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Red Moon

Benjamin Percy's supernatural novel is audaciously complex and hauntingly composed.

May 19, 2013

Red Moon, by Benjamin Percy, Grand Central Publishing, 533 pp.

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Much like the careful re-introduction of wolves to the wild places of the American West, it seems that the landscape of American horror is at last being repopulated with a nearly-extinct lupine strain. Oh, sure, we’ve had a tamer version of the species padding around for a while now, showing up with a carefully brushed coat to provide second-banana love interests in the "Twilight" series and HBO's Southern Gothic vamp soap "True Blood." Quasi-domesticated packs can also be found roaming in the ever-expanding realm called “paranormal romance” or “urban fantasy.” But, amongst all of that country’s bloodsuckers, faerie folk, and various ruggedly appealing manimals, the modern werewolf has to fight for space in a crowded, resource-poor ecosystem.

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Only distant kin to these nobly savage “shifters” is the old breed: the werewolf as monster within, avatar of the id, a beast of pure appetite. Stop to romanticize his plight and he’ll have you for lunch. Long  a staple of American cinematic scream machines, from "The Wolf Man" to "An American Werewolf in London," he eventually lurched back into the woods – in shame, I suspect, after the humiliation of Michael J. Fox’s "Teen Wolf."

But there’s hope yet for those craving that full-throated howl, in the hands of novelists in touch, presumably, with their own lupine natures. Glen Duncan’s blackly witty work "The Last Werewolf" rendered the sympathetic soul of a sophisticated wolf-man who didn’t apologize for his murderous appetites, and Brian McGreevey married a murder mystery with snarly horror in "Hemlock Grove" (recently adapted as a series for Netflix.) Now comes Benjamin Percy with Red Moon, an audaciously complex and often hauntingly composed thriller that puts the classic myth of the werewolf curse at the center of a story taking in contemporary anxieties about infectious disease, terrorism, American military adventures abroad, and the arrival of the paranoid security state.

To support such a project, Percy has erected a carefully architected backstory, of the sort that fantasy readers recognize as “worldbuilding.” Even though the book is set in a recognizably 21st-century America, complete with smartphones and Starbucks, the shape of its alternate history is revealed, in piecemeal fashion, through the course of the novel. Magic is not the issue: in "Red Moon," the phenomenon of humans becoming "lycans" has a biological root similar to that of mad cow disease. Those infected – whether by bite, sex,  or inheritance from a parent – will under stress transform into something covered in "downy gray hair," hunchbacked, and equipped with nasty claws and a toothy snout "a skeleton’s fist of a smile." 

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