I have always been fascinated by the artwork of William Blake, particularly his dragon series. Unlike other artists that tried and failed to capture the strange figures from the revelation of John of Patmos, Blake somehow manages to craft a figure that can hold multiple heads and crowns, not to mention that duality of being between the human and the animal, or the worldly and the spiritual. These paintings are all quite haunting and it is really no wonder that Thomas Harris was so taken by them that he incorporated Blake’s work into his novel Red Dragon (1981). The scene in the book when Dolarhyde eats Blake’s “The Great Red Dragon and The Woman Clothed with the Sun” (a different painting than that depicted above) is one of my favourite moments in any book…and I have read a good many of those. This same scene is reproduced onscreen by Ralph Fiennes (as Dolarhyde) in Brett Ratner’s 2002 adaptation of the novel. I highly encourage you to read Red Dragon, or at least to watch this scene if you have never seen the film:
Now that’s different. But aside from simply entertaining, this scene speaks volumes about Harris’s novel and its place in popular culture, not to mention the difficulty of positioning the novel in a distinct genre category. Questions of genre are not arbitrary for me. Though this might for some be a simple matter of where we find certain titles at the bookstore (yes, there are still some of those) or at the video store (wait…there are not really any of those anymore…ok, Netflix?), genre is one of the means by which we define our identity and our position within culture. Therefore, the fact that Red Dragon is commonly associated with the genres of horror, psychological thriller or the crime novel, might cause many people to overlook the fact that it also shares a peculiar place in the apocalyptic tradition. I will attempt to highlight a few reasons I feel this is relevant and important below.
Understanding Red Dragon’s place in the tradition of apocalyptic writing, particularly in terms of American apocalypticism, allows a re examination of many of the choices made by the author. One example would be to think about the epigraph to the novel, which is drawn from William Blake’s famous poem set “Songs of Innocence and Experience”. Coupled with the later focus on Blake’s Revelations apocrypha, we should now be conscious of the potential religious significance of several scenes in the novel, not the least of which is the very first scene in the book when Harris sets the scene with his first sentence: “Will Graham sat Crawford down at a picnic table between the house and the ocean and gave him a glass of iced tea” (Red Dragon 1). A dualism is instantly set up between Will and Jack, who sit on opposing sides of a picnic bench between the house and the sea. While the sea and the house could represent civilization vs. untamed nature