Monday, 29 October 2012

The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris

When it comes to scares in a book, it takes more than a few ghosts rattling round in a haunted house to scare me. In fact, very few books have ever sent chills down my spine and of the small cluster that have only one had me rooted to the spot with fear and that was Thomas Harris' The Silence of the Lambs.

The story is more commonly known for the film of the same title adapted in 1991, where it won countless awards and made Anthony Hopkins' role as Hannibal Lecter one of the best movie villains of all time. Unlike a lot of film adaptations TSOTL stayed very true to the 1988 book and Lecter was every inch as scary on paper as he was on the big screen.

Young FBI trainee Clarice Starling is sent in to the mental institution to present forensic psychiatrist Lecter, who's serving nine consecutive life sentences for cannibalism,  with a questionnaire. Only that isn't the FBI's real motive, they want Lecter to assist them in discovering the identity of a serial killer dubbed 'Buffalo Bill'. If we just put aside a minute the fact there is a serial killer out there, preying on plus size women, starving then skinning them and focus on Lecter himself, we'll begin to see the multi-layered scare factor.

That is one of the scariest elements of the story. There is a serial killer on the loose, going after women and stuffing moths down their throat, and as Starling said 'he will not stop.' Yet we are more frightened of the monster that is securely tucked away in a basement of a maximum security  unit, behind a wall of glass. The combination of Starling's eagerness and awkwardness matched with Lecter's intellect and sociopathic tendencies makes each of their scenes together utterly compelling. Lecter draws us in with his piercing eyes and precise manner and we hang off his every word, we're too scared not to. The thought of someone who knows nothing about you, yet is inside your head leaves you with nowhere left to hide. When I'm curled up in bed, covers tucked up to my chin I can't escape the thought of Lecter knowing my inner most thoughts and praying he would find me interesting enough to keep me alive.

The demons Lecter forces Clarice to face, whilst racing against time to rescue Buffalo Bill's latest victim, add another layer to the chill factor. In exchange for his assistance in the case Clarice has to bear her soul to him and discuss painful memories from her childhood, where she was orphaned and sent to live on a horse and sheep ranch. If the thought of having Hannibal Lecter inside your head wasn't bad enough there is always the torment of the constant reminders of personal anguish that never leave you and play as daily reminders in everything we do. Lecter reinforces this, making reference to Clarice's choices and appearance; the fact she can't escape her past.

It is the relationship between these two characters that fascinates us as readers and allows us to discover other realms of what's frightening, beyond the supernatural. So much so we even allow ourselves to be comfortable with this fear as we find ourselves secretly rooting for Hannibal's escape as we are fascinated by his character and feel he is entitled to more from life as he appreciates the world and it's beauty. 

Buffalo Bill, in contrast, who has nowhere near as much intelligence or charisma as Lecter,  introduces a new wave of fear. Clarice is safe from Hannibal, but not from Buffalo Bill, he's a man with a very specific mission, making a human bodysuit from women's skin. I remember approaching the end of the book, as like the film, Clarice is the one who discovers the true identity and whereabouts to the serial killer although she is unaware of it initially and believes the door she is about to knock on is that of old Mrs Lippman. I sat at the edge of my seat, the pace really picked up, chapters became shorter and Jame Gumb opened the door.

This scene also produced one of my favourite lines, when asked if he knew the first victim Fredrica Brimmel, Gumb replied "No. Was she a great, fat person?" Shortly followed by the moment Starling realised who she was face to face with. I still remember freezing when reading

                              Out of the folds in the back of Mr Gumb's robe crawled a Death's
                              -head moth.

Played out slightly differently in the film and in my eyes, so much more scarier in the book.

The film is fantastic and will always be one of my favourite of all times but the book scared me in a way the film couldn't. Maybe because I thought I had control over reading it, but ultimately I didn't - I was drawn in against my will. But what scared me more, Hannibal or the serial killer? It had to be the combination of both. The brutal realisation of serial killers is always unnerving for me but Buffalo Bill had so much about him. Bill alone was scary but teemed with Lecter and his relaxed knowledge of Bill and his human onesie. I am yet to find a book that has chilled me to the bone like The Silence of the Lambs and still love the fact I can't look at a moth or glass wall without a shiver running down my spine.

1 comment:

  1. I've always loved the film beyond reasoning but now I really fancy the book too! Hope it's just as scary.