Red Moon by Benjamin Percy
Previously published in Dawn’s Books & Authors.
Some would say Benjamin Percy, a writer best known for his ‘literary’ fiction, has veered off course with his newest novel Red Moon, which can easily be classified as a bio-political horror novel. But all narrative forms about horror - be they books or film - have always been about the fears of society at that given point in time. Werewolves, vampires, witches - any number of supernatural beings have always represented the Other in fiction, with werewolves perhaps being a little more complicated than the rest because they are entirely human most of the time. They are the only ones who have to endure a physical transformation (one not always under their control) to release their inner beast, as it were. Their demons are hidden, buried under a perfect human guise that can fool anyone into thinking there’s absolutely nothing wrong here. They could be anyone at all until they reveal their true nature in a sudden shift towards devastating violence - or so Red Moon tells us.
With Red Moon, Percy taps into the current demonisation of the ‘Other’ in the West - be it Muslims or Arabs or any migrant or ethnic community has been considered a threat at any point in history. Percy’s Lycan’s are a part of world history in Red Moon. A disease called Lobos infected people centuries ago and has now created a small population of Lycans in the world, some of whom are more assimilated in society than others. Many reside in the the Lupine Republic, where a population of several million Lycans is accompanied by over 60 thousand American troops. America’s presence in the Lupine Republic is directly related to the massive stores of uranium present in the tiny country, and though the popular consensus is that 80% of Lycans support uranium extraction and ‘U.S involvement for the economic stability and physical security’, there has been a huge increase in conflict and terrorism by ‘extremist forces protesting U.S occupation and advocating state autonomy’. In the U.S, many years were spent with complete Lycan segregation - only after ‘the Struggle’ were Lycans somewhat accepted into mainstream society even though transformation remains forbidden. Each Lycan is tested to ensure they are all taking Lupex, a highly addictive drug that forces them to remain ‘human’ and keeps the ‘infection’ in a sedated form.
This is not a book of subtle metaphor. This is a book bristling, writhing with blindingly clear barbed analogies. The Lupine Republic could any number of oil-rich countries in our world; the Lycans could be any number of ethnic or racial minority groups demonised in the West over the course of many decades. At times Percy is aggressively unsubtle - there is even a scene set in a classroom where Othello is being taught to high school students, with a discussion on ‘betrayal and the Other’. They are to watch a film version of Othello next week, one in which a star plays ‘the moor as a Lycan’.
What isn’t so clear is who the reader is meant to sympathise with. Of course, no one would sympathise with the perpetrators of the large scale terrorist violence murdering dozens of innocents that takes place in Red Moon - including, at the very start, an entire airplane’s passengers ravaged by a single Lycan on board - but Percy has created a great many sympathetic Lycan characters who are not a party to the destruction. His point, once again, is very clear: one group of terrorists does not represent an entire nation, culture or religion.
Red Moon is the story of Claire, a young Lycan girl for whom being born this way ‘makes her feel sometimes split in two, as if she is at war with herself. Life is easier when part of her remains dormant, neglected.’ Claire is forced to accept all aspects of herself when her parents are suddenly killed for their past political involvements. This is also the story of Patrick, the sole survivor of the airplane attack, whose father is a soldier in the Lupine Republic. Theirs is almost a cliche of a love story - a Lycan girl and a boy almost killed by Lycans - but it is also the story of struggle and survival and sudden, forceful society change, and the nature of power. Red Moon is also about a politician who becomes what he has always claimed to protect people from, about a woman at odds with what is expected of her, about violence and faith - all in one big, howling horror novel with snapping teeth and tails and terror.
Mainstream literary writers have been borrowing tropes from fantasy and science fiction for years to tell stories about the world around them. Some have tried this more obviously than others - Colson Whitehead tried it with zombies in Zone One, Justin Cronin with vampires in The Passage, for instance. Mixing a particular ‘literary’ style of writing with horror can make the narrative a little bit stilted or unnatural, but what this always does is make you pause and think. It helps that Benjamin Percy’s language in Red Moon is ripe with inherent visceral violence: a seatbelt ‘unclicks with the noise of a switchblade’, ‘foam rips from a seat cushion like a strip of fat’, sleep comes ‘like a guillotine’ and handwriting is like ‘barbed wire’. There is jagged savagery at every instance of Red Moon, just as there is in the world today, and while this is not a flawless blend of literary fiction and horror, it remains an intelligent narrative about humanity, told with great enthusiasm and verve.