Red Moon: A Novel
“. . . that rarest of creatures: an intelligent and original lycanthrope novel. Perhaps the great werewolf novel.”
“. . . the thinking person’s Twilight.”
When speculative fiction is bad, it is bone-jarringly, teeth-grindingly, howlingly bad. When speculative fiction is good, it sings to the moon. It tickles the tiny hairs at the back of our necks until they bristle to attention. It has teeth—and they bite.
Benjamin Percy’s brave new novel Red Moon screams into the latter category.
It is very, very good.
That’s right, brave. And there’s a reason for that word. Red Moon is a werewolf novel set in an Orwellian future in which lycanthropes live among us. . . . Even such a brief synopsis is enough to inspire heavy sighs, rolled eyes, a mutter of “not again.” We’ve seen it all before—we think. We’ve read it all before. And this is a hefty slab of a book. Do we really have to read all that?
Well, you do. Because Red Moon does that very difficult thing: it refreshes a tired, clichéd genre. It subverts it. Plays with it, like a predator toying with its prey. It reinvents, and it does so with such spirit, such talent, the reader is rendered speechless.
Red Moon does what The Waking Dead did for zombies, and what Interview with the Vampire did for vampires.
Mr. Percy’s project might have started out as sheer lunacy, but somewhere on the first page, it transforms. It becomes that rarest of creatures: an intelligent and original lycanthrope novel. Perhaps the great werewolf novel.
Channeling Poe, and Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, this tale—about as far from a shaggy-dog tale as you’re going to get in the werewolf arena—is literary, a serious piece of work.
Mr. Percy writes beautifully. His prose waxes lyrical, by turns full of Hemingwayesque muscularity, Chandleresque grit, and majestic, Kingly set pieces.
Above all else, Red Moon is a novel about the divided self. It’s in the vein of great “beast inside” writing such as The Thing, but here it’s given a modern twist. Mr. Percy engages with a very real-seeming world inhabited by both humans and lycans. Without getting all snooty about it, it’s the thinking person’s Twilight.
The novel begins with a man trying to smuggle that most difficult of bounties—himself and the beast inside him—past security and onto a plane.
“This is the busiest time of day, when the security guards, the flight attendants, his fellow travelers, notice the least, the airport a flurry of bodies, a carnival of noise. The motion detector above the entrance winks and the electronic double doors open and he enters baggage claim.”
We share his panic as he is submerged: “. . . amongst the confused mass of bodies and rolling suitcases. They aren’t moving—they are a wall of meat—and he wants to shove them, throw something, but manages to contain himself, to steady his breathing and circle around the crowd and find the actual line of passengers shuffling toward the agent, who scans their tickets with an empty smile and a thank you, thank you, thank you.”
Young Patrick Gamble also boards the plane that day, and author Percy nimbly changes perspective, allowing the reader to experience the horror of what occurs next with full, brutal force. From the restroom: “There is a growl, a long, drawn-out guttural rumbling, and though it is hard to place it, it seems more animal than machine. The cabin is now hushed except for the creaking of seats as people turn around with anxious expressions.”
And then: “. . . the thing emerges from the restroom, rushing forward like a gray wraith, a blurred mass of hair and muscle and claws . . . It is sometimes on all fours and sometimes balanced on its hind legs. Its back is hunched. Its face is marked by a blunt snout that flashes teeth as long and sharp as bony fingers, a skeleton’s fist of a smile. And its hands—oversize and decorated with long nails—are greedily outstretched and slashing the air.”
So far, so familiar, but here’s where Benjamin Percy’s genius comes into play. For here, there’s no room for schlock horror. Instead, Mr. Percy gives the lycans the full HBO treatment. He goes The Wire deep into the history, geography, language, and culture of the world he has created. He shows the ripple effects of the terrorist attack on the planes—for that is what the lycan’s emergence on the restroom is shown to be—and how this chimes with our real world anxieties.
There’s the obvious, uncomfortable reminder of the 9/11 attacks. “He told her, in a gruff, halting way, about the attacks. The three planes. One had crashed outside of Denver, a fiery smear in a wheat field. The other two had landed, in Portland and Boston, the pilots locked safely in the cockpit, but with only one passenger alive, on Flight 373, a boy, a teenager not yet identified. No one knew much else.”
And then the aftermath of them. The president gives a rabble-rousing speech talking about a “swift, severe, and immediate response” to the attacks. He says: “This is not a time to lash out at our lycan neighbors, who live peacefully among us and who are registered and monitored and, with the help of strictly prescribed medication, have foregone their ability to transform. Remember that to be a lycan is not to be an extremist . . .”
And then the dramatic upturn in patriotism: “American flags snap from every porch. Stars-and-stripes magnets decorate every bumper. And this morning, outside a McDonald’s, a man with a bucket and a sudsy scrub brush works over the brick exterior where someone has spray-painted Eye for an eye, lycans should die.”
It becomes all about the reaffirming of who you are, in this bleak new world; and this is done by affirming what you are most definitely not.
For example: “Walt knows what he’d do. Right after the attacks, he brought to the city council an emergency proposal that would make public every registered lycan. Put it in the papers, he’d said. Put it on the internet. Put it on their IDs, for God’s sake. That was the real no-brainer, something that had been discussed for years without success, a slot on the driver’s license, right next to blue eyes and brown hair: lycan.”
Lycans increasingly come to be seen as shadowy figures from the underworld, like gargoyles, their shape “occulting the moon.” Their state of being is increasingly seen as a disease, “an infection:” “The latest U.S. census lists persons infected with lobos at 5.2 percent. Lobos is not a bacteria and it is not a virus, despite its commonly being referred to as such. It is a prion—a word derived from protein and infection, and assigned to infectious agents that are made not of nucleic acids bit instead of misfolded protein.”
And: “The word lobos comes from wolf, as does lobotomy, an operation that puts one out of one’s mind—and isn’t that the very essence of the infection?”
Here, Mr. Percy’s use of language is telling. This is rhetoric. It is rabble rousing. It is intended to propagate myths of difference and to reaffirm them. Language itself is shown to have become “infected” by the general air of mistrust that abounds. This is an aspect of how the apartheid regime in South Africa worked.
And from the language, the ripple effects are felt through geography and culture. They manifest themselves in “clearances”reminiscent of the infamous District 6 clearances in Cape Town: “She points out the section of town where the lycans used to live—before the Struggle, when lycan segregation was mandatory in housing, schools, bathrooms, restaurants—a collection of quaint one-story bungalows that now, his mother says, cost three hundred thousand a pop.”
After the attacks, one of the supposed terrorists is taken to a holding cell eerily reminiscent of Guantanamo: “Jeremy Saber does not know how much time has passed since his arrest. He has no clock, no calendar, and his fourteen-by-fourteen cell has no window, so he cannot keep track of the hours, the days, the weeks and months, all of it a maddening blur punctuated by the occasional cold shower and meal of tacky oatmeal or chicken and rice drowned in gray gravy. He knows, because of his mental fog and his inability to transform, a strong dosage of Volpexx must be ground and mixed into the food. He has tried not to eat, tried to hold out, but eventually his hunger possesses him. The lights remain on day and night and music pipes in at top volume so that he cannot sleep or think.”
Terrifyingly, on one occasion, this is Britney Spears.
The ripple effects are felt in other ways. “Dead dogs show up on campus every week. She has seen pentagrams spray-painted across the sides of buildings, choke chains hung from trees like tinsel. It has always been like this, she hears, but since the plane attacks and the courthouse square bombing, with anti-lycan sentiment at its peak, the campus is more than ever in the crosshairs. The other night Fox News ran a segment that questioned whether it was a training camp for terrorists.”
The Lycan Resistance reacts: “Pay attention. Our demands have not been met.’ He went on to list enforced medication and blood testing, limited employment opportunities, the US occupation of the Republic, and the proposed construction of a public lycan database as chief among his complaints.”
The intelligentsia has its own reaction. Kenneth Branagh, we are told, has directed a film in which he plays the moor in Othello as a lycan. And in response, there is “Call of Duty: Lycan Wars” in which “your level by level mission (is) to kill as many lycan insurgents as possible . . .”
I’m talking ripple effects. Claire Forrester, our other protagonist, sees children playing, pretending their sticks are swords. She hears one of them cry: “You’re dead, lycan monster.”
Here Mr. Percy’s world building is excellent. It’s all in the little details. These add up to create a tangible, visceral, warped-mirror image of our own world. He uses the broadest of canvases, and the novel does have the feel of a Box Set TV show, for this is a long and luxuriant novel, one that takes its time. And the writing has a picturesque, filmic quality.
But never fear, the action refuses to relent, and there are plenty of cliffhangers.
But what really keeps us hooked are Mr. Percy’s flawed, human characters—even if some of them aren’t fully human. Indeed, this work posits salient questions regarding what it means to be fully human. Is it our body, our mind, our genetic makeup, our soul, our hopes and dreams? Or is it our actions and the choices we make?
Red Moon is a novel all about choices. At the most basic level, this is fight or flight.
But it is also about choosing which aspects of your own self, your own desires, your own impulses you should listen to.
Some lycans, we learn, do not trust the “animal” aspects, the bestial shades of their behaviour. Claire “. . . doesn’t particularly like being a lycan” at first. “The duality of the condition makes her feel sometimes split in two, as if she is at war with herself. Life is easier when that part of her remains dormant, neglected.”
And: “Even unmedicated, Claire feels no desire to transform. And that’s what it’s all about, desire. Letting go, they call it. Letting go, allowing the animal to take over, like an unleashed id.”
“She feels—the world feels—split down the center.”
Patrick, too. Although fully human, Patrick has never belonged, has never really known himself. “Every time Patrick rolls into bed, he finds it unsettling, with the impression of someone else still in the mattress, a dent where another body had been, just one more reminder that this place is not his own.”
After the terrorist attack on the planes, he tries to find company amongst a bunch of skinheads who call themselves “The Americans.” The Americans form hunting parties in which they go out to track wolves and generally cause havoc amongst the lycan community, and they do this wearing “white pillowcases over their heads with eyeholes and crooked mouths scissored into them.”
But when he meets Claire, the tectonic plates of Patrick are about to shift: “She is what his father fights. She is what Max rails against. She is what brought down three planes and their passengers. The face of the plague, the creature made monstrous in so many novels and films and cop dramas and comic books—But now she’s just a girl with choppy hair, wearing a sweatshirt and sweatpants . . .”
Horror, a genre often thought to have had its heyday in the 1970s to the mid-1980s, is biting back.
Intelligent writers such as Benjamin Percy are at the forefront of this transformation.
Here’s an interesting idea as posited by Percy in the text. He reminds us of the: “Magic Eye books that were so popular at the time. You would stare at a patterned page until your eyes went out of focus—and then an image would rise from the page and startle you. He remembers one page in particular, a page carrying the shape of the moon—and out of its cratered grayness rose a skull.”
Red Moon works in the same way. You experience the adventure, the horror, the fantasy, but through it you also see, slowly starting to emerge, certain uncomfortable truths regarding the way our own world works.