaps to a jarring degree.

This is a horror story, not a thriller. It’s about making choices, manipulation of weaker people, and an exploration of the psyche of a very inhuman killer. It’s slower than Silence, and the procedural part of Harris’s writing takes a bit of a backseat to darker recesses of politics and obsession. In short, I don’t know that there’s a “good guy” in this novel, which I suppose puts it on a level with Game of Thrones/Song of Ice & Fire.

I found myself rooting for Dr Lecter as an anti-hero. If there’s anybody besides Clarice Starling we get involved with, it’s him, and dammit, he’s fascinating in the gory way of a bad train-on-bus crash. By the time I turned the final pages, I didn’t know how I wanted things to end. That’s a good thing, a solid, challenging thing in popular literature, and it forgives some passages of jerky-jerky narration when Harris assumes his readers are as versed in the intricacies of madness as he obviously is. Sometimes it pulled me out of the magic of the story, making me re-read or infer where I should’ve been led via context through the technical schtuff. I guessed at motives behind actions, and I also found some of the dialogue, especially between the supporting cast, to be full of conversations with just a tad too much left unsaid, and so meaning is lost.

Bottom line, 4/5. If you haven’t read or seen Silence, make sure you do before reading this. I was creeped out, I had fun, and I’m ultimately left feeling like Harris reached toward greatness with this one and found his arm was just an inch or two short.

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I’m Writing a Novel (and It’s Scary!)

This is a weird feeling for me.

I started writing like crazy when I was 15 or 16, and from the very first, I was writing a novel.  I was in literary love with Michael Crichton, Stephen King, Timothy Zahn, and an ever-expanding list of novelists.  Short stories (at that time) were for dissection in English classes, and while some were memorable, none of them held that modern pop-fiction zip of the sort which often dominates the bestseller lists.  I craved horror and sci-fi; creepy, bloody, good guys versus bad guys, space combat and lightsabers and werewolves and telekinesis.  These were the stories which drew forth my desire to tell stories.

And because of that, there wasn’t ever a doubt that my first “story” was a book.  A horror novel, in fact.  I never had a moment where I said, Huh! I’ve got a novel here!  It was always that way, always meant to be a big, engrossing, drawn-out story which filled the space between the two covers of a book all by itself.  I thought of myself as a novelist from the first, and I always had a big book at the front of my worklist.  I wrote a few stories, but didn’t really care for them.  Flash fiction (such as Thong Sized Stories) was such a foreign concept it may has well have been written in Sumarian.  I concentrated on novels, novels, novels for about 15 years, actually, before I had a kind of…I dunno, burnout or breakdown.  I’m still trying to figure it out.  It was a desire for new, fresh experiences.  A need to step outside the creative pigeonhole I’d placed myself in with the label novelist, and so for the last year, roughly, I’ve spent most of my time writing shorter things.

I’m proud of the work I’ve done in the shorter forms.  I like the feeling I get from attacking new techniques for my art, studying and applying them.  I like the idea of a constraint to length…sometimes, anyway.  It’s the challenge of the thing, the sense of watching some of my peers, who have attained a great mastery of the short form, engross their audiences with 1000 words rather than 100,000 of them.  I’ve always been passionate and versatile when it came to writing, so why not go for my own mastery of the short form?  And so I did, and I enjoyed myself, and I had plans to go on enjoying the short form for at least another couple months before I started in on a new novel.  It all sounded good.  A slow transition back to an old friend.

Art, however, had its own ideas.  I started off writing the third of my Enchanted Forest stories, tentatively entitled Trollbooth, and almost from the first page I knew something was different about my telling.  It was slower, broader, more rich than I can usually afford to be, even if my short stories tend to go on for a score or two of pages.  New characters I hadn’t even considered until that morning popped up and stuck their noses right into the center of the tale, and before I knew it, I was trying to cope with a more complex story, all the while trying to fit it into the confines of that short form.

I went a little nuts.  Before I knew what was happening, I was force-editing parts of the outline I had in my head, chopping it up into two or three stories, dropping characters out of this one to wait for the next, on and on.  Since I do a fair amount of planning ahead on these Enchanted Forest stories, I found myself trying to hold the shape of the neat but flexible sided box against a torrent of outside forces, all of which were trying to distort it into different rhombuses, or bend on side into two, or three, or even bend multiple sides.  I don’t mind flexibility, but when it happens at this level the shape of the thing in my mind can go from pretty to ugly, or weird, or incomprehensible.  Too much distortion makes the story suck, in other words.  I’m always marrying inspiration to execution, but this was ridiculous.

After a long talk with my wife, who’s also my first reader, idea sounding-board, draft editor, cover designer, and so much more, I decided to let go of my preconceived notions and just let the “story” be what it wants to be.  Long, short, or in the ambiguous middle ground of novellas (which if you ask me is a half-assed term in the first place), I took Margie’s advice and am allowing this one to grow the way it wants to grow.  I know what I want it to look like in the end, in other words, but I don’t care to micromanage all the little details of how we get there.

It’s growing, this Trollboth story.  It’s surpassed what I expected it to be, and my feeling now is that it’s going to turn itself into a brief novel.  It won’t be 700 pages of fantasy, but neither will it be 50, or even 100, if I don’t miss my guess.  I’ve brought back all the players and events that I tried to edit out.  I threw them all back into the Imaginary Playground of my mind, right on the merry-go-round with the rest of this particular gang of made-up people in my head, and I’m letting them all have their input, their deeds, and their say in how I take my readers from A to B to C.  It’s frickin’ scary, that’s for sure, but y’know, on that deep-down level which was once me trying to make every damn story a novel, I’m secretly delighted that this one is growing bigger.  It’s about time I did this again, and it’s doubly cool that now, every story is just a story, like a child, big or small or quiet or chatty, athletic or cerebral in its own unique way.