Harris, Thomas 1940(?)–
Harris, Thomas 1940(?)–
PERSONAL: Born c. 1940, in Jackson, MS; son of William Thomas (an electrical engineer and farmer) and Polly (a high-school teacher) Harris; children: Anne. Education: Baylor University, B.A., 1964.
ADDRESSES: Agent—c/o Author Mail, Random House, 201 E. 50th St., New York, NY 10022.
CAREER: Writer. Worked as a night police reporter for the Waco News-Tribune, Waco, TX; Associated Press, New York City, assistant editor, general assignment reporter, and night editor, 1968–74.
AWARDS, HONORS: Bram Stoker Award for Best Novel, Horror Writers Association and Anthony Award, all 1989, all for Silence of the Lambs.
Black Sunday, Putnam (New York, NY), 1975, reprinted, Dutton (New York, NY), 2000.
Red Dragon, Putnam (New York, NY), 1981, published as Manhunter, Bantam (New York, NY), 1986, reprinted as Red Dragon, Dutton (New York, NY), 2000.
The Silence of the Lambs, St. Martin's (New York, NY), 1988.
Hannibal, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1999.
ADAPTATIONS: Black Sunday was filmed by John Frankenheimer for Paramount, 1977; Red Dragon was filmed as Manhunter by Michael Mann for De Laurentiis Entertainment Group, 1986; The Silence of the Lambs was filmed by Jonathan Demme for Orion, 1991; Hannibal was filmed in 2001; Red Dragon was adapted for film a second time by director Brett Ratner and released by Universal Pictures, 2002. The author's works have also been adapted into audio books, including Black Sunday, BDD Audio, 2000, and Hannibal, Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1999.
SIDELIGHTS: Thomas Harris is known for his novels that combine detailed examination of police procedure with spellbinding suspense. Writing in the St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost, and Gothic Writers, S.T. Joshi noted that Harris's Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs "are certainly among the more successful works of popular fiction in recent years." An essayist for Contemporary Southern Writers found that all of Harris's novels "are crime-thrillers: fast-paced, intricately plotted, suspense-charged narratives fueled by the urgency of a countdown to catastrophe."
Much of Harris's personal history is cloaked in mystery. Having judiciously avoided interviews, Harris has made it difficult to find or confirm biographical information about him. He has also reportedly made it very clear to his friends, acquaintances, and even childhood neighbors that he would appreciate their restraint as well; fond as they are of their places in his inner circle, they have for the most part complied. Still, over the years some information has surfaced. Harris grew up in Rich, Mississippi, a small farming town, and was reportedly an outcast. His father went off to war and left his wife and young son to manage on their own and proved to be a less than adequate farmer after his return. Many of the difficulties of Harris's childhood are related in his books through the experiences of various characters, according to off-the-record accounts from people who knew his family. Stanley Gaines, Harris's best friend in high school and one of the few who has consented to an interview, told Meg Laughlin of the Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service that "in high school, Tom blossomed. Sometimes, the things that make you an outcast as a kid make you cool when you get older." Whatever it was that Harris may have been trying to get back at the townsfolk for, several have acknowledged that he succeeded in the best possible way. As one Rich resident told Laughlin, "He left and got wealthy and famous." Another implied that however poorly Harris may have been treated as a youth, he is now the pride of his former hometown: "One of the things we love about Tom is that he is so gracious we know he has forgiven everyone."
While his childhood may have provided much of Harris's characterization and even story lines (serial killer and cannibal William Coyner did his deeds in nearby Cleveland, Mississippi), many of the gruesome details came from his years as a journalist. After high school, Harris earned a bachelor's degree in English from Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and took a job as a night police reporter with the local newspaper. After several years, he screwed up his courage and set out for New York. "It took guts for a boy from Mississippi to go to the big city," Bob Sadler, Harris's former editor, told Laughlin. "You can be talented and be too afraid to do something about it. Tom wasn't." Harris left behind his old life in more ways than one: His wife, whom he had married while in college, and his daughter remained in Waco. In 1968 Harris found a job as an assistant editor with the Associated Press (AP) news service, again working the night shift and handling crime stories. A fellow reporter, Nicholas Pileggi, recalled to Cathleen McGuigan of Newsweek that Harris's demeanor did not portend his future works. "Tom was very quiet and cheery," Pileggi commented. "He did cover a lot of bloody stuff, but we all did." It was at this time that Harris began to develop his work ethic for extensive research, at the same time sating his thirst for knowledge. Those close to Harris mark a distinction between interest and obsession, however. "He has this imagination that's just unbridled," Walter Stovall, an old AP colleague, told McGuigan. "But it's not anything that roils around in his brain."
Harris's first book, Black Sunday, was conceived during his tenure with the AP. During slow periods, Harris and two colleagues passed the time by cooking up plots for novels; among these was the story that became Black Sunday. In the novel, Harris pits a crazed Vietnam veteran and a group of Arab extremists—who plan to bomb the Super Bowl stadium as a protest of the United States' support of Israel—against cunning FBI and Israeli agents whose mission is to stop them. The president of the United States is among the 100,000 spectators in the stadium, and all are unaware that the blimp flying overhead may attack them at any second. Black Sunday received mixed reviews from critics. Newgate Callendar of the New York Times Book Review, for example, found Black Sunday to be "written in a stolid, expository, unimaginative style," while L.W. Lindsay in the Christian Science Monitor labeled the book "a dud." But the critic for Library Journal was enthusiastic: "The action is up-to-date,… very violent …, and the plot is packed with business. Not a bit believable, but successful entertainment." In the St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost, and Gothic Writers, Joshi called Black Sunday "a mere potboiler" but admitted that one sequence, a psychological history of one of the terrorists, was quite interesting: "It is written in a clinical, almost emotionless manner, but it nevertheless provides the necessary psychological motivation for the entire novel." John Frankenheimer's movie adaptation of the book also met with mixed critical reaction, but was well-liked by the movie-going public.
Harris's second effort was the bestseller Red Dragon, about Will Graham, an FBI agent searching for a deformed murderer who calls himself Red Dragon. Graham attempts "to hunt down [the] serial killer by adopting the mind-set of the criminal." This novel was more warmly received than Black Sunday, with a New York Times reviewer declaring that Harris's "depiction of police technology is comprehensive and compelling…. For all the gruesome nature of his subject, he writes with taste and with a high intelligence and verve." Critic Jospeh Amie, writing in the Saturday Review, observed: "The suspense is sustained by deft characterizations, fascinating crime-lab details, and a twisting plot, and understated prose," while Newsweek's Jean Strouse deemed Red Dragon "gruesome, appalling, occasionally formulaic and mechanical," but "guaranteed to terrify and succeed." In the New York Times Book Review Thomas Fleming recommended the book for "those who like their flesh to crawl."
Harris produced The Silence of the Lambs in 1988. Like Red Dragon, The Silence of the Lambs deals with an FBI hunt for a serial killer. Utilizing some of the characters and themes of its predecessor, the novel presents the search through the eyes of female agent Clarice Starling. "It is a superlative mystery," exclaimed Douglas Winters in the Washington Post Book World. "Harris tells the story with the stunning and unflinching eye of the combat photographer … as remarkable as its predecessor in mingling the horror story with the police procedural." Christopher Lehmann-Haupt of the New York Times termed the novel "superb," adding that "Mr. Harris doesn't fool around or settle for trite effects. He goes straight for the viscera." Joshi ranked The Silence of the Lambs higher than Red Dragon, "in fullness of characterization, in intricacy of plot, and in cumulative suspense."
With Silence of the Lambs, Harris's reputation as well as his value as a commodity in the world of fiction writing were assured. The film version of Silence of the Lambs, directed by Jonathan Demme and starring Jodie Foster as Starling and Anthony Hopkins as a riveting Lecter, all of whom received Oscar Awards for their work, served to enhance Harris's reputation and left readers and moviegoers alike waiting breathlessly for the next installment. After heated sparring among New York's largest publishing houses, Harris accepted a con-tract for $5.25 million for his next two works. When he failed to produce a Silence sequel after several years, some observers questioned whether Delacorte had indeed gotten the bargain it had at first anticipated. Such doubts were laid to rest when, more than a decade later, Harris finally delivered.
Eleven years after The Silence of the Lambs enthralled critics and readers, Harris ended a long sabbatical by producing the psychological thriller Hannibal. "Hannibal is entirely different in tone from either Silence or Manhunter," Stephen Hunter wrote in the Washington Post. "Where they were gritty, journalistically researched pieces that turned on, and demanded, reality in their making, Hannibal is more like an extremely grim fairy tale combined with a cookbook." In Hannibal, Harris revisits the mind of the cannibal with cultivated tastes whom Denver Post critic Tom Walker has declared "the best literary villain since Iago." In this third installment of the Lector trilogy, Harris introduces the character of Mason Verger, whose encounter with Lector has left him hideously disfigured. As he lies in a darkened room, attached to a respirator, Verger plots a vicious revenge and attempts to use FBI agent Clarice Starling, a character who featured prominently in The Silence of the Lambs, to bait the brilliant, elusive Lector. Harris addresses his central theme when he wrote in Hannibal: "Now that ceaseless exposure has calloused us to the lewd and the vulgar, it is instructive to see what still seems wicked to us. What still slaps the clammy flab of our submissive consciousness hard enough to get our attention?"
Critics were divided in their reception of Hannibal. New York Times critic Christopher Lehmann-Haupt observed that "Mr. Harris seems determined to top himself in monstrosity at any and all cost." The reviewer went on to note: "The result shades toward the stuff of comic books." Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly was another critic who found it difficult to take the novel seriously, commenting that Hannibal was Harris's "gaudiest, most lavishly over-the-top book yet … Hitchcock by way of the Marquis de Sade." Lehmann-Haupt did admit that "Hannibal remains full of wonderful touches, typical of Mr. Harris's grasp of arcane detail." Some critics criticized Hannibal for its gratuitous violence, and others felt that the book was somewhat less inventive than The Silence of the Lambs. A reviewer for the Economist noted that Hannibal "is less a sequel than a baroque variation, transposed in part to Italy, in which Lecter is more gourmet than cannibal." Stephen King, however, writing for the New York Times, praised Harris's work by placing it in a category of "novels that so bravely and cleverly erase the line between popular fiction and literature."
In an extensive review of Hannibal in the Nation, Annie Gottlieb delved into why readers are not only spellbound by the character of Hannibal Lecter but may actually even like him. The reviewer noted that she would have preferred for Harris to have kept Lecter more of an unknown entity than revealing more about the killer's life and youth in Hannibal. Nevertheless, Gottlieb noted that she "liked him a lot better than I thought I would." The critic went on to say that the reader's attraction is due, in part, to the fact that Lecter seems to go only after those who "pant after money, self-advancement or sensation," and concluded: "We love Hannibal Lecter because he's the part of us that's smart and sensitive and stylish enough to despise us. As we watch him and Clarice ride into the sunset, progenitors of a finer new species, or just aristocratic refugees from the ruin of the old, we might recall that Kafka wrote our epitaph: 'There is infinite hope, but not for us.'"
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Southern Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.
Harris, Thomas, Red Dragon, Putnam (New York, NY), 1981, published as Manhunter, Bantam (New York, NY), 1986.
Harris, Thomas, Hannibal, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1999.
Magistrale, Tony, and Michael A. Morrison, editors, A Dark Night's Dreaming: Contemporary American Horror Fiction, University of South Carolina Press (Columbia, SC), 1996.
St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost, and Gothic Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1998.
Advocate, August 31, 1999, review of Hannibal, p. 74.
Best Sellers, March 1, 1975.
Christian Science Monitor, January 10, 1975, p. 10.
Commonweal, Marcy 9, 2001, Richard Alleva, review of Hannibal, p. 23.
Critic, May/June, 1975.
Denver Post, June 13, 1999.
Economist, July 17, 1999, review of Hannibal.
Entertainment Weekly, May 7, 1999, p. 22; June 25, 1999, Owen Gleiberman, review of Hannibal, p. 123.
Journal of American Culture, spring, 1995, Joseph Grixti, "Consuming Cannibals: Psychopathic Killers as Archetypes and Cultural Icons."
Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, June 10, 1999, p. K4078; August 4, 1999, p. K6478.
Library Journal, April 1, 1975; November 1, 1981; July, 1999, Mark Annichiarico, review of Hannibal, p. 131.
London Review of Books, July 29, 1999, p. 10-11.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 17, 1988.
Nation, July 27, 1999, Annie Gottlieb, "Free-Range Rude," review of Hannibal, p. 28.
National Review, July 12, 1999, p. 53.
New Statesman, June 21, 1999 Robert Winder, review of Hannibal, p. 44.
Newsweek, November 9, 1981; June 7, 1999, p. 72; June 21, 1999, Jeff Giles, review of Hannibal, p. 75.
New York Times, August 15, 1988; March 25, 1990; June 10, 1999; June 13, 1999.
New York Times Book Review, February 2, 1975, p. 14; November 15, 1981, p. 14.
Notes on Contemporary Literature, January, 1995, "Thomas Harris Issue."
People, April 12, 1999, p. 12.
Publishers Weekly, June 14, 1999, p. 46; June 14, 1999, review of Hannibal, p. 46; July 5, 1999, review of Hannibal, p. 34; June 12, 2000, Daisy Maryles, "High on Hannibal," p. 30.
Saturday Review, November, 1981.
Time, June 21, 1999, Paul Gray, review of Hannibal, p. 72.
Times (London, England), May 25, 1991.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), August 14, 1988.
Washington Post, July 18, 1999, Stephen Hunter, review of Hannibal, p. G1.
Washington Post Book World, August 21, 1988; May 21, 1989.