When I was a teen I read this book over and over, and even now think of it as one of the scariest books I’ve ever read. Sure it introduced me to Hannibal Lecter, even before I’d seen The Silence of the Lambs (1991) but for me the terror was in the fact that our main antagonist (long before I knew what that meant) also had good qualities and a sympathetic backstory.

Not that his horrifying crimes can be excused or explained, but it felt intriguing to me that even terrible monsters were kids once with the same ideas as us.

Title: Red Dragon
Author: Thomas Harris

*No intentional spoilers*

TW for death and torture

Will Graham was a brilliant profiler of criminals for the FBI – until he suffered terrible injuries in the process of capturing Dr Hannibal ‘the Cannibal’ Lecter.

Years later, a serial killer nicknamed ‘the Tooth Fairy’ is massacring entire families each full moon. With the FBI desperate for progress, Will reluctantly agrees to consult. But he soon realises that he alone can’t crack the case; he needs the help of the only mind even better than his own at understanding the mentalities of psychopaths. The mind of Hannibal Lecter.

Will Graham is a retired FBI profiler infamous for the capture of one Hannibal ‘the cannibal’ Lecter, a vicious serial killer. After sustaining very near-fatal injuries from the encounter, Will has retired from the force and lives quietly by the beach with his wife and child.

Five years pass and Will is called back into the fold when it becomes clear there’s another serial killer at work. Nicknamed ‘The Tooth Fairy’ , this individual stalks and then slaughters his victims – whole families – in their homes. Very reluctantly, Will agrees to consult for Jack Crawford, his mentor.

Unfortunately for Will, they soon realise they’re going to have to get some inside knowledge on what makes a killer like this tick, before he strikes again. With time against them – he carries out his horrific acts on a full moon – there’s only one person they can call on… will he be open to a little co-operation?

Well, this is a story old as time so you probably know how it turns out but if not, as the tale unspools we meet Francis Dolarhyde, a disturbed sociopath with sadistic ideas about the William Blake painting The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun (he believes the more he kills, the closer he’ll get to an alternative personality called the Great Red Dragon).

On Will’s case is slimy tabloid hack Freddy Lounds, who’ll do anything to squeeze details out of the FBI to leak to his readers. Would be a real shame if he attracted the attentions of the Great Dragon himself, wouldn’t it?

Of course there are now a couple of film adaptations of this book – Manhunter (1986) and Red Dragon (2002) – the former with a lesser known Dr Lecter (Brian Cox) and I love them both but they could never come close to the book and how it made me feel. Maybe you could credit this with igniting my interest in the darkness, at least in part.

As mentioned above, obviously Francis is a heinous beast capable of the most abhorrent acts but there are moments in which he shows great compassion and tenderness toward his blind co-worker Reba that gave me pause. Add into that the great cruelty shown towards him as a child by his own family and you’ve got a very complex and layered character. I guess like any sociopath integrated into real life.

The killings are horrifying and home invasions have long been triggering to me so that’s part of why this is just the absolute worst, but its written so well and the characters are so good that I can’t resist its pull. I actually just purchased it again on the Kindle – for the princely sum of £1.99 – because it’s been a few years and I’m due a revisit.

One of my all-time favourites.

So, go on, what’s yours?

One thought on “What’s your favourite scary book?

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