Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon occupies a special place in my heart and on my bookshelf. It’s a book about the vicious cycle of abuse, about the need for love and acceptance, about what happens when you take a child and turn it into a vessel for hate, diminution, and rejection. In computer science there’s a term that gets used a lot: GIGO. It’s short for “Garbage in, garbage out” meaning that a program can only process the data you give it; feed a system crap and crap comes out the other end. That’s the story of Francis Dolarhyde and he is the Great Red Dragon before the Woman Clothed in the Sun.
Children emerge from the womb largely tabula rasa. Base traits of greed and selfishness have been observed in babies by psychologists and philosophers going as far back as Saint Augustine. Those are the qualities that we’re supposed to outgrow, to shed under the tutelage of our parents who scold and chide, “Now, you need to share….”
But what happens when a child isn’t raised right? What happens when a child is never permitted an ounce of dignity or self-respect? Enter Francis Dolarhyde, the vessel for the Great Red Dragon of Apocalypse. Abused and bullied by strangers, peers, and especially the people who are supposed to love him, Dolarhyde is the product of the cruelty inflicted on him by others. He takes his frustration out on animals first and discovers in their deaths a sort of power, a seed of self-actualization that has otherwise been denied him. In death, pain, and suffering, the weak, milquetoast Francis becomes the Red Dragon.
Francis is a hairlip with a cleft palate. He is put in an orphanage by his mother and later retrieved by his grandmother, only to punish the mother who didn’t want him in the first place. Older boys at the orphanage tell him that his name is “cunt face” and his malady goes unattended until he becomes a young man. When he is forced to live with his mother and her two wanted children, he is severely beaten by his half brother.
Francis’ murders serve a purpose and that purpose, as he sees it, is his becoming. “To become” is a verb filled with promise and potential. The ancient Egyptian word “kepher” means “to become” and is the root of the name of the deity Kephra, the scarab beetle who takes charge of the solar disk as it sinks below the horizon and who rolls the dung-ball of the sun up into the sky in the morning. Thus, the word is associated with beginnings and with death. It is a word long associated with deity (it is argued that the ancient name of God, Yahweh, means ‘I will become’) and it implies a previous state of nonexistence from which something emerges. Truly, it’s a word more suited to a miracle than it is day-to-day conversation.
It’s also interesting to note that when clothing looks good on someone, we say it “becomes them.” For Francis Dolarhyde, the Red Dragon is “becoming.” That is, he is accepted, he is good looking, he is handsome in the mirrored eyes of his dead witnesses. To Francis, his actions make perfect sense because they make him feel good about himself. Like the adage goes, “If this is wrong, I don’t want to be right.”
For Dolarhyde the transition from animals to people comes with his discovery of the painting by the mystic and poet William Blake. He is seized by a sexual sensation, the work speaks to him. It’s often a sure sign of mental instability when someone believes that a work of art (a song, a poem, a novel, a painting, a sculpture, etc.) somehow speaks to him specifically. (If you’ve ever had a friend with schizophrenia, you know what I’m talking about. A song comes on the radio and they insist it’s about their life and all you can do is smile and ask, “So, what did you have for breakfast?”)
While most people focus on Hannibal Lecter, who makes his first appearance in Red Dragon, or on Lecter’s initial nemesis, Will Graham, who foils Dolarhyde, the real foci of the novel are police procedure and abnormal psychology. Graham was unique for his day, but since this novel the nearly-psychic FBI profiler has become something of a stock character in his own right: Fox Mulder made this character popular, Frank Black made him god-like. (If you’re not familiar with Frank Black, get the first and second seasons of Millennium and skip the third.) The profiler allows the audience to enter the head of the killer, gives us insight into why the killer does what he does.
And while Harris lays out Dolarhyde’s motives via the backstory he provides, it is Graham’s initial observations which make the flashbacks possible. Graham’s profiling sketches Dolarhyde so that we don’t feel like the shift in POV away from the investigator to the killer is in any way forced. Compare the last episode of season one of True Detective, where we truly see Errol Childress for the first time and the connection is made for us. We’ve had no real insight into why he is the vessel for the Yellow King but when we see the scars on his face and back it falls into place.
For many, this scene broke the narrative. We were shuffled out of the protagonists’ POV and into the antagonist’s. The philosophy of the killer was better understood than his motive and the two are not the same: One is the abstract notion explaining what the killer believes he must accomplish, the other is what makes him a killer; one is how the killer sees his actions, the other is why he kills in the first place.
So Red Dragon had an impact on psycho-killer horror. While others may have done it better since, it’s still easier to get the balance of backstory to motivation wrong (case in point, The Sculptor.)