I recently finished Red Moon by Benjamin Percy, and it is quite honestly one of the most intense novels I’ve read recently. It is a kind of alternate history of the United States, clearly meant to speak to those of us living in post-9/11 America. Although, rather than tell a story about xenophobia toward Arabs and Muslims, the characters in Red Moon are fearful of werewolves (or, as they are called in the book, lycans). Stay with me. This is not Twilight or True Blood or any of the many horror books and movies and shows aimed at teens. This is literary horror that Stephen King and Dean Koontz readers have been hoping would emerge in this new generation of writers.
The lycans of Red Moon have been around since the seventh century. Their condition is caused by a prion called lobos. It is a blood-borne contagion, similar to a virus, which affects certain areas of the brain that control stress-related functions. When lycans change, they don’t turn into wolves. They become hairier, their teeth sharpen to points, their nails turn to claws, but they are still human. They are less the mythical werewolves we’re used to and more people with hulk-like abilities.
In Red Moon, lycans are treated as second-class citizens. They are required to register, and, even though they can control the change on their own and can function as normal human beings, they are required to take monthly blood tests to ensure they are taking Volpex, a drug which inhibits their transformation. Non-lycans are afraid of lycans, and that fear is reinforced by splinter groups of lycan terrorists fighting for their right to be treated the same as everyone else. Most lycans, however, are not a radical as those in the splinter groups and just want to live normal lives (sound familiar?).
Those lycans who wanted a homeland where they could live freely created the Lupine Republic, situated between Russia and Finland, in 1948. However, when the U.S. discovered a boat-load of uranium un the Republic, they occupied it and began mining the uranium. Most U.S. troops are sent there until the lycan terrorists back home set off a nuclear explosion.
There are parts of this book which are not fully realized, mainly the characters. Claire and Patrick, the novel’s two teens, have an ongoing and complicated romance throughout the novel. They don’t grow that much, though. They move from one tragedy to the next, and they become harder, but they are relatively unchanged from the beginning of the book to the end. Chase Williams, a politician who is as against lycan rights as you can imagine, is turned into a lycan. Even that, however, doesn’t change his mind. He remains so far to the right in his beliefs that he seems less like a person and more like a vehicle for Percy to make a point. Many of the other characters exist more in the background than anything, and Percy sometimes seems unsure of what to do with them.
In the end, though, Red Moon is still a very impressive book. Percy’s prose is almost poetic at times. He describes violence in a way that makes it seem almost beautiful, which, in turn, makes it even more horrifying. I saw the whole book in my head so clearly it was hard for me to put it down. Percy’s descriptions are so clear I felt like I was there. And while the characters might not be as fully developed as they could be, Red Moon is, at its heart, an allegory for the world we live in. The lycans represent many of the minorities at the forefront of the tragedies and discussions of the last few decades. The resettlement and registration of the lycans is like that of the Jews during the Holocaust. The protesting lycans are reminiscent of the 1960s civil rights movement. The medical context of the virus that infects lycans, and the fear and lack of understanding of that virus, mirrors the initial scenes of the AIDS epidemic. And, of course, the Islamophobia of today’s post-9/11 America is possibly the biggest comparison Percy makes with his lycans.
I don’t know if Percy is trying to make a point one way or the other with Red Moon. Arguments could certainly be made for both sides. Rather, I believe Percy is merely trying to make readers question our thoughts and actions in today’s world. His novel goes to extremes, but I think that is to show us what could happen if we continue on our current path. In any case, Red Moon is an intriguing and intelligent read, and you would do yourself a disservice if you didn’t go pick up a copy right now.