After pondering what the Reverend Hargreaves had to say about the Welsh flag, then reading the informative essay on the subject by the vastly more enlightened Dr Evelien Bracke, all of which has been covered in previous posts, it was inevitable that my mind should wander to the novel Red Dragon, by Thomas Harris.
We all have different tastes as far as reading material’s concerned, but I would rank Red Dragon along with The Exorcist and The Godfather as one of the three great ‘dark’ novels I’ve read. Furthermore, I believe that Red Dragon stands alone as a creation without parallel or equal in literature that I’m aware of, while I say this after having given the matter a great deal of thought over the decades since it was printed.
It’s a superlative study of characters and it is perhaps the best detective or even spy story I’ve read, not simply on account of its detail, atmosphere and pace, but because it shows how the search for the identity of the killer consists to such a large degree of clever, experienced and intuitive men and women painfully stumbling and groping towards even a minuscule degree of enlightenment, enduring a huge degree of frustration along every step of the way. This is in stark contrast to the dross on television or in film that I gave up watching years ago on account of of its banality and because a questing hero invariably manages to achieve a near-miraculous degree of insight with a minimum of effort, which isn’t how these things are in real life.
I could write a lengthy essay on what I see as the book’s literary merits, but as far as this particular matter’s concerned, I’ll confine myself to saying that the novel is imbued throughout with a sense of dread to the extent that holding it in my hand is virtually the equivalent of grasping the physical manifestation of a nightmare; that aside, I was surprised by how many gratifying elements it contained, so I shall have to choose my words carefully if I’m to explain this properly.
I was particularly struck by the character of Will Graham, the principle investigator in the novel, because while he was a fictional creation, he was doubtless based on one or more real people who presumably possessed his more notable qualities, to some degree at least. Without reading the novel again to find the exact quote, Graham was described as being unable to stop his mind making completely uncensored connections, something that made him deeply uncomfortable even though it occasionally rewarded him, and this capability was described as being like a chair made out of antlers – grotesque but functional.
Furthermore, his insights never came about as the result of heaven-sent revelations, but through the tortuous process of recalling a mass of dates, names and other possibly relevant information in an attempt to conjure something tangible and useful from the vast collection of data available to him, whereupon others would make more meaningful connections when he was finally able to articulate his notions to them.
I don’t know what this process is called, if indeed it has a name, but I’ve sometimes experienced it for myself when contemplating Stonehenge, Silbury Hill and others. I found there was never any future in determinedly applying myself to the study of any one aspect of these places or the landscapes that surround them, because I don’t believe that these mysteries are necessarily subject to being brutally dissected, as biology students hack up the carcasses of dead creatures in a quest for understanding, or to accrue gold stars to further their careers.
Instead, some things would just occur to me for no reason that I can articulate, while the best way I can describe it is by saying that it was like becoming aware of a faint voice in the night that was straining to be heard, so my attention was drawn to it. Without having the relevant posts from Eternal Idol available for inspection, the best example I can supply for now was when I felt compelled to look into the history of the ‘lost god’ Gwyn ap Nudd, after which further treasures came to light from Aynslie and Dr Robin Melrose, informing me of facts I’d previously been unaware of, but there were many other equally satisfying posts and investigations involving other contributors.
Back to Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon novel – aside from any other considerations, it turns out to have been grimly prophetic inasmuch as the murderer, around whom the story revolves, carefully selected his victims after studying home movies that were available to him, a voyeuristic method that’s been emulated many times in our age of the internet, social media and online grooming.
Furthermore, the murderer – Francis Dolarhyde – is a man in the grip of a terrible, ‘mystical’ delusion, who has undergone an almost complete alienation from the society in which he lives and who exhibits a primaeval ferocity as he embarks on his rampage, something we now see echoed around us on a regular and increasingly predictable basis.
All that aside, I doubt I’d ever be able to meaningfully qualify it, so any attempt to do so would be an exercise in futility, but I still can’t help wondering how much of the greatness of Red Dragon is down to the master, William Blake, and his influence. The novel describes Dolarhyde’s increasing fixation with a Blake watercolour depicting a great red dragon, while one of my copies is graced by this staggeringly potent illustration, as well as reproducing a truly fearsome poem discovered among Blake’s other works after his death.
Red Dragon isn’t for everyone, it surely goes without saying, but I’ve always been enthralled by this darkest of tales that offers a glimpse into Blake’s “endless night” and into other elements with the power to wreak havoc when frail human beings have the misfortune to become tainted by them.
“One can only see what one observes, and one observes only things which are already in the mind”.