Red Moon

by Benjamin Percy
Grand Central Publishing, ISBN: 978-1455501670
Mass Market Paperback, © 2013, 668 pages

They live among us. They might be our neighbor, our pastor, our doctor, our teacher, our spouse, our child. Most of the time, they look like us—except when they don’t. Except when stress or anger or fear incites the prion infection they carry into a frenzy and they change into their animal forms. They are the lycans, many of whom want only to be left alone, to be allowed to live their lives according to their nature.

There’s just one problem. Their nature is a fear too many human citizens cannot abide. When human attempts at control finally push the lycans too far, the Resistance bursts screaming from the shadows and there is no going back.

It feels to me like Percy took on a lot in writing this book, and he did it well. He aimed to blend literary and genre fiction together in a seamless style. He melded an alternate reality/world with issues relevant to this one, while fuzzing the line between the good guys and the bad guys. With few exceptions, no one is wholly one or the other in this story, which made it all the more gritty and plausible to me. All three main characters endure intense trauma and life-changing circumstances, and none fail to evolve in realistic ways. I found myself wondering how I would have handled the tragedies they lived through, whether I would have done any better than they. The truth is I don’t know the answer to those questions. More importantly, I don’t want to know. I hope I never find out.

Settings and scenes felt crisp and three-dimensional. I found Percy’s literary prose both beautiful and poignant, stark and chilling. He did tend to go on a bit longer than I would have preferred in his descriptions, but every reader’s tastes differ in this respect. In a few places, I skimmed the text to catch any foreshadowing, stopping only where it felt the relevant narrative picked up once more. Parts of the tale take us from one character’s head to another’s, even diving into the thoughts of bit players whose role consumes only a few pages before they are gone for good. Other parts pull back to reveal events unfolding far from our main characters, so that we know before they do what is coming. Scenes range from long, flowing passages to short, staccato bursts, almost like weapons fire; as events unravel and the characters’ world falls apart, scenes often ended in abrupt moments of tension, leaving the reader hanging in breathless anticipation for its resolution. In one way this format contributed to a more intricate weaving of plot threads, a writing tactic I generally like. However, I did find myself occasionally confused as to which character’s scene was which. This grew a little less frequent as the characters’ storylines began to converge.

While Red Moon is mostly character-driven, it is also a tale intended to provoke questions in the reader’s mind. As I mentioned above, issues prevalent in the narrative could easily have come from our own world. In the struggle between the lycans and the humans, as well as between the individual lycan and human enclaves themselves, I saw clear similarities to our own ongoing clash between individual rights and freedoms and the fearful desire to control and confine anyone who doesn’t match what we define as “normal.” Percy’s message isn’t even subtle when he illustrates the difference between those lycans who want life to go on in its usual peaceful way and those lycans who are willing to go to extremes to effect what they see as essential changes in politics and policies regarding their own kind. This is not one of those stories that ties everything up in a nice tidy bow at the end. Real life isn’t like that, and Percy didn’t try to depict it as such. The story’s conclusion is disturbing, unsettling, and absolutely believable, which only adds to the effect.

I must admit I didn’t know Red Moon was a werewolf story until the end of the first scene. Had I known beforehand, I might not have read it; with few exceptions—i.e. Stephen King, John Saul, a few select others—I don’t usually read horror. The only reason I picked it up was because some of Percy’s responses to questions in GlimmerTrain’s “Writers Ask” newsletter piqued my curiosity, especially where he responded to queries about the abundant research he did in preparation for writing Red Moon. “I have to read this book,” I thought. By the time I’d realized the plot revolved around lycans, I was hooked.

Make no mistake. There is a strong blood-and-guts horror element to this book, but what saved it for me was that the graphic violence was not gratuitous. It made perfect sense in the context of the tale, and if Percy had skipped those bits, it would not have worked nearly as well. Some stories can’t be told with sparkle and glitter, and this is one of them. The only gleam you’ll find in Red Moon is the reflection of moonlight on a sharpened blade, the muzzle flash of a Glock or an M4, and the liquid sheen of blood on the numerous bodies.

Because Percy wove his narrative in such a convincing way, I’m still not sure where my sympathies lie, with regard to some of the characters. I find I can see why most of them did the things they did, and I’m not sure I could make a convincing argument against them even when I didn’t like the outcome. And that—the fact that its moral quandary will linger in my head for a while after having finished it—is, for me, a sure mark of a good story.