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Food for thought 3

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Food for thought (Pic: Rudi Fargo on Unsplash)

Food for thought: it’s a touchy subject cannibalism because if anything speaks of extreme characterisation (Hannibal Lecter, for instance) then it is those characters who eat other characters.

I came across this issue while writing Power Play. I was using Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus as the vague outline for a plot. As you know, there’s a famous scene where Titus and his daughter Lavinia makes pies using two of Tamora’s sons for the filling.

Here’s Shakespeare’s somewhat graphic description of the pasties he intends to make and feed to Tamora at a feast to which he’s invited her:

Hark, villains, I will grind your bones to dust,

And with your blood and it I’ll make a paste,

And of the paste a coffin I will rear,

And make two pasties of your shameful heads,

And bid that strumpet, your unhallowed dam [mother]

Like to the earth swallow her own increase.

This rather in-your-face plot development presented me with a little problem: how could I introduce a similar scene?

Well – spoiler alert – I got round it by having one of the gangster families – the Anders family – mince up their victim and bake him in sausage rolls, meat pies with “thick crusty pastry, [and] batches of curried mince samosas.” These went down a bomb at a funeral gathering until the grieving mother (a seriously bad gangster) was told she was eating her son. Things slipped from bad to worse at this point.

The trick with this sort of subject matter is to treat the descriptions in an almost off-hand manner. Which is the way Thomas Harris handles it in Silence of the Lambs.

Food for thought: Thomas Harris

Hannibal Lecter – of Silence of the Lambs – has passed into thriller history. His famous consumption of flutist Benjamin Rene Raspail, one of his patients at his psychiatric practice, is a lesson in deadpan humour. The story in brief is that FBI agent Clarice Starling is “consulting” Lecter (who is in prison) to help her track down a psychopath. During the course of this she reads the autopsy notes on the murder of Raspail which reveal that “Raspail’s heart was pierced and that he was short of his thymus and pancreas.

“Clarice Starling, who from early life and known much more than she wished to know about meat processing, recognised the missing organs as the sweetbreads.

“Baltimore Homicide believed that these items appeared on the menu of the dinner Lecter gave for the president and the conductor of the Baltimore Philharmonic on the evening following Raspail’s disappearance.

“Dr Hannibal Lecter professed to know nothing about these matters. The president and the conductor of the Philharmonic testified that they could not recall the fare at Dr Lecter’s dinner, though Lecter was known for the excellence of his table and had contributed numerous articles to gourmet magazines.”

In a dry aside, it is noted that in the weeks and months afterwards, “The president of the Philharmonic subsequently was treated for anorexia and problems related to alcohol dependency…”

This deadpan humour continues when Clarice confronts Lecter about Raspail’s death, and Lecter replies: “‘Frankly, I got sick and tired of his whining. Best thing for him, really. Therapy wasn’t going anywhere. I expect most psychiatrists have a patient or two they’d like to refer to me. I’ve never discussed this before, and now I’m getting bored with it.’

“‘And your dinner for the orchestra officials?’

“’Haven’t you ever had people coming over and no time to shop? You have to make do with what’s in the fridge, Clarice. May I call you Clarice?’”

Food for thought: Brett Easton Ellis

There is a scene in American Psycho where the psychopath Patrick Bateman tries to cook and eat one of his female victims. He has to smoke a cigar to mask the smell of the process and the scene is so disgusting that I’m not going to quote from it. Suffice to say that Bateman is full of self-pity: he is “beside himself” with emotion and “crying hard” because he has never cooked anything before and doesn’t know if he is doing it right.

The style Easton Ellis chooses is dry and matter of fact but this cannot disguise the truly putrid quality of this scene. Best to move on quickly.

Food for thought: Shalom Auslander

Back to the macabre: in Shalom Auslander’s novel, Mother for Dinner, the protagonist’s mother – known as Mudd – wants her children to eat her when she dies and in anticipation of this “Consumption” she has been fattening herself on Burger King Whoppers, 12 a day (double bacon, extra cheese, no lettuce).”

There is one of those classic off-hand exchanges when Seventh (yes, that’s the protagonist’s name, you’ll have to read the book to find out why) arrives at Mother Mudd’s deathbed.

“Seventh? Mudd moaned. Is that you?

Seventh took her enormous, bloated hand in his.

I’m here, Mudd, he said. I’m here.

Mudd looked up at him, her eyes glassy and dim.

You’re late, she said.

There was traffic, he said. On the bridge.

What kind of an idiot takes the bridge on a weekday, she said.”

Food for thought: in general

It seems that last year (2020) produced a bumper crop of books about people eating people. If you have a taste for this kind of literature you could pop over to the Literary Hub where Katie Yee is on the boil. She waxes lyrical on such wonderful titles as Tender is the Flesh; Earthlings; the previously mentioned Mother for Dinner, and a new translation of the mediaeval epic poem, Beowolf. There is a clip on YouTube that depicts the Beowolf meal but I’ll leave you to find that for yourself.

Writing tip

If you’re planning a scene where your characters gather round for a meal prepared from the remains of some of your other characters, remember to try the straight-faced approach. It’s a grisly subject at the best of times so rather don’t make a meal of it. Dry and ironic is the way to go. 

Part Four on Food for thought looks at booze in fiction.

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