“You Owe Me Awe”: Culture, Class, and the New South in Thomas Harris’s ‘Red Dragon’

Michael Grasso / October 16, 2018

will graham elevator manhunter 1986

William Petersen as Will Graham in Manhunter (1986)

Thomas Harris’s sophomore novel Red Dragon (1981) introduced the world to iconic serial killer and cultured cannibal Dr. Hannibal Lecter, and arguably set a gold standard for all serial killer fiction to follow. But Harris’s novel is more than just a taut true crime thriller that first widely popularized the archetype of the serial killer profiler. It is also a methodical, deliberate exploration of the class anxieties, cultural tensions, and racial division at the heart of early Reagan-era America, especially in the American South. Throughout Red Dragon, signifiers of working class life clash with those of a comfortable middle (or even upper) class existence, and the ghosts of the Old South cling closely to a New South that is trying to emerge into the 20th century, culturally and economically.

Red Dragon was the first in Harris’s series of Lecter novels, and opens after Lecter has already been apprehended and institutionalized. We learn in the book’s opening chapters that protagonist Will Graham, an FBI investigator and serial killer profiler, has retired, gotten married, and settled down on the Florida Keys after his last case—the pursuit and capture of Lecter—has left him physically and psychically scarred. But Graham’s old FBI boss Jack Crawford needs him back on the investigative trail to catch a new serial killer who has slain two suburban families in the South over the past two months. This killer, dubbed “The Tooth Fairy” by the police, is on a lunar cycle; the mission is to stop him before he kills again. The Tooth Fairy’s presumed MO is to case out a suburban family’s home (in working-class guise as a meter reader), kill or injure the pet, and then, in a day or two, return to murder the family. Graham joins the team hoping to fulfill a solely consultative role, but over the course of the investigation he becomes more and more personally and dangerously invested in the case, thanks mostly to the machinations of Dr. Lecter, behind bars in a Maryland asylum.

Harris’s depiction of the FBI’s serial killer investigators in Red Dragon comes out of the real-life work that the FBI was pioneering in the 1970s, during what is generally considered the peak of serial killing in America. The FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit, formed in 1974, sought to understand serial murderers and rapists and identify patterns in their behavior in order to provide investigators with tools for future cases. John E. Douglas, likely one of the models for Will Graham and his uncanny “eideteker” ability to memorize and analyze details and thus empathize and identify with serial killers, interviewed serial killers throughout the late 1970s with his partner Robert Ressler. Their work (recently dramatized in the Netflix series Mindhunter) would go on to form the basis of the FBI’s Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (ViCAP) program and its associated database. Collecting interview data for such a database was a pivotal plot point in Harris’s follow-up to Red Dragon, Silence of the Lambs (1988), as the reason for FBI trainee Clarice Starling’s initial interviews with Dr. Lecter (himself a psychiatrist).

john e douglas

John E. Douglas, one of the FBI’s original serial killer profilers

Many theories have been advanced by both scholars and laypeople as to why the ’70s and ’80s suffered a so-called “golden age” of serial killers. Probably the foremost of these studies is Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder by criminologists James Alan Fox and Jack Levin. In it, the authors posit that societal decay and atomization, thanks to a decline in cultural consensus around the turbulent 1960s and the rise of global neoliberalism in the 1970s, created “a culture of sociopathy” that enabled the rise of serial murderers who depersonalize and objectify their victims:

Blended with the message of individualism that Americans embraced during the 1960s was a more altruistic theme encouraging social responsibility and equality of opportunity. It was this positive focus that led the baby boom generation to join the civil rights movement and push for women’s rights. However, when double-digit inflation and repeated energy crises enveloped the American psyche during the 1970s, altruism quickly dissipated, leaving selfish individualism in its wake. Economic exigency forced Americans of all ages to abandon humanitarian impulses.

While economic anxiety, rampant individualism, and social atomization may not literally provide the motivations for the killer in Red Dragon, these larger social and cultural forces bubble up throughout the novel in interesting and telling ways, beginning with Will Graham’s retirement from the FBI itself.

will and molly manhunter 1986

Kim Greist (Molly Graham) and William Petersen (Will Graham) enjoy a Florida Keys sunset

On the Keys, Graham repairs boats and spends time with new wife Molly on picturesque beaches. Upon reconnecting with Lecter in the asylum, Lecter remarks of Graham, “Your hands are rough. They don’t look like a cop’s hands anymore. That shaving lotion is something a child would select. It has a ship on the bottle, doesn’t it?” Lecter senses that Graham has fully immersed himself in a lifestyle worlds away from his former career as a law enforcement official and profiler of serial killers. These are the signifiers of a working-class life—a tan, cheap cologne, a laborer’s hands. Lecter takes great pleasure in tweaking the reason for Graham’s visit—to “get the old scent” of the hunt. “Why don’t you just smell yourself?” Dr. Lecter asks. Underneath the cheap Old Spice, Lecter says, he and Graham are “just alike.” These words chase Graham out of the asylum.

As we follow Graham deeper into the investigation, we see his ability to identify with the killer manifest itself as he spends time in the home of the Leeds family, the second group of victims, in the Atlanta suburbs. As he stalks the bloodstained bedrooms and hallways of the Leeds home, Graham places himself in the role of the killer. These empathically-driven intuitions allow Graham to make leaps of deduction as an investigator that might seem spooky or supernatural. But entering the mind of his quarry taxes Graham. Harris lets us in on how the motivations and urges of the killer reside in Graham’s mind while on a case, as he sits on the roof of the Leeds house and tries to clear his head:

He did not want to think of Molly now. To do so was tasteless as well as distracting. Graham had a lot of trouble with taste. Often his thoughts were not tasty. There were no effective partitions in his mind. What he saw and learned touched everything else he knew. Some of the combinations were hard to live with. But he could not anticipate them, could not block and repress. His learned values of decency and propriety tagged along, shocked at his associations, appalled at his dreams; sorry that in the bone arena of his skull there were no forts for what he loved.

Graham’s radical empathy allows him to not only slide into the mechanisms of a serial killer’s mind, but also into their uniquely warped philosophies and aesthetic senses. Whether it’s the shift from FBI profiler to working-class Joe, from dogged investigator to would-be serial killer, Graham’s very individual identity is fluid and mercurial throughout Red Dragon. Crawford notices that even Graham’s tone of voice and cadence will change mid-conversation to mirror the person he’s talking to: “At first, Crawford had thought he was doing it deliberately, that it was a gimmick to get the back-and-forth rhythm going. Later Crawford realized that Graham did it involuntarily, that sometimes he tried to stop and couldn’t.” Even in his most intimate moments, Graham is an enigma. It’s notable that it’s in a phone call to Molly that we learn of Graham’s own childhood in the rural South of the 1940s and ’50s. But even in his tale of the youthful theft of a watermelon from a neighboring farmer’s patch, he peppers the tale with five-dollar words meant to distance himself (and Molly) from his humble background: “I was carrying this watermelon that I had not cultivated…  [fleeing from a] swineherd of my acquaintance.” Graham’s ironic distance from his (presumably) Southern childhood is telling; he’s just spent the day with the local Atlanta police, who are almost universally suspicious of his and Crawford’s involvement with the case. Graham’s sudden involuntary shifts in identity show what his chosen profession has done to him: rendered him a man with plenty of value to the FBI and law enforcement, but lacking in social capital (and, occasionally, trust) while on the job.

In the Leeds home, Graham is struck by the material comfort that the family enjoyed. On his second visit, Graham ignores the blood stains and seeks to understand “how they lived.” “The garage contained a good ski boat, well used and well maintained, and a station wagon. Golf clubs were there, and a trail bike. The power tools were almost unused. Adult toys.” The family’s middlebrow Southern tastes underlie much of their decor (there are samplers hanging on the kitchen walls, “the Great Books” on their shelves, Mrs. Leeds saves one good leg of her pantyhose to use in an act of “small, homey economy”), but mostly the Leeds are enjoying their material success. “Graham,” Harris states as narrator, “who owned almost nothing except basic fishing equipment, a third-hand Volkswagen, and two cases of Montrachet, felt a mild animosity toward the adult toys and wondered why.” This tension between the signifiers of a Southern life so much like his own rural childhood (Graham asks, “Who was Leeds? A successful tax attorney, a Sewanee footballer…”) conflicts with the apparent material signs of a bourgeois lifestyle. But Graham (and by extension Harris) were responding to a real economic and cultural change happening in the South at the time.

atlanta marriott manhunter 1986

Atrium of the Atlanta Marquis Marriott from Manhunter

People had been talking about the “New South” since the end of Reconstruction, the term itself coined by Atlanta newspaper editor Henry W. Grady in the 1870s. In the aftermath of the Civil War, some Southerners believed that their only way to leave behind the legacy of chattel slavery and become a match for the North was rapid industrialization and modernization of their economy. Obviously, this process did not include or raise up Black Americans as well—Grady was a notorious segregationist—but this economic awareness of the South as an economic vassal to the North shone a light on Southern whites’ anxiety about the superiority of the North in the aftermath of the Civil War. Grady’s New South largely did not come to pass, but a century later, in the 1970s, a new New South was on the rise. Atlanta was the capital of an economic resurgence driven by fast-paced deregulation, and saw the rise of huge multinational corporations like Coca-Cola, Delta Airlines, and, just coming into being, Ted Turner’s broadcasting empire, including TBS Superstation and CNN. In Michael Mann’s 1986 film adaptation of Red Dragon, Manhunter, William Petersen’s Will Graham comes back to his hotel, the Atlanta Marriott Marquis, one of many luxury hotels that popped up downtown at the time. In the novel, Graham and the omniscient narrator note, “The Atlanta FBI office had booked him into an absurd hotel near the city’s new Peachtree Center. It had glass elevators shaped like milkweed pods to let him know he was really in town now.” Graham’s (and Harris’s) cynicism about these showy signs that the South had finally “made it” is apparent, and it’s interesting to note that these pieces of architecture are hotels and office buildings, built resolutely for out-of-towners visiting on business.

Combine this cosmetic progress with the rise of domestic oil producers during the dual OPEC crises and the banking industry in North Carolina and you have the engine for real economic energy. This time around, however, it was believed that the social progress provided by the Civil Rights Movement would lend the New South a veneer of cultural progress to match the economic surge. But the great political realignment of the latter half of the 20th century was underway, and conservative, racially retrogressive Republicans gradually took the place of the old Dixiecrats all across the South. California politicians like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan used a deliberately racially divisive Southern Strategy to help Republicans win white votes in the South. This cynical (yet successful) political approach, combined with the fact that all the engines of economic progress remained very much in the hands of white men, demonstrated that old Henry Grady would have very much approved of all those “absurd” glass skyscrapers of the 20th century’s New South.

Men Leading Wayne Williams in Handcuffs

Wayne Williams in custody, early 1980s

Meanwhile, in Black Atlanta in the late ’70s, a real-life serial killer was on the loose. Over three years, from 1979 to 1981, over two dozen Black children and young adults from a narrow geographic range in the Atlanta metropolitan area were abducted from the streets and murdered. FBI profilers, including John E. Douglas, arrived on the scene to aid local law enforcement. A Black man named Wayne Williams was apprehended in May 1981; hair and fiber evidence analyzed by the FBI team (as well as circumstantial evidence, such as Williams’s putative job as a “talent agent” looking to find young singers for a musical group called “Gemini”) helped put Williams away for two of the adult murders. Twenty-two of the other cases were considered closed with Williams’s life sentence. But six cases remain open and unsolved, and it’s widely believed that Williams may not be the only person responsible for the murders. Douglas himself says in the book version of Mindhunter (1995) that he believes Williams was not solely responsible for the nearly three years of slaughter on the Atlanta streets: “Despite what his detractors and accusers maintain, I believe there is no strong evidence linking him to all or even most of the deaths and disappearances in that city between 1979 and 1981. Despite what some people would like to believe, young black and white children continue to die mysteriously in Atlanta and other cities. We have an idea who did some of the others. It isn’t a single offender and the truth isn’t pleasant.” Douglas’s obfuscatory prose hides a secret that the Atlanta authorities and the FBI kept for nearly a decade: for a time during 1979-1981, the authorities were investigating local KKK chapters in the killings. That particular promising avenue of inquiry, of course, mysteriously petered out once Williams was apprehended.

Harris was obviously inspired by the Atlanta child murders in his creation of Red Dragon, but the essential change in the novel’s murders—that Harris’s Tooth Fairy kills well-off white families in their homes in the Southern suburbs as opposed to snatching young Black children off the streets—is vital. Certainly, in his attempt to give his fiction immediacy to the presumably white true crime audience, making the victims the types of people who might read Harris’s books is astute. But Harris also inadvertently tells the truth on one level with his fictional case: the FBI sends a team, including its most legendary profiler, after a second white family is murdered. In real life, the FBI and local authorities took nearly three years to stop a serial predator in Black Atlanta—and the FBI only got involved almost a year after the first disappearance, on the occasion of the ninth abduction. In Mindhunter, Douglas states, “If we were faced with a case like the Atlanta child murders today, I’d like to think we could get to the killer significantly sooner, before the trail of death and suffering was so appallingly long.” Thirty dead African-Americans still cry out for real justice, nearly four decades later.

There’s a fascinating sequence in Red Dragon that ties all these racial and economic threads together, as Graham investigates the home of the first of the Tooth Fairy’s victims, the Jacobi family of Birmingham, Alabama. The trail is a month old and ice cold; real estate agents have already put the home up on the market, adding new features to erase the stain of the mass murder that was perpetrated there (as well as security features to protect the new owners; the popularization of security systems for private homes also was born of the crime paranoia of the 1970s). The Jacobis, unlike the Leedses, are not native Southerners; they relocated to Birmingham from Detroit because of Ed Jacobi’s engineering job (another sign of the red-hot Southern economy, as it steals high-paying technical jobs from the traditional engine of American manufacturing in the Midwest). Graham finds the house devoid of clues, so he takes to the neighborhood to find out how the Tooth Fairy might have approached the home. The long gravel driveway is too loud for a car, so Graham gets back onto the highway to view the Jacobi home from a vantage point in the strip of woods that borders the backyard. When he gets off the highway and finds himself on the other side of the woods, he finds himself in another world:

Here the pavement ended at a low-income housing project so new it did not show on his map. He pulled into the parking lot. Most of the cars were old and sagging on their springs. Two were up on blocks.

Black children played basketball on the bare earth around a single netless goal. Graham sat on his fender to watch the game for a moment.

Separated from the Jacobis’ neighborhood by a deliberate line of thick and heavy tree cover is a predominantly Black housing project. Real estate redlining, one of the most pernicious forms of systemic racial economic discrimination in the 20th century, made unbridgeable gulfs like these: lines dividing rich from poor, white from black, were carved into the very landscape itself. The housing project is new but already dilapidated; public budgets cannot even reliably supply a full basketball court, or a single basket with nets. The Jacobis would not see their Black “neighbors,” and it’s telling that the serial killer who ended their lives decided to use this landscape, this wall of impenetrable foliage, to peer at the Jacobis in preparation to slaughter them.

In a series of inductive leaps while watching the young Black kids play basketball, Graham arrives tantalizingly close to how the killer is selecting his victims, the one element which his seemingly supernatural empathy can’t seem to help him arrive at. That single netless goal, a potent symbol of the economic destitution of the housing project, tugs at Graham’s radical empathy.

One goal, one basketball. It struck him again how many things the Leedses had. The Jacobis too, according to the Birmingham police when they ruled out burglary. Boats and sporting equipment, camping equipment, cameras and guns and rods. It was another thing the families had in common.

bell and howell movie camera and projector ad 1976

Bell & Howell sound movie camera advertisement, 1976

As Graham considers the Jacobis’ and Leedses’ preponderance of material possessions, he actually has discovered the common thread linking them both: their conspicuous consumption. It’s the cameras and home movie equipment that the Leeds and Jacobis share that eventually lead Graham and the FBI to the murderer. The Tooth Fairy is Francis Dolarhyde, an employee at a film-processing company called Gateway located outside of St. Louis, Missouri. Dolarhyde selects attractive families to murder by reviewing home movie footage sent in by mail for processing. Red Dragon takes place in the era right before the release of consumer camcorder technology, which would make old-fashioned home movies on film obsolete. In fact, Harris notes this: Dolarhyde’s company has had to expand into film transfers to videotape and Defense Department contracts due to “the recessions of the 1970s” and “increasing competition from home video recorders.” Dolarhyde himself is the head of production in Gateway’s home movie division; one has to imagine that if he’d not been identified and killed at the end of Red Dragon, his method of selecting victims would have been rendered unavailable to him thanks to the inexorable march of economics and consumer technology.

In Dolarhyde’s serial killer origins we see more evidence of class conflict in creating social misery. Dolarhyde was born to a single mother in late 1930s Missouri. Upon his birth, it’s discovered he suffers from a severe cleft palate. His mother Marion screams at discovering what she has birthed and abandons the child. The infant Dolarhyde’s birth defect is repaired sloppily at a public hospital. “The cosmetic results were not good,” says Harris. After a stay in an orphanage nursery, Dolarhyde’s grandmother, who will end up becoming the source of much of Dolarhyde’s profound psychological damage, finds out about her grandson and brings him to his mother. Marion, since her shame in bringing a bastard child into the world, has moved up socially. She’s become the second wife to a powerful lawyer, Howard Vogt, who’s also an aspiring politician. Dolarhyde’s grandmother forces young Francis into the public eye to remind Marion of her shame, causing unrest within the Vogt family and a political scandal that loses Vogt the election. Later, when Dolarhyde’s grandmother’s mental and physical health degrades to the point where she can no longer take care of him, Francis comes into the Vogt home, where his step-siblings blame him for the family’s fall from grace. When his step-siblings gang up on Francis and berate him, they place it almost wholly in terms of the things they’ve lost because of him:

“They came for the ponies today,” Victoria said. She sat on the narrow bed. Ned joined her, his back against the wall, his feet on the quilt.

“No more ponies,” Ned said. “No more lake house for the summer. Do you know why? Speak up, you little bastard.”

“Father is sick a lot and doesn’t make as much money,” Victoria said. “Some days he doesn’t go to the office at all.”

“Know why he’s sick, you little bastard?” Ned asked. “Talk where I can understand you.”

“Grandmother said he’s a drunk. Understand that all right?”

“He’s sick because of your ugly face,” Ned said.

“That’s why people didn’t vote for him too,” Victoria said.

william blake red dragon and woman clothed in sun

The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun, William Blake, c. 1804

In the midst of his traumatic childhood, Dolarhyde exhibits all the typical formative behaviors of serial killers that profilers like John E. Douglas identified through their extensive interviews: isolation, domineering and abusive adult presences, psychosexual obsessions, the torture and murder of small animals. Dolarhyde joins the military after a breaking and entering arrest. He works in film production while in the Army, where his face and mouth are further repaired, this time by a more knowledgeable surgeon, and eventually he inherits his grandmother’s huge Victorian home on the outskirts of St. Louis. Dolarhyde is independent financially now. With the death of his grandmother, who hovers over him and takes the form of the titular Red Dragon within his psyche (much like another classic “psycho” from fiction with an enormous legacy home, Norman Bates), he begins his “Becoming,” seeking to transform himself through his serial murders. The other inspiration for the Red Dragon within Dolarhyde’s psyche is Dolarhyde’s near-worship of a William Blake watercolor, The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun. He owns a giant print of it, has it tattooed on his back, and, in a wild sequence near the end of the novel, as Dolarhyde seeks to quell the Dragon’s hunger for his new girlfriend, a visually-impaired worker at Gateway named Reba McClane, he actually travels to the Brooklyn Museum in the guise of an academic researcher and eats the original watercolor. Dolarhyde’s worship of fine art and music (inside his van he frequently listens to classical music), his ownership of a stately antique home, and the cultural and historical allusions he makes in his statements as the Dragon, betray another common theme among Harris’s serial murderers: their almost-preternatural culturedness.

Nowhere is Dolarhyde’s feeling of superiority more clearly demarcated than in his abduction and murder of the tabloid journalist Freddy Lounds, who spends most of the first half of Red Dragon angling for a score from the “Tooth Fairy” case. Lounds’s backstory is painted in broad yet sympathetic brushes; he was a legitimate newspaper journalist at one point in the late 1960s, but he sees in his older, alcoholic coworkers the destiny of most minor newspapermen:

He had worked in straight journalism for ten years when he realized that no one would ever send him to the White House. He saw that his publishers would wear his legs out, use him until it was time for him to become a broken-down old drunk manning a dead-end desk, drifting inevitably toward cirrhosis or a mattress fire.

Lounds goes to the National Tattler, a supermarket tabloid of the type that was just coming into its fullest flower in the 1970s, full of sensationalistic headlines meant to grab the attention of working-class grocery shoppers (“Marketing surveys showed that a bold ‘New Cure for Cancer’ or ‘Cancer Miracle Drug’ cover line boosted supermarket sales of any Tattler issue by 22.3 percent”). Lounds is making money hand over fist now, and money and respect are his only motivation for nosing into the Tooth Fairy case—he helps the FBI set a trap for Dolarhyde and is eventually killed by the Tooth Fairy/Red Dragon. While captured by Dolarhyde, Lounds is subjected to Dolarhyde’s esoteric worldview, and Dolarhyde determines that Lounds (and by extension, the Tattler’s dumb, poverty-stricken readers) cannot possibly understand this Becoming: “My movements are followed and recorded as avidly as those of a mighty guest star. Do you know about the guest star in 1054? Of course not. Your readers follow you like a child follows a slug track with his finger, and in the same tired loops of reason.” Lounds is only useful as a mouthpiece to reach the great unwashed. As Lounds finishes reading a dictated statement on the Dragon’s behalf into a tape recorder, Dolarhyde bites Lounds’s lips off and sets him on fire. Lounds, who had aspirations above his tabloid station, now lives forever as a vessel (and a vassal) for the words of the Dragon: ““Before Me you are a slug in the sun. You are privy to a great Becoming and you recognize nothing. You are an ant in the after-birth. It is in your nature to do one thing correctly: before Me you rightly tremble. Fear is not what you owe Me, Lounds, you and the other pismires. You owe Me awe.”

hannibal mads mikkelsen

Mads Mikkelsen as Dr. Hannibal Lecter, from Hannibal (2013-2015)

In future books in the Lecter series of novels, it will be revealed that Lecter is a wildly, almost supernaturally intelligent member of European near-nobility, well-versed in fine art, culture, and of course the classical culinary arts. Dolarhyde writes a “fan letter” to Lecter in the novel, intimating that what the two have in common is being some sort of pure, elite being: “The important thing is what I am Becoming. I know that you alone can understand this.” Lecter’s legendary hostility to those he considers common or rude appears in all the novels, and was explored more thoroughly in Bryan Fuller’s aesthetically rich 2013 television adaptation of the Thomas Harris corpus, Hannibal. In that series, Hannibal’s meals of human flesh are grotesque-yet-beautiful works of art, and the idea of serial killers being some kind of superhuman elite, above the unwashed masses, is far more transparent and obvious.

The serial killer is our neoliberal landscape’s boogeyman, the horror that lives next door, yet considers itself a cut above the common rabble of humanity. That Hannibal Lecter and his ilk have seen their real-life and cultural profiles grow during times of economic uncertainty is clear. But in real life, serial killers with some exceptions are mostly drawn from the working classes themselves. Many are drifters with no fixed abode; many have pretensions of social superiority, often borne from a feeling of deep-seated inferiority, whether economic, social, or sexual. As Fox and Levin noted in their book, those who already possess social or economic capital are able to use socially acceptable methods to exercise their sociopathic will:

Of course, it takes much more than motive to become a serial killer. Many people seek thrill in their lives but are able to satisfy it in ways that are legitimate, if not entirely safe, such as skydiving or driving at excessive speeds. Other people may have an inordinate need for power and control, but they also are able to find socially acceptable modes of fulfillment. For example, certain business executives derive a sadistic pleasure by “eating alive” their competition; they wheel and deal not just for the profit but also for the feeling of power. Many individuals have a mission in life, but these missions are pursued not by killing, but by organizing a legitimate endeavor in an effective and legal manner. There are, of course, numerous methods, aside from serial murder, to make money or gain power.

Harris’s proposition that mysterious, unaccountable powers are looking down upon us, literally hunting and feasting upon us, does match most serial killers’ estimations of their own relationship to the common run of humanity. But Harris bestowing his killers with the patina of class, of haut bourgeois sensibilities, is a truly subversive aesthetic choice. In Red Dragon, serial killers prey upon the middle class and the social striver alike, demonstrating that the elite’s appetites are never long sated with the poor alone. Whether the feast is figurative or literal, capitalism eats its own.

shiloh bloody pond

Cannon at the “bloody pond,” Shiloh battlefield

At the end of Red Dragon, Will Graham, now facially scarred from Dolarhyde’s final attack on him at his Florida Keys home, lies in unbearable pain in his hospital bed. As he sinks into a Demerol haze, he remembers visiting the Civil War battlefield at Shiloh. In this final, haunting passage, Harris firmly takes his place in the Southern Gothic tradition, but with a marked postmodern spin. The deaths and pain caused by Dolarhyde the serial killer link up with the political, economic, and social scars of slavery and the Civil War from which the country, in Graham’s pain-racked memory, still aches. Remembering how he mercy-killed a snake that had been run over by a car at Shiloh, Graham ponders the capacity for cruelty and mercy and the silent testament that the battlefield offers in the face of our eternal moral choices:

He wondered if, in the great body of humankind, in the minds of men set on civilization, the vicious urges we control in ourselves and the dark instinctive knowledge of those urges function like the crippled virus the body arms against.

He wondered if old, awful urges are the virus that makes vaccine. Yes, he had been wrong about Shiloh. Shiloh isn’t haunted—men are haunted.

Shiloh doesn’t care.

The symbols of civic binding and redemption that America offers us so often fall short. The deaths of Black Americans, whether under the lash or in the housing projects, aren’t redeemed by the silence of Shiloh. The degradation of the working classes under the thumbs of those who consider themselves inherently superior, or even the comfortable middle-class victims of the Dragon—none find succor in the face of this inhuman cruelty. Lecter, Dolarhyde, and the rest of the self-appointed nobility may consider us cattle, “ants in the afterbirth,” as they themselves only adhere to the rule of might-makes-right. But ultimately they are the beasts, the predators who justify their brute animal cruelty under a patina of class and culture. Harris sees that civilization is often little consolation in the face of those who use it to justify their cruelty. Graham, his radical empathy the key to defeating evil, cannot help but see this evil in himself. But if the cruelty of civilization is a conscious choice, then so too is mercy.

Grasso AvatarMichael Grasso is a Senior Editor at We Are the Mutants. He is a Bostonian, a museum professional, and a podcaster. Follow him on Twitter at @MutantsMichael.

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5 thoughts on ““You Owe Me Awe”: Culture, Class, and the New South in Thomas Harris’s ‘Red Dragon’

  1. One of your best entries ever. Thanks so much. So much to digest. I want to watch Manhunter for the umpteenth time and look for clues in the film that may point to these insights.
    The climatic observation “But Harris bestowing his killers with the patina of class, of haute bourgeois sensibilities, is a truly subversive aesthetic choice.” would have been specious if not for the world of revelation and insight that preceded it.
    Thanks again for a great analysis.

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