Werewolves are second-class citizens of the supernatural world. Take some recent examples. Taylor Lautner’s shirtless torso could not stop the surly girl from joining Team Edward. Audiences and critics growled at the lackluster remake of the Lon Chaney Jr. classic, starring Benecio del Toro. And few monsters are as pathetic as the trailer trash pooches on True Blood. As if he were not cursed enough, the werewolf lacks the vampire’s seductive charm and the zombie’s apocalyptic threat. But in his new novel, Benjamin Percy reinvigorates this archetype by linking it to real-life horrors of the post-9/11 era.
In Red Moon, werewolves (commonly called lycans) are afflicted with a prion disease that allows them to change at will. They number in the millions but are neither immortal nor virtually indestructible. After centuries of persecution, a “Lupine Republic” is carved out of the frozen tundra between Finland and Russia. But the discovery of huge uranium deposits leads to exploitation and occupation by the United States which, in this timeline, is dependent on nuclear energy instead of oil.
Similarities to Iraq abound. An insurgency wreaks havoc on U.S. troops. Meanwhile, back in the land of the free, lycans struggle to cope with the curtailment of their civil rights. They must register with the authorities and take an antipsychotic-like drug that suppresses their metamorphic ability. Panic erupts nationwide, however, after hundreds of passengers aboard three airliners are chewed to pieces by lycan terrorists. Fasten your seatbelts. This is only the beginning of a ride through hell.
Percy is a student of savagery, unblinkingly curious about man’s capacity for evil. War, rape, torture, homicidal vigilantism, catastrophic terrorism — the violence is relentless here. Even seasoned readers may find it exhausting.
But this is not the problem with the novel. Percy is unquestionably gifted. His short story collection, Refresh, Refresh, is close to perfect, a standard for matching exquisite prose with engaging plots. Red Moon, however, suffers from overwriting. Was there a need to include a detailed explanation of prions? Isn’t that why God made Wikipedia? Space does not allow me to get into other examples, but suffice it to say that the narrative would have benefited greatly from an editor’s firm hand.
Then there is the allegorizing. It can be obvious, sometimes comically so. But Percy’s premise is clever: werewolves instead of Muslims. No agenda is evident. He is as critical of the U.S. government as he is of the bad guys who would do us harm. Among his characters are an Osama-like mastermind and an intellectually incurious governor (and closeted lycan) who uses the public’s fear and anger to propel him into the Oval Office. Imagine George W. Bush red in tooth and claw.
Ariel Gonzalez teaches English at Miami Dade College.