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 a 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 considered a threat. Percy’s Lycans 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 Lupine Republic, where a population of several million Lycans is accompanied by over 60,000 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 per cent of Lycans support uranium extraction and “US involvement for the economic stability and physical security,” there has been a huge increase in conflict and terrorism by “extremist forces protesting US occupation and advocating state autonomy.” In the US, 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 that 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. Instead, it is bristling with blindingly clear barbed analogies. The Lupine Republic could be 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”. The students are to watch a film version of Othello next week, one in which a star plays “the moor as a Lycan”.
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.” But she is forced to accept all aspects of herself when her parents are suddenly killed for their past political involvements. It 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 cliché of a love story — a Lycan girl and a boy almost killed by Lycans — but it is also about struggle and survival and sudden, forceful societal change, and the nature of power. Red Moon also tells the story of 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, tails and terror.
What isn’t so clear is who the reader is meant to sympathise with. Of course, no one would sympathise with the perpetrators of large-scale terrorist violence in the novel in which dozens of innocents are murdered — 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. 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 and 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 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 the novel, 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.
By Benjamin Percy
Hodder & Stoughton, UK