Benjamin Percy’s new novel, “Red Moon,” is the latest example of a recent trend: the “literary” writer trying his hand at the “genre” game. John Banville did it with his “Benjamin Black” detective novels. Justin Cronin did it with his vampire blockbuster, “The Passage.” Now Percy — winner of a prestigious Whiting Writers’ Award — has crossed over to the pulpy side.
“Red Moon” is a blood-soaked, apocalyptic werewolf novel, set in an alternative world where the biggest issue facing the United States isn’t a stalled economy but a restless minority population of “lycans” — humans who have been infected by a pathogen that enables them to transform, for brief periods of time, into slavering, lupine monsters. These transformations can generally be controlled, though stress serves as a trigger. Lycans living in the United States are the subject of soft discrimination: those infected can’t work in medicine or law enforcement. They’re also required to take the drug Lupex, which prevents shape-shifting but also fogs the mind and is highly addictive.
The plot gets going when politically radicalized lycans decide to strike back, staging a coordinated, Sept. 11-style terror attack involving commercial airplanes. Most lycans remain peaceful, but many enjoy ripping the throats out of their oppressors and staging public acts of violence. Their motto: “Better dead than drugged.”
The atmosphere soon grows toxic. Pure-blooded vigilantes roam the streets; others terrorize a college that educates lycans. This all quite clearly serves as an allegory for America’s current relation to Islam: radical violence begets angry reprisals which beget further radicalization.
If you’ve read Stephen King’s “The Stand” or Cronin’s “The Passage” — heck, if you’ve read any apocalyptic horror novel — you’ll recognize the major players in “Red Moon.” There’s Claire, the teenage lycan who longs for normalcy but also desires revenge after her parents are slaughtered in a government raid. There’s Patrick, the sole survivor of a terrorist attack who feels duty-bound to fight back but who also loves (you guessed it) Claire. There’s Chase Williams, a politician who made his name demonizing lycans but who now finds himself (irony of ironies) secretly infected.
The characters aren’t compelling and the dialogue is occasionally campy. But you don’t read horror for psychological depth, you read it for action, and Percy provides plenty. Cliffhangers abound, side plots pile up, and the lights always go out at just the most inauspicious time.
Despite his enthusiasm for horror conventions, Percy isn’t quite willing to commit himself to the genre. He still wants to show us that he can turn a nice phrase, and yes, he can use the tropes of horror for more serious purposes. Faux-lyricism pops up on almost every page: The sky always seems “bruised,” the air “sweetly fungal.” By the end of the novel, Percy’s attempts to find new, striking ways to describe violence — “roses of blood bloom” on a tourniquet; an “apron of blood” falls from someone’s nose — become tiresome. Finally, the allegorical import of the novel is both too heavy-handed (in the 1980s, we supplied arms to radical lycans living in Eastern Europe “to drive out the Russians”) and too imprecise (do we really want to compare Islam to a disease?).
Percy has clearly done his homework, and “Red Moon” employs all the tropes and tricks of horror fiction. But Percy wants his novel to be something more, and this desire leads him to condescend to the form. Genre fiction, after all, isn’t debased or silly; it just realizes that thematic complexity and poetic lyricism aren’t all, that delight and enjoyment can be enough. It’s a shame that Percy doesn’t realize the same.
Anthony Domestico is the book columnist for Commonweal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.