A Conversation with Ben Percy
Peter Straub is the author of such classics as Ghost Story, The Talisman (with Stephen King), and most recently A Dark Matter. His daughter Emma Straub is author of Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures.
Peter: Ben, Red Moon exists on the borderlands--beyond genre, but clearly playing in the world of horror and thrillers. Was this your intention when you started to write the novel?
Ben: I grew up on genre. Reading westerns, sci-fi, fantasy, spy thrillers. Reading horror especially. Your novels had a profound impact on me. So did the work of Stephen King and Robert R. McCammon and Anne Rice and Dan Simmons. When I took my first creative writing workshop as an undergrad, I felt so confused and affronted when the instructor said genre would be forbidden. I threw up my hand and very earnestly asked, "But what else is there?"
That semester, I fell in love with "literary" writers like Sherman Alexie and Alice Munro and Flannery O’Connor and Raymond Carver, but I never fell out of love with "genre." In fact, I missed its compulsive readability. I put "literary" and "genre" in quotation marks, because I'm getting more and more irritated with the designations, the need everyone feels to pin labels and distinguish one kind of story from another. If you look at Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove or Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or your very own Ghost Story, they are neither fish nor fowl, both literary and genre. Pretty sentences, unforgettable characters, subterranean themes, rip-roaring plots. In writing Red Moon I was attempting to follow your tracks in the mud. To write a novel that was both thought provoking, artfully constructed, and thrilling.
Emma: Red Moon taps into what we fear now--physically, politically, and personally. How did you come up with the idea of transporting the werewolf myth to America's war on terror?
Ben: Some of the most resonant, lasting horror stories are those that channel cultural unease. Consider Frankenstein as a prime example. The way the creature embodies all the anxieties brought on by the Industrial Revolution: the fear of science and technology, of man playing God. The Red Scare gave rise to Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Cold War anxieties are the platform for The Dead Zone. I was thinking about this--what we fear now--when I sat down to write Red Moon.
Peter: In the novel, you use the term "lycan" instead on "werewolf." What does the word "lycan" evoke for you that the classic word does not?
Ben: Werewolves have a rich mythology, and I wanted to honor that tradition while making it new, making it my own. I think this is why Justin Cronin uses the term virals (instead of vampires) in The Passage and why Robert Kirkman calls them walkers (instead of zombies) in The Walking Dead.
So lycan--short for lycanthropy, the psychological condition that makes you believe you can transform into a wolf--is one small sleight of hand that hints at the larger sorcery of the novel. My lycans are not full-moon howlers. They are infected with lobos, an animal-borne pathogen. Prions (the basis of Mad Cow and Chronic Wasting disease) are misfolded proteins that target the brain--and target in this novel rage and sexual impulse. I interviewed researchers at the USDA and Iowa State University to figure out the slippery science of this condition and create a believable horror.
Peter: The plot of Red Moon follows three interlocking strands and moves at a breakneck pace, often jumping ahead in time and letting the reader play catch up. Why did you structure the novel this way?
Ben: I’ve always loved epic, sweeping novels. Everything from TH White’s The Once and Future King to Stephen King’s The Stand to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Red Moon is a hefty book: it follows many characters over many years in many different places. The trick, when orchestrating something so complicated, is grabbing the reader’s attention and never letting go.
Long before I begin writing, I rip a long sheet of paper from my children's art easel and hang it from my office wall and begin to brainstorm. I sketch out plot points. I draw and build histories and emotional arcs for characters. I know that some writers prefer a more organic process, but my own feeling is, you don’t build a cathedral without a set of blueprints.
Over the top of the blueprint I sketch out a kind of cardiogram or seismograph in order to understand the spikes and dips in tension. I often move plot points around--sometimes withholding information for several chapters--in order to create different layers of tension and strategically organize explosive and revelatory moments.
Emma: My dad and I write very different types of books. Why do you think Red Moon appeals to both of us? Do you think there are some kinds of stories that appeal to all of us? Is it that werewolves, no matter how advanced or violent, have a whiff of our childhood fairytales?
Ben: Whiff of childhood fairytales. I like that. If there is ever a Red Moon perfume, instead of eau de toilette, I think it should be labeled as whiff of werewolf.
In Red Moon, I explore the evil hidden with all of us and within society. The werewolf myth resonates because we have all--as a result of rage or exhaustion or drugs or alcohol--come to regret our behavior the next morning. This is the story of Jekyll and Hyde, the story of the Incredible Hulk, an unleashed id, the wildness crouched inside all of us. If only bad guys all looked like Darth Vader. Instead the sex offender, the serial killer, the terrorist could be the guy who lives next door, and that's scary as hell, the realization that we're all different degrees of hairy on the inside.
is a book about werewolves, providing an alternate history behind the origins and growth of the werewolf population. At its core, however, this strikingly imaginative and terrifically detailed fantasy is about much more than werewolves. Dig deeper, and it operates on two very potent levels. It's an allegory that tears down the wall between fantasy and reality, using a creature to represent an unspecified people struggling for equal rights (perhaps of race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, disease, disability). It is also a reminder of our imperfect history, a snapshot of our volatile present, and a warning of a potentially dark future--where fear begets prejudice and prejudice begets policy. Among the werewolves, there are the amicable, the righteous, and the extremist. Likewise there are humans who coexist with their lycan neighbors, some of them peaceful, some of them oppressive. In bringing them all together, Percy creates a political parable that doesn't lecture, but equips us with the ability to examine the quagmire of cultural conflict from a safe, fictional distance. -
*Starred Review* Doing for werewolves what Justin Cronin’s The Passage (2010) did for vampires, this literary horror novel is set in an alternate version of the present day. Everything is pretty much the same, except for one teensy difference: werewolves—or lycans, as Percy calls them—aren’t the stuff of mythology. They’re real, and they’ve existed for centuries: ordinary men and women afflicted with an unusual (and seemingly incurable) disease, lobos, which turns them into another sort of life-form altogether. Lycans and humans have established an uneasy peace, but, as the book opens, lycan terrorists seem determined to spark a bloody war. Percy focuses on a trio of engaging and beautifully drawn characters: Patrick, a boy who survives one of the terrorist attacks; Claire, a girl whose family is murdered for reasons she doesn’t clearly understand; and Chase, a governor whose aggressively anti-lycan views are challenged in a tragically ironic way. Parallels to the U.S. in the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks are clear and deliberate, but it’s the way the author, following in the footsteps of such writers as Glen Duncan (in The Last Werewolf, 2011), humanizes the werewolf, turning him from snarling beast into a creature for whom we feel compassion and affection, that makes the book such a splendid read. Although the novel tells a self-contained story, there is plenty of room for a sequel, which would be most welcome. --David Pitt