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Meet Hannibal as a young cannibal

He first came to us in 1981 in "Red Dragon." American pop culture has never been the same.

On first acquaintance, Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter was nothing but a sneering, brilliant and courtly monster -- a man who'd murdered nine people, devoured a woman's tongue and, from his cell, urged a compadre in the serial killer's trade to slaughter the entire family of his captor, FBI agent Will Graham.

In the years since Michael Mann's extraordinary film of that book -- called "Manhunter" -- serial killers have become our entertainment daily bread. We're transfixed. They're on TV nightly -- sometimes several times a night. Movies great and small wallow in them. And all because of Dr. Lecter, whose second appearance in Thomas Harris' "The Silence of the Lambs" suggested to America the impossibly "lovable" monster it has craved since that bolt-neck fave of moviedom, the Frankenstein monster (who, as director James Whale first conceived of him, was capable of pitching beautiful young children into the lake to drown).

Lecter married frissons and chuckles; we thought it horrifyingly amusing that he consumed his enemies with "some fava beans and a good Chianti." He suggested that the ultimate in savagery was the only sensible recourse for the truly civilized among us.

In the real world, we know different -- very different. The Sept. 29 bike path death of Joan Diver is yet another reminder -- to those who somehow needed one -- that serial killers in life are vastly more banal and vastly more terrifying. They're not shiver-worthy fantasies, much less bubble gum cards to be traded and collected by kids. They murders mothers and daughters and fathers and sons, real people who were once on earth but are no more. They're not fantasies to cause goosebumps in the dead of night. They're agents of horror and tragedy.

But, as far as commercial fantasy runs, it's Hannibal Lecter's world, the rest of us just live in it. One of his most conspicuous fictional progeny -- Showtime's "Dexter," the serial killer who, like Lecter after "Red Dragon," only kills those who seem to "deserve" it -- ends his macabre TV run this evening, with the near-certainty of another season. (The novels go on.)

There were always serial killers, of course. But we owe our ghastly modern fascination with them to the magnificently gothic imagination of Thomas Harris, the cherubic, ex-journalist from Mississippi and publicity-shy bon vivant who has repeatedly shocked the world, not just with the horrific and black contents of his brain but the cultivation of his prose.

Even he might rue his success as a prophet. His first novel, "Black Sunday" -- about a Palestinian terrorist attack on the Super Bowl -- is probably the book that most accurately predicted the high-profile terrors of the world we live in.

It's the 66-year-old Harris and especially his monster Lecter who preside over modern fantasy life. His third Lecter novel, "Hannibal," left us at the end with Lecter and his former huntress, FBI agent Clarice Starling, in a happy, sex-filled menage in Buenos Aires. It was an ending that revolted many, but then what could be more admirable from Harris than his insistence on an author's right to appall? Who could be more disgusted at his creation being domesticated into a bubble gum card -- or perhaps a computer game?

And now here is Harris' Lecter again -- the young Lecter this time in a "prequel" novel that, in fact, followed Harris' own script for a new Lecter movie (which we'll see in February).

We meet him as a 6-year-old prodigy in his father's castle in Lithuania. He has a younger sister Mischa, whom he adores; a Jewish tutor named Jakov; an aristocratic mother and father; and a house full of doting servants. And then, courtesy of the Nazis and some deserters from the Russian Army, he has none of them any more -- only some wartime memories so horrendous that his own brain won't permit him to have them.

He is adopted by his uncle, an elderly and famous painter, and his Japanese wife, who is called Lady Murasaki (as was the author of "The Tale of Genji," the massive Japanese book that is one of the masterworks of world fiction). But even in Paris, the dogs of war, once loosed, can't be reined back. Slavering predators and brutes are everywhere.

Lecter, as Harris paints him, is civilization's own atavistic avenger. He first kills a butchering brute who says obscene things about his adopted stepmother. Luckily, the butcher was also a Nazi collaborator. So, in fact, are most of adolescent Hannibal's victims as the tale goes on and he becomes, at 17, the youngest student at his Parisian medical school. (Where better to hone one's skills at dismemberment?) By novel's end, the monster has racked up a solid score on behalf of civilization, not against it. It's as if we discovered that Moriarty is really Sherlock Holmes.

Harris is assuredly due some credit here. He's been as enslaved by his creation as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was by Holmes -- or Mario Puzo was by the Corleones. And yet he insists on his prerogative to re-create as freely as Twain insisted on serializing the tale of Tom Sawyer.

"Hannibal Rising" is neither as compulsively readable and brain-boggling as "Red Dragon" and "The Silence of the Lambs" nor as Baroquely overwrought as "Hannibal." And, on occasion, he lets his penchant for arcane vocabulary get the best of him -- just as he overdoes the cultural pretensions of Hannibal's supposed world. ("String quartets by Bach?" I think not. The form as we know it didn't begin until Haydn.)

He has trouble getting your attention in the first 60 pages or so of "Hannibal Rising," but once he gets it, he keeps it. You're on course for a readerly sprint through the rest.

And, on occasion, Harris can display a macabre wit Saki or Waugh might have approved.

Here he is, describing what happens when 13-year-old Hannibal -- made mute by the literally unspeakable horrors of wars he's witnessed -- is suddenly moved to utter his first words in years by the brutish butcher who insults his stepmother.

"Hannibal's voice was rusty with disuse, but the butcher understood him. He said 'beast' very calmly. It sounded like taxonomy rather than insult."

Jeff Simon is the News' Arts and Books Editor.

***

Hannibal Rising

By Thomas Harris

Delacorte, 323 pages, $27.95

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