Red Moon is not merely about the werewolf, that familiar history and archetype—no, Red Moon (Grand Central) by Benjamin Percy is a brilliant blend of genre horror and literary poetics that reveals the creature in us all, and a debate about what it is to be human and where our priorities rest. Weaving a hypnotic tapestry of connected stories, Percy allows us to follow a cast of characters, good and bad, on an epic journey that distills the heart and soul of other classic post-apocalyptic tales such as The Stand, The Road, and Swan Song. Part of the new movement of genre-bending work that is dominating publishing today, Percy has written a novel that is approachable and yet layered, familiar and yet unique, ancient and achingly visionary.
Red Moon is the story of Claire Forrester, a young woman who sees her parents killed in the name of national security, soon to become one of the hunted. It is the story of Patrick Gamble, the lone survivor of a terrorist act aboard an airplane flight that feels eerily similar to recent terrorist acts, and shows us exactly how violent the lycans (what Percy calls his werewolves) can be. And it is the story of Chase Williams, a newly elected president who inherits the nightmare of the lycan uprising, and vows to repair the damaged and fractured United States.
Driving this novel is Percy’s uncanny ability to write with authority. This ability reveals itself in many different ways—in a narrative of the near future where a lycan presence feels like a possibility, not a fantasy; in using his knowledge of technology and firearms to educate us as a Ranger or Green Beret might; and in his portrayal of rural landscapes, mostly the Pacific Northwest, as lush, haunting, and layered settings where the violence and desperation unfolds at an alarming rate.
Take this brief excerpt from early in the book, where Patrick is describing Portland:
“He doesn’t mind the landscape. The deep-rutted glaciers glowing from the Cascades. The thickly forested foothills with their hiking trails and bear-grass meadows and whitewater rivers. And then, to the east, the sprawl of the sage flats interrupted by the occasional striped canyon, the bulge of a cinder cone. Hanging above all of this sky, that high-altitude sky, as clear and blue as the stripe inside a marble.”
It is not only a depiction of nature in all of its tranquil beauty, but a language that is certainly foreign to city-dwellers, the flora and fauna a backdrop that urban residents may never have seen. Percy shows us the landscape in a way that educates and informs while painting a vivid and visceral picture.
Or take this quick description of a handgun by Miriam, an ally of Claire’s, her distant aunt, and weapons expert:
“Miriam gives her a quick lesson on the Glock 17. Austrian-made semiautomatic pistol. Self-loading. Polymer frame. Checkered grip. Used by virtually every law enforcement agency. Outperforms any other handgun on the market for ease, accuracy, and durability. Seventeen-round double-stack magazine.”
If you’ve never shot a gun before, you just got schooled, and if this were your aunt, and the woods were contracting around your cabin, movement in the night, a heavy thud on the roof, windows nailed shut, and boarded up—this is the lesson you might need.
Beyond the authority that Percy lends this novel, there is the constant sense of unease and foreshadowing that permeates this story. It is something as simple as a word choice here and there—teeth snapping together with a clack, an open mouth gasping for air, lips smacking, muscles tightening, every snapping stick in the forest the revealed weight of your impending doom. Take this passage from early in the novel where a lycan struggles to hold down his transformation, waiting for the right moment to rise up and destroy the passengers of an airline flight, his every twitch and shudder taking us that much closer to the violence of his release:
“He has not eaten this morning, his stomach an acidic twist. But the smell of fast food, of sausage and eggs, is too much for him. His hunger rolls over inside him. He orders a breakfast sandwich and paces while he waits for it. When his number is called, when he collects the bag, he rips it open and can barely find his breath as he shoves the sandwich in his mouth and gnaws it down. Then he licks the grease off the wrapper before crumpling it up to toss in the garbage. He suckles his fingertips. He wipes his hand along his thigh, unconcerned as he smears his pants with grease, and then glances around, wondering if he has caught anyone’s attention. And he has. An old woman—with a dried-apple face and dandelion fluff hair—sits in a nearby wheelchair, watching him, her mouth open and revealing a yellowed ridgeline of teeth. ‘You’re pretty hungry,’ she finally says.”
You almost laugh, and yet, you know what is coming. The details of this scene are intense, the camera slowing down to capture every moment and clue, and you are the lycan for a moment—the anxiety and panic washing over you, waiting for the scene to unfold, the restraint to disappear, and the beast to unfold.
And it doesn’t take long for that first violent scene to appear on the page as well. While Percy’s prose isn’t quite as dense and obtuse as the passages Cormac McCarthy made famous in books such as Blood Meridian, the scalping, bloodshed, and graphic feeding frenzies of the lycans are not ignored. It would have been easy for Percy to turn the camera away, and let us fill in the gaps, but he doesn’t do that, and he should be applauded for that courage. In lesser hands, the gore would be the story, instead of a necessary part of the dangerous ability the lycans carry with them at all times. In a stuffy literary voice, the nature of the beast might be glossed over entirely. Percy finds a balance—one that supports the story, the character of his protagonists, and the dark tone of the novel, inherent in every page.
Much like vampires that sparkle in the sunshine, pale imitations of the dark night fliers that haunt Stoker and King alike, Percy’s werewolves are animals first, and human second, their transformations startling and violent, their behavior terrifying and convincing. Here is what finally happens when the lycan we just witnessed finally loses control, a terrorist weapon unleashed on the innocent, with horrific results:
“The lycan moves so quickly it is difficult for Patrick to make sense of it—to secure an image of it—except that it looks like a man, only covered in a downy gray hair, like the hair of [a] possum. Teeth flash. Foam rips from a seat cushion like a strip of fat. Blood splatter, decorating the porthole windows, dripping from the ceiling. It is sometimes on all fours and sometimes balanced on its hind legs. Its back is hunched. Its face is marked by a pronounced blunt snout that flashes teeth as long and sharp as bony fingers, a skeleton’s fist of a smile. And its hands—oversize and pouched and decorated with long nails—are greedily outstretched and slashing the air. A woman’s face tears away like a mask. Ropes of intestine are yanked out of a belly. A neck is chewed through in a terrible kiss. A little boy is snatched up and thrown against the wall, his screams silenced.”
And that’s only one paragraph of the scene, which sets the tone early, and never eases up. This is not a novel of gore and slick violence—it is a journalistic reporting of a horror that will hopefully never materialize in our reality, told with a lyrical voice that is hypnotic and unsettling. By showing us what Patrick sees in a cold, calculated manner, we are made to feel what Patrick feels—terror, revulsion, and vulnerability. The violence is a necessary part of this tale, but not sensationalized. Much like in war, and the battle scenes he shows us, it is not pretty, not heroic—but tragic, and that is clearly evident in the remorse and suffering his surviving characters endure, the depth of emotion that Percy reveals.
Once you’ve tucked into the narrative, it is impossible to put down. We follow Claire on the run, we track Patrick into forbidden areas, and we watch the rebellion of beasts named Magog, Puck, and Balor. We root for the good guys, and when they get infected, our loyalties waver—the outcome not as cut and dry as when we started—the vaccine hidden in a backpack, waiting for a fall or bullet to shatter the glass. And we are uncertain which is the better fate—because love, friendship, and trust overcome these differences, and the violence, selfishness, and vengeance of man become the real monster in this story.
I’m not a huge fan of werewolf stories, and my relationship with another popular horror staple, vampires, has been limited to Stoker, King, and Rice. What Ben Percy has done for this niche of horror is elevate it, transcend it, and leave behind a literary narrative that we will be reading for years to come. I was a fan of his last novel, The Wilding, and his short story collections, The Language of Elk, and Refresh, Refresh, but this may be his best work to date. Don’t take it from me, but from the words of Peter Straub, a master of literary horror: “With Red Moon one of our most blazingly gifted young writers stakes his claim to national attention.” I couldn’t agree more.