Today is Thomas Harris' birthday. The legendary horror author is best known for the stories he spun surrounding serial-killer, Hannibal Lecter. Have you ever wondered what Harris' inspiration was for crafting one of the most notorious villains in all of literature? Is Lecter purely a figment of Harris' imagination? Or was there a real-life muse for the killer? Perhaps you find both options unsettling! But if you've ever been curious about the inspiration behind some of your favorite horror novels, read on.
Thomas Harris' Silence of the Lambs
Thomas Harris hasn't spoken too much about the inspirations behind his novels. But in the 25th-anniversary edition of Silence of the Lambs, he reveals the inspiration behind his most famous creation, the diabolical psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter. The intellectual serial killer is based on a murderous surgeon from Mexico.
The late 1960s found a young Harris working as a reporter for Argosy magazine. He was sent to Nuevo Leon State Prison in Monterrey, Mexico to interview mental patient Dykes Askew Simmons. Simmons had been convicted of murdering three people and awaited his death sentence. Rather than meet his fate passively, Simmons tried to bribe a guard to leave his cell unlocked and furnish him with a pistol. The guard took his money but gunned Simmons down instead. Simmons barely escaped with his life.
While visiting Simmons, Harris met Dr. Salazar. He described the doctor as a "small, lithe man with dark red hair. He stood very still and there was a certain elegance about him." Dr. Salazar was known for cutting his victims into surprisingly small pieces and placing them in boxes. The two discussed Simmons' disfigurement and the possible antecedents of his torment. After the exchange, Salazar asked Harris, "You are a journalist, Mr. Harris. How would you put that in your journal? How do you treat the fear of torment in journalese? Might you say something snappy about torment like 'It puts the 'hell' in 'hello''?" The episode clearly inspired Clarice Starling's interview with Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs.
Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
By the middle of the eighteenth century, crime was getting out of hand in London. Lawmakers sought a new means for deterring criminal activity. Thus to add "further terror and a peculiar mark of infamy" to certain crimes, the Murder Act of 1752 added dissection to the list of possible punishments for capital offenses; after a body hung from the gallows for at least an hour, it could be handed over to surgeons for anatomization.
On January 17, 1803, George Foster was executed in front of Newgate Prison. He'd been convicted of murdering his wife and child, despite vociferous protestations of innocence. Foster awaited his fate with great trepidation, for he knew that his body would be handed over to the Royal College of Surgeons. But it wouldn't go to medical students. Foster's body had been promised to Giovanni Aldini, a doctor and scientist from Bologna, Italy. Aldini claimed that if he were given a perfect body, he could bring it back from the dead. Aldini predictably failed to reanimate Foster's body, but his endeavors were the talk of the town. One medic who witnessed the procedure, Anthony Carlisle, was a frequent guest at William Godwin's house--where Godwin's daughter Mary, later known as Mary Shelley—undoubtedly overheard the lively conversation about Aldini's experiment.
Shelley's scientist, Victor Frankenstein, and Aldini share numerous traits. Both are obsessed with the prospect of reanimation, and both are consummate showmen who crave an audience. It's highly probable that Shelley drew on this real episode when she began to weave her gothic tale Frankenstein.
Bram Stoker's Dracula
We're all familiar with the grisly legacy of Prince Vlad Tepes, better known as Vlad the Impaler. The bloodthirsty prince is known for brutally murdering thousands of people and hoisting their bodies up on stakes. It has long been accepted that this Count Dracula was both the inspiration and namesake for Bram Stoker's Dracula. But evidence suggests that Stoker may have chosen the name for another reason.
Florence Stoker sold her husband's notes for Dracula after he died in 1912. By the time they resurfaced in 1972, scholars and readers had already suggested numerous theories about Stoker's inspiration. In 1958, Basil Kirtley suggested the connection between Vlad the Impaler and Stoker's protagonist. That theory took hold, and it's been hard to shake ever since!
But there's actually no evidence that Stoker was ever aware of Vlad III or knew he was also called Vlad the Impaler. They do, however, indicate why Stoker chose the name "Dracula." According to his notes, Stoker read William Wilkinson's book An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia in the summer of 1890. He copied sections into his journals, noting that "DRACULA in Wallachian language means DEVIL." Meanwhile, at the time Transylvania was a trendy setting for gothic novels, and it was generally de rigeur to present eastern Europe as a place of primitive violence, explaining the coincidence of location. Stoker initially set the story in Austria and called his character Count Wampyr, which he later crossed out and replaced with "Dracula."
Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles
In the late 1960s, Anne Rice wrote a short story about a vampire named Louis de Pointe du Lac, who shares his life story with a journalist. Rice finished the story but set it aside. Years later, soon after the death of her daughter Michelle, Rice was participating in a graduate program in Creative Writing at San Francisco State University. One of her husband's students read the story and encouraged her to revisit its possibilities. Rice ultimately decided to expand it into a novel.
It took Rice only five weeks to expand the short story into a manuscript for Interview with the Vampire. She researched vampires during the day and wrote at night. Although the novel received mixed reviews, it instantly propelled Rice to fame, spurring a whole series of sequels known as the Vampire Chronicles.
Rice has noted that her daughter Michelle, who died of cancer at age six, was an inspiration for the child vampire, Claudia. And she says that the vampire LeStat is a composite of herself and her husband, Stan. "LeStat" is a misspelling of "LeStan."
Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes
Prolific and ingenious author Ray Bradbury is most closely associated with science fiction, but novels like Something Wicked This Way Comes certainly cross over into the world of horror. Bradbury drew his inspiration from an encounter with a carnival magician, Mr. Electrico. The magician greeted the twelve-year-old Bradbury and declared him the reincarnation of a friend who'd died in World War I. From that point on, Bradbury would be fascinated with Mr. Electrico's character. The eventual result: the short story "The Black Fern."
In 1955, Bradbury proposed to his friend Gene Kelly that they collaborate on a film together. Kelly liked the idea, so Bradbury spent the next five weeks adapting "The Black Fern" into a much longer treatment. But Kelly never found a studio willing to back the project. Over the next five years, Bradury gradually transformed the piece into a novel. He converted the once-benign Mr. Electrico into a much more sinister presence. Bradburn took the title from a line in Macbeth, "By the pricking of my thumbs,/Something wicked this way comes." The autumn setting of Something Wicked This Way Comes is meant to evoke the summery setting of Dandelion Wine, to which it is a thematic sequel.
Stephen King's Carrie
One summer during college, Stephen King worked alongside his brother Dave as a janitor at Brunswick High School. He found himself scrubbing rust stains in the girls'showers and realized that they had shower curtains for privacy—unlike the showers in the boys' locker room. Something about that need for privacy and the image of the shower curtain's U-rings stuck with King. Later, working at the laundry, he had the image of a girl in the locker room shower with no curtain for privacy. The girl menstruated for the first time and was terrified by all the blood. The other girls began pelting her with sanitary napkins. He was struck with the extraordinary cruelty of adolescents.
Years earlier, King had read an article in LIFE magazine about the theory that some reported poltergeist activity might actually be telekinetic phenomena. The article explored evidence that young people, particularly girls in early adolescence, might possess telekinetic capability. King married that potential with the prevalence of adolescent cruelty and arrived at the concept for Carrie. The protagonist is a composite of two characters from King's own childhood. Tina White was the class scapegoat because she wore the same outfit to school every day. And Sandra Irving came from a very religious family; the crucifix hanging over the sofa was so large, it would have killed someone if it fell on them.
King scribbled a few opening pages for the novel...only to throw them away. His wife, Tabitha, rescued them from the trash can. After reading them, she couldn't wait to hear the rest of Carrie's story. It was Tabitha who convinced King to finish the novel and seek its publication.
Dean Koontz' Odd Thomas
Dean Koontz says that he was working on The Face when the idea for his Odd Thomas series struck. A line popped into his head, so he stopped typing and wrote it down on a legal pad: "My name is Odd Thomas. I live an unusual life." Koontz kept writing feverishly, and the next thing he knew, he had an entire first chapter on paper. When he returned to the piece after finishing The Face, he decided that it needed very little revision and embarked on the rest of the novel.
Koontz claims that he wasn't sure about Odd's ultimate destination until the fourth book, Odd Hours. And initially, he only conceived that he would write one book, then maybe a trilogy. In an interview with USA Today, Koontz says, "When I finished the first one, Odd Thomas, I thought, "This is liable to be more than one book," but at most I thought it would be a trilogy. But the character just had dimension after dimension that I found fascinating."