The 2013 novel Red Moon by Benjamin Percy is one of the most ambitious and innovative works in recent contemporary fiction. Drawing from elements of fantasy and horror, Percy bridges the realms of ‘genre’ and ‘literary’ fiction with a dazzling story about humans and lycanthropes set in an alternate history—written in Percy’s signature, poetic prose.
Red Moon is the product of a writer and reader brought up in two distinct worlds. The ‘genre’ and the ‘literary’ influences each play a crucial role in shaping Red Moon, allowing Percy to explore certain political, medical, and social issues facing the United States in a post-9/11 world with refreshing, readable clarity. Through the lens of an alternate reality where humans and lycans co-exist, Percy explores serious issues that cut to the nerve of the present day. Since the attacks on 9/11, the world has been afraid. We have been afraid of disease, afraid of terrorism, and—most of all—afraid of fear. In Red Moon, the alternate world is also afraid.
The novel begins aboard Flight 373, bound from San Francisco to Portland. During the flight, a lycan emerges from the bathroom and proceeds to violently slaughter the passengers on board. When the plane lands, and the terrorist lycan is shot dead, the events of that day spark a chain reaction of fear and distrust against the lycan population. Through the disease lobos, the virus that causes lycanism, Percy is cleverly able to braid all three fears (disease, terrorism, fear) into one element within Red Moon: the lycans—making for a uniquely engaging and refreshing political commentary.
At its heart, Red Moon is serious and political—although, at times disguised as a thrilling horror story. The story within Red Moon mirrors key events in history such as the attacks on 9/11 and the African-American Civil Rights Movement of the mid-1960s, but Percy weaves the commentary of these historical events expertly into the story—raising his own points and opinions, as well. When reading Red Moon, I found myself appreciating the influence of both the ‘genre’ and the ‘literary’ influences in equal measures. Throughout the novel, Percy is firmly committed to answering the question: “What comes next?”—giving the story a breakneck pace somewhat akin to a thriller or another form of ‘genre’ fiction. And yet, often the novel reads as poetically and beautifully as any great ‘literary’ novel. It is clear through the prose that Benjamin Percy is not a typical ‘genre’ fiction writer. The words and sentences flow with a special cadence and beauty that cannot help but be classified as literature.
At its very core, Red Moon is not a work of high fantasy or a wildly imaginative alternate world. Rather, Percy’s world serves as almost a crack in the mirror that allows readers to more clearly observe their own reality. Percy’s finely wrought world makes it simple to step back and observe familiar distortions within society and humanity and see things for what they are, independent of fear.
Some readers will be quick to point out the key parallels between Percy’s alternate world and the real world. Some will say that the Lupine Republic in Red Moon is definitely Afghanistan or definitely Iraq. Others might say that it is Israel. Similarly with disease, parallels could be drawn between lobos and AIDS—or a number of similarly stigmatized diseases—but I believe that this criticism works broadly with any disease. (And perhaps some marginalized religious, cultural, or ethnic groups as well.) In a way, readers who look to definitively align all of the events within the novel to reality are neither entirely right nor entirely wrong. I believe that Percy intentionally raised certain key questions and proceeded to leave them unanswered to let the readers intuit the answers.
I enjoyed Red Moon thoroughly, despite my initial reservations about reading a “werewolf book.” Perhaps the only notable downside to the novel was its sheer length. At over five hundred pages, the novel felt somewhat long despite its engaging, fast-paced plot. But with so many key characters and such a magnitude of important events I can understand why Percy kept the length. Red Moon is an ambitious literary accomplishment by several merits. It presents an engaging, meaty plot while maintaining the lucid prose with which Benjamin Percy built his career as a short story writer. Simultaneously, the novel touches on important, current political themes—making this novel one of the most topical works of fiction in the last decade.