Benjamin Percy | “Horror has never been more popular because the end of the world has never been more possible.”

Benjamin Percy | “Horror has never been more popular because the end of the world has never been more possible.”

Flight 373 from San Francisco to Portland, Oregon, begins ordinarily enough for high school student Patrick Gamble. Until the werewolf terrorist comes out one of the plane’s loos.

Yes, a werewolf. Or rather a lycan—as they are called in Benjamin Percy’s epic, complex and readable second novel—who then begins slaughtering the passengers: ripping entrails, slashing throats and biting necks. Eventually, all are killed, barring the pilots locked in the cockpit and, through an extraordinary stroke of luck, Patrick.

Welcome to Red Moon (Hodder & Stoughton, May), a world where lycans have forever been living among humans, not often peaceably. Lycans were massacred during the Crusades, the Second World War and in the United States’ westward expansion. In 1948, they were given their own homeland, the Lycan Republic, set in the cold wastes between Finland and Russia that, because it contains valuable uranium deposits, the US controls through an occupying army.

In the US itself, there is uneasy acceptance. Lycans must be registered and take a transformation-inhibiting drug. Peaceful lycan protest movements have existed, until Flight 373. Caught up in the fallout from the government’s harsh post-373 lycan crackdown alongside Patrick are lycan teenager Claire whose parents have been gunned down by government agents and is on the run with her tough-as-nails lycan aunt Miriam; and hard-drinking, womanising Oregon governor Chase Williams who uses an anti-lycan platform to push for the presidency, but unbeknown to the electorate has become—after a rather unfortunate encounter with a shape-shifting prostitute—what he has sworn to destroy.

For all Red Moon’s pulpy page-turnability its core is a thoughtful look at our post-9/11, Afghanistan/Iraq War world. Percy argues that it is through genre books where you can tackle contemporary issues more freely. “The initial seed was that I wanted to write a story about terrorism and that werewolves would be the window to that. There’s something about when you add an element of horror or the fantastic that you can wrestle with a topical subject that is like a crack in the mirror. You can approach the subject in ways you would never be able to otherwise.

“If you look at what makes a horror story last, in many cases it is that it takes a knife to the cultural moment and taps into the nerve. Frankenstein is born out of the industrial revolution, Dracula comes from Victorian prudishness and Stephen King’s The Dead Zone from the Cold War.

“Since 9/11 there have been a slew of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic novels and films. Everything from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road to Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake to shows like ‘The Walking Dead’. What people fear right now is terror that can bring about the end of the world. Horror has never been more popular because the end of the world has never been more possible.”

That Percy points to heavyweights McCarthy and Atwood’s more fantastical outings is perhaps indicative, as Percy’s previous work would perhaps be put in the literary fiction silo. His two story collections, The Language of Elk (2006) and Refresh, Refresh (2007), and The Wilding (2010) were widely praised and won an armful of awards (though they have not been published in the UK).

However, Percy says he has always been “obsessed by genre”. His first encounter with a werewolf was taking a book on Universal Studios out at his school library and seeing a picture of film horror star Lon Chaney Jr  “with that shag carpeting fur, pompadour and honk-ish nose. I was enraptured by the sight of it”.

Yet he wasn’t exactly encouraged to explore his genre side while doing a creative writing masters at Southern Illinois University in the early Noughties. “There can be a literary snobbishness in US creative writing programmes. If you want to write something with any element of the fantastic, sometimes you are not allowed to. When I graduated I began to realise I had fallen out of love with what made me want to be a writer. So I began to experiment, and even the many ‘literary’ stories I published had elements or the tropes of the horror genre.”

Besides, the distinctions between genre and literary writers, he says, are meaningless. “I wish there were good books and bad books as opposed to these fences we build. Why is the work of, say, Dan Simmons designated to the SFF and horror section?”

After Red Moon, Percy wrote a screenplay version of The Wilding for Guillermo Arriaga, the filmmaker behind “Babel” and “21 Grams”, and his next novel is another dip into genre, the post-apocalyptic The Dead Lands. He will return to Graywolf Press, the well-respected Minnesota-based indie that published Refresh, Refresh and The Wilding for Thrill Me, a series of essays that explores the borders between literary and genre fiction.   

“I think the best writers are neither fish nor fowl and I hope to qualify for that grey area myself,” Percy says. “I want to take the best of so-called literary fiction—three-dimensional characters, exquisite sentences, the subterranean themes—and I hope to bind it to the best of genre fiction—the propulsive answer to the question: what comes next?”

Personal file

1979 Born Eugene, Oregon
1997–2003 BA in archaeology at Brown University; MFA in creative writing Southern Illinois University
2003–present Teaches creative writing at various universities including Iowa State University. Writer in residence at St Olaf College, Minnesota

Book data

Publication 09/05/13
Formats HB £17.99/ EB £TBC
ISBN 9781444724998
Editor Oliver Johnson, Hodder
Agent Katherine Fausset, Curtis Brown US

c Jennifer May