In his novel, "Red Moon", author Benjamin Percy wrestles with such familiar coming-of-age issues as divorced parents, first infatuations, changing bodies, and clandestine handjobs. Also, werewolves. And terrorism. And the possibility of dealing with a pandemic. In other words, this novel defies any easy classification. Is it a classic horror story? Is it a coming-of-age tale? Is it an allegory for our country's obsession with the terrorists within? Yes. Yes, to all of those things. But it is also, in seamlessly combining so many different genres, so much more. I spoke with the very deep-voiced (for sure what a wolf would sound like if one could talk) Percy about his novel and its themes that, despite dwelling in the realm of horror, resonate so deeply in our society today.
I received this book in mid-April, which wound up being particularly timely because of the horrifying bombing in Boston, and the ensuing issue-based conversations that the bombing has reignited—namely ones about terrorism, xenophobia, government surveillance. What made you want to write about these things when you started this book?
I've always felt that some of the most lasting, resonant horor stories target cultural unease. Frankenstein is a prime example of this in the way the creature embodies all the nervous feelings that technology and science brought about because of men playing god. There's also "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" which addressed the Red scare that gave rise to the fear of Communists among us. I was thinking about what we fear right now—we fear disease, every store front is just oozing with Purell. All the headlines mention swine flu, bird flu. And we fear terrorism, as these past few weeks have unfortunately, sadly reminded us. I wanted to take a knife to the nerve of the moment and, in doing so, it's like I am holding up a mirror with a crack running through it. I expect people to recognize certain political figures and cultural arguments, but I made an attempt to warp that reflection and blur the line, so that it's all these different frayed nerves tangled together.
Well, and so, why horror? And why use werewolves to reflect our society's problems?
I grew up on genere—most of us do—and I was obsessed with Westerns, sci-fi, spy stories, but it was horror that really enchanted me. I read just about everything by Stephen King, Peter Straub, Ann Rice, Dean Koontz. It wasn't until I was much older that I read Sherman Alexie, Flannery O'Connor. Up till that point, I thought all storytelling was genre. But I missed the compulsive readability of pop fiction, and so [with Red Moon] I'm trying to straddle two territories at once, not unlike Justin Cronin, Margaret Atwood, or Cormac McCarthy. I might be writing about an explosion, but I'm doing it with pretty sentences.
And werewolves have always enchanted me. As a child I even performed a "ceremony of the wolf" where I actually tried to transform myself into a werewolf. I also thought that werewolves were an adept and tidy metaphor regarding xenophobia. There's also something in the myth that we can all relate to—the unleashed id. We all have a wildness that can at any moment claw its way out of us. We have all come to regret our behavior the night before. This is why Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is such a resonant tale and why the Incredible Hulk is so popular.
The book deals with important national and global issues—and it does so in a way that is incredibly believable, despite werewolves being involved. What kind of research did you do for this?
I sat down with the USDA labs and I filled up a dozen yellow legal tablets trying to follow the slippery science behind prions and vaccines because I wanted to try to make these werewolves not full moon howlers but something that was a beliebvabe horror. We're all hairy on the inside.
Would you even say that it is part of the horror genre, or just that it is about a subject which is inherently horrific? Perhaps your unflinching look is less horror, and more just honest? After all, the coming-of-age elements are among the most strongly resonating.
I wanted this to be as multi-layered as possible. It has an epic sweep, and two of the central storylines concern coming-of-age characters. The werewolf myth ties in well with the hormonal thrust of teenagers and all the identity crises that accompany growing up. And there's also the realization that one's freakishness, what makes one different, can also turn out to be a power.
The natural landscape is so important in the book—how did coming from central Oregon inform your viewpoint as an author?
The management of place and space, individual scenes and the way the staging can inform the moment, the way the wind is bending a tree might meaningfully inform the situation, means that place should be a kind of character. We should feel rooted and come to understand not just the geography but the history and the culture and the myth. In terms of Oregon, it's my imagination's playground and it's a very dramatic setting.
The book trailer for "Red Moon" could easily double as a movie trailer, and the book has so many cinematic qualities. Do you see it making the transition to film?
That would be amazing. Hollywood is the land of speculation, so now there's talks, but we're not agreeing to anything yet. I will say that if it does happen, I hope there's a snarling cameo in it for me.
Benjamin Percy will be doing a reading at BookCourt, with an introduction by Emma Straub, Tuesday, May 7 at 7:00
BookCourt; 163 Court Street, Cobble Hill
Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen