Uh-oh: Hannibal's back in town, hon

The gruesome sequel to 'Silence of the Lambs' takes Dr. Lecter to the Eastern Shore, and introduces an angry victim from Owings Mills.

June 20, 1999|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,Sun Staff

For better or for a lot worse, Baltimore can now lay claim to another macabre literary figure -- one that might make even John Waters' imagination cry uncle.

His name is Mason Verger, formerly of Owings Mills and currently of "Hannibal," Thomas Harris' mouthwatering sequel to "The Silence of the Lambs." In "Hannibal," Verger -- sheer sadist, sheer fiction -- plots culinary revenge against everybody's favorite cannibal, Dr. Hannibal Lecter.

Hometown reviews of the new book have come from a most unlikely source. Amazon.com, a leading online bookseller, has posted a five-star rating for "Hannibal" from a "customer" named Mason Verger of Baltimore. It's a creepy joke because Verger is not real, of course. He is unreal.

In the sequel, Verger and Hannibal meet, of all places, at Verger's Owings Mills home. This isn't wholly surprising, given that Baltimore served as a key setting in "Silence of the Lambs."

Before his arrest in Maryland, Lecter resided in Baltimore with his china, silver and crystal place settings. The doctor attended concerts with attractive women "prominent in Baltimore charity work." And it was at the fictitious Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane where FBI agent-in-training Clarice Starling first interrogated Dr. Lecter, who would later escape only to return to readers 11 years later in top sequel form.

Verger, "Hannibal" readers learn, was Lecter's sixth victim. The son of a Maryland meat-packing mogul, Verger had been assigned by the court to undergo therapy with the distinguished Dr. Lecter. (Fun fact: They had both served on the board of the Baltimore Philhar-monic; as "Silence of the Lamb" readers remember, Lecter served the expertly prepared "sweetbreads" of a flutist to the Philharmonic's board members.)

The plot of "Hannibal" owes much to the ghastly meeting between Verger and Lecter in Owings Mills -- in real life, the home of the Baltimore Ravens, the home of a huge mall and the home of some nice homes. It's a peculiar (or simply random) choice of locales for Harris -- given what transpires between Verger and Lecter.

The meeting did not go well.

"I answered the door in some leather, you know. Watched for some reaction, didn't see any. I was concerned he'd be afraid of me, but he didn't seem to be. Afraid of me -- that's funny now," Verger tells Starling, who tracks Lecter in the sequel.

One thing leads to another until Verger, a bad dude in his own right, finds himself drugged by Lecter. The good doctor picks up a piece of broken glass and suggests, "I might like to peel off my face with it. He let the dogs out. I fed them my face. ... They got my nose back when they pumped the dogs' stomachs at the animal shelter, but the graft didn't take," Verger tells Starling, ever composed.

Roll over, Edgar Allan Poe.

The now noseless and lipless Verger "with no soft tissue on his face, was all teeth, like a creature of the deep, deep ocean." He moves to Muskrat Farm near the Susquehanna River in northern Maryland, where he survives by respirator and plots by the World Wide Web, which he uses to hunt Lecter.

Baltimore references continue to lace "Hannibal" -- from the Baltimore Police Department's evidence room, where Starling looks for Lecter's medical records, to Baltimore's child welfare department, where Verger finds children to visit him so that he may mentally toy with them for his sadistic pleasure. And an upscale wine store in Annapolis provides a clue.

If one was feeling squeamishly parochial, one might have asked Harris to leave Baltimore out of it! "Hannibal" can make one homesick for Anne Tyler's homesick restaurant in Baltimore, where "sweetbreads" are definitely not on the menu.

Oddly, the state of Maryland distinguishes itself in "Hannibal" by giving the madman Verger pause. Not to spill the story, but Verger wants to capture Lecter very much alive. Verger fears the local or state authorities might get lucky and arrest Lecter. Given that Maryland has a death penalty, that would be the end of Verger's main course. How inconsiderate would that be?

Then, by page 300, just when readers think Lecter will remain in Italy, the cannibal returns to his beloved Maryland. Why? Because it's "reasonably convenient to the music and theater in Washington and New York," Harris writes. Lecter, above all else, is a man of taste.

He rents a home on the Eastern Shore. (Imagine Hannibal Lecter roaming the boardwalk at Ocean City, dining on Thrasher's fries and ...) In preparation for his very special guest (guess who?), he buys a new set of crystal and a harpsichord.

"The wind off the Chesapeake gains strength, whips the candle flames until they gutter out, sings through the strings of the harpsichord in the dark -- now an accidental tune, now a thin scream from long ago."

Deep Creek Lake suddenly looks good this summer.

Pub Date: 06/20/99

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