- Red Moon
- Grand Central Publishing, 544 pp.
“Make Yourself Heard. Howl.”
Red Moon by Benjamin Percy is an engaging political thriller with a fresh take on a horror classic—the werewolf. As with any speculative text, Red Moon both is and is not about werewolves, in so far as monsters are always metaphors. Like its monsters, Red Moon is an impressive hybrid—a speculative novel about fairy tale horrors, a love story about star-crossed teenagers from different worlds, and a gritty political thriller. Percy weaves these disparate threads together into a dense, fast-paced story narrated by an ensemble of characters who occupy various sides of a violent political and cultural struggle. As an alternative history and futuristic dystopian novel, Red Moon re-tells the story of who we are, what we’re like now, and where we might be headed. Percy accomplishes all of this in part through a muscular prose style that flexes with gripping metaphors. When one of the characters transforms into a werewolf, for example, Percy describes her as being peripherally aware of the woman in the wolf, “like a burr in a sock” (85). Another character’s hand, wounded in a fist-fight, becomes for him “like a tool he doesn’t recognize” (45). The frequency of such similes grants literary appeal to this generic chimera. And while Percy occasionally sacrifices depth for breadth, not giving much space to the psychological nuances of his characters, his world-building leaves nothing to be desired. By making use of a flexible, perhaps even cannibalistic, and economical monster metaphor, Percy tells us a disturbing story. Red Moon is a thoroughly engaging, fast-paced, and occasionally playful meditation on contemporary politics and where they could be leading us.
Posing the werewolf as a sort of catch-all metaphor enables Percy to think through the problem of othering in its many manifestations. The werewolf functions, in Red Moon, as the ultimate site of contention. Percy’s rather circumscribed explanation of lycan history betrays the novel’s primary investment in the way that difference functions to shore up differences, creating alliances and bitter enemies at the same time. Part of the charm of Percy’s take on the werewolf is the way in which he transforms familiar fairy tales and folklores into a mode of describing reality that feels disturbingly apropos. The novel places the origins of lycanthropy in the 7th century, when humans who engaged in the ritual eating of wolf brains became unwittingly infected by a virus. This virus or “prion,” which had formerly infected only wolves, mutated, and the werewolf was born. In what can only be an intentional allusion to AIDS, the virus spreads among humans by blood or by fluids transmitted during sexual intercourse. Because a lycan’s gums bleed liberally during transformation, a bite that draws the blood of the bitten is typically sufficient for the virus to spread. Of course, werewolf narratives, like zombie narratives or vampire narratives, are about contagion, so in Red Moon, drugs that can suppress or prevent the effects of the lobos virus are the source of much controversy, and the elusive lobos vaccine is both much-desired by lycan haters and much-villified by lycans themselves, who refuse to accept the stigmatization of their difference.
Using lycanthropy as a metaphor standing in for, among other things, AIDS, illegal immigrants, racialized others, homosexuals, and Muslims, allows the author to map the varying struggles and factions arising out of fear. The uninfected fear the infected and the infected fear the manifestations of the uninfected’s fear. The result is a world shattered and stratified by dangerous extremes. While the majority of lycans want nothing more than to live quiet, unmolested lives, the subtle and not-so-subtle bigotry of the fearful uninfected drives a small group of lycans to take up violent means as a method of redress. The novel opens with what we discover is a coordinated terrorist attack by a group of lycans determined to raise awareness for their cause and prompt social and political change. On the other side, two main groups of uninfected humans take it upon themselves to terrorize the lycan population. The first of these is a gang of quasi-Neo Nazi boys who call themselves “the Americans” bent on restoring the country to what they consider “real” American values. The other is a government operated CIA-style initiative that takes full advantage of the chaos caused by the Resistance to mount a Gestapo-esque extermination effort against lycan communities. Each of these factions has its leaders, and Percy paints all of these as villains in different ways. His main focus in the book, the only characters who get anything like a consistent representation of their point of view, are caught between these worlds, liminal—for one reason or another. They are pulled on and influenced and manipulated and seduced and bullied by the extreme ends of the spectrum that are primarily interested in the extermination of their supposed foes.
Percy centralizes the liminality of his main characters and uses the tension surrounding it to explore the nature of and political uses of othering. While the novel draws, self-consciously it seems, on the age-old structure of star-crossed lovers, bridging a gap between worlds in their efforts to find love together, the romantic underpinnings of the novel never seem forced. The two characters in question, a young man named Patrick and a young woman named Claire, find each other under horrific circumstances. Patrick is the lone survivor of a terrorist attack aboard an airplane and Claire is the victim of a backlash against the population believed to be responsible. While Percy falls short in allowing his characters to develop psychological depth and nuance, he takes them, and the readers along with them, on such a bumpy and frenetic ride that it’s easy to forget how little we know about them. Percy introduces characters on the very front lines of the extremist struggles in the novel only when they are on the verge of destruction. The points of view that endure are those that straddle the line between worlds.
The world of Red Moon is our world right now, except with werewolves. The immediacy and resonance of such a story in the post-911 world is what grants Red Moon much of its power while also being the reason the novel might lose potency with time. By installing the lycan struggle as a parallel to so many struggles throughout history, and especially the Civil Rights Movement, Percy creates a clear connection with this process of “othering” that the lycan so easily absorbs. In an image clearly intended to recall our own iconic images of peaceful protestors in the Civil Rights Movement being assaulted by fire hoses and racist cops, Percy describes a photograph of a flag-bearing lycan, howling his rage at the government and police forces arrayed to oppress him.
Lycan efforts to call attention to their shared humanity manifest on a familiar spectrum of resistance, from peaceful protest and passive resistance, to attempted assimilation, to extremism and terrorism. The lycan-as-metaphor allows Percy to gesture broadly at the history of and current struggles with social and cultural inequality. What begins with employment discrimination, mandatory pharmaceuticals, and a national registry landslides into disaster. By catastrophizing as he does, Percy imagines a dystopia that feels a little too close for comfort.