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.
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."
A lesser writer might have made this plague the product of some sinister government bio-weapon project, but Percy isn't interested in ersatz monsters; in his world, those carrying the Lobos infection have been side by side with us for centuries, manifesting as Native American "skinwalkers" and as a fragile "Lycan Republic" gouged out of the Russian-Finnish border after the defeat of Nazi Germany. A certain level of self-control can keep a lycan from transforming, while prejudice keeps lycans a suspected class: the civil rights movement of this world involved lycans, and in the era paralleling our own, mandated blood tests and medications are among the legal restrictions on the minority. And the US military, in a mordant echo of recent history in Iraq and Afghanistan, are engaged in a long-term slog to bring "order" to the Lycan Republic.
Feared but tolerated, lycans largely hide their natures, though some take family outings to Canada to let the wolf run free, while resentment on both sides builds. And the first live lycan that we meet – the one sporting that bony grin – is putting in motion an act of all-too-familiar terror designed to jump-start chaos. The main intelligence behind such plotting is a lycan leader named Balor, whose scariest attribute is not his shapeshifting but his charismatic ruthlessness. Meanwhile, his opposite numbers in the were-hating community (racist skinheads tattooed with silver bullets, plus assorted governmental allies) play along with apparently equal relish for bloodletting. The radical lycans unleash further destruction, described with an unflinching, gore-drenched specificity, on their former neighbors, sowing fear and death via both car bombs and claws. The nation spirals into panic as anti-lycan sentiment boils over.
Although the story shifts to take in multiple points of view, heroes and villains alike, it largely unspools through the experiences of three people: Claire Forrester, a young lycan turned into a fugitive when shadowy forces appear at her suburban home; Patrick Gamble, a teen who has lost his mother to the infection, and his father to the war in the Republic; and Chase Williams, a maverick politician and former soldier, whose own infection with the virus becomes a secret that must be buried as he aims himself at the White House. Claire (whose family is, it turns out, deeply enmeshed in the Resistance that led to the current terror) is captured by lycans of psychotic cruelty and rescued by her intrepid aunt, Miriam, a woman of courage and pluck who herself becomes their target – and a fascinating character in her own right. Patrick, meanwhile, escapes death in the initial attack only to confront far deeper horrors as a soldier in the Republic. And as Chase rides the mounting wave of civil unrest to a political summit, he becomes the embodiment of brutal repression, even as he finds the call of the lycan within to be increasingly seductive. Through all of this, Balor is planning a truly irrevocable, global transformation, a variation on the fabled zombie apocalypse.
These strands of the ensuing page-turner are carefully braided, though sheer coincidence has to be used to splice some of the threads in the book's final act. But the book's ability to capture our jittery state of "see-something-say-something" in its fictional mirror makes "Red Moon"'s few plot contrivances more than forgivable. And Percy – whose previous novel "The Wilding" proved his eye for both natural beauty and psychological chasms – ballasts his nightmare with a poet's more natural magic. In one scene, as Patrick faces an unknown threat in the dark, he "retrieves the baseball bat and strangles his hands around the grip and swings open the door and steps into the dark throat of the hallway." Fear, this book reminds us, is a beast that's always hungry.