Author Benjamin Percy takes werewolves seriously

Benjamin Percy
Benjamin Percy, author of "Red Moon," has been fascinated by werewolves since he was a boy. Now, the writer-in-residence at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., he has created an alternate world where lycanthropy is the basis of segregation and a growing global crisis.
MPR Photo/Euan Kerr

A complaint among many hardcore werewolf fans is that current incarnations of their favorite monster, such as those in the "Twilight" series, portray the shape-shifters as too cuddly.

Writer Benjamin Percy of Northfield, Minn., aims to stop to all that. His new novel "Red Moon" gives werewolves back their teeth and claws while spinning a tale of modern geopolitics.

Upon meeting Percy, it's disorienting for some people to hear the rumble of his deep voice for the first time, but he's learned to live with their reactions. But when he reads from "Red Moon," people listen. And get goosebumps.

"Well, if you can imagine me at about 14 years old sounding like this," Percy said. "I weighed about 75 pounds at the time. It was sort of like James Earl Jones speaking through a sock puppet, and I couldn't even order a milkshake at McDonalds without getting a bunch of weird looks."

He learned to live with those looks, and now his low register works for him. He has always loved books of all kinds, but now as a writer he's focusing his style and his voice on his favorite fiction.

"Horror was the genre that I kept coming back to; that's always gripped me in its bony fist," he smiles. "I guess it's rather appropriate that I sound like something that has crawled out a grave."

'Red Moon'
Benjamin Percy's new novel "Red Moon" portrays a world not that different from our own where lycanthropy, the condition where humans transform into wolves, is a reality, but has caused deep segregation in society.
Image courtesy Grand Central Publishing

Don't let Percy's self-deprecation fool you. He writes seriously scary stories, including his new novel "Red Moon." He has always been fascinated by werewolves, beings who transform into raging beasts. Percy has done a lot of thinking about them and why they strike a chord with so many people.

"We've all come unleashed and that is the essence of the werewolf mythology: the battle between ego and id," Percy said.

He doesn't base his story on pure emotion however. He talks about a writing process which involves years of thought and research.

"I was thinking about what we fear right now," Percy said. "Because some of the most resonant fantasy stories of all time consider "Frankenstein" as a prime example of this, channel cultural unease."

Mary Shelley took early 19th century concerns about the rising power of science, industrialization and political upheaval to create her monster. Percy quickly zeroed in on our current cultural unease.

"One: infection," he said. "And you need look no further than any countertop of any business in American to see the Purell oozing from it. Or look at the headlines that dominate our newspapers every time there is an outbreak of swine flu or bird flu. And we fear, two: terrorism, as these last few weeks have so unfortunately reminded us."

"Red Moon" portrays a world not that different from our own where lycanthropy, the condition where humans transform into wolves, is a reality, but has caused deep segregation in society.

The lycans, as Percy calls them, are seen from the viewpoints of several people on numerous sides of what is becoming an inevitable conflict. What makes "Red Moon" so disturbing is the way Percy blends his extensive research into conditions such as chronic wasting disease, mad cow disease and its human counterpart, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. He talked to researchers on the front lines.

"I didn't want my lycans to be full-moon howlers," he said. "Instead, I tried to figure out the slippery science behind animal borne pathogens, and mutation."

The result is a pulse-quickening tale of geopolitical intrigue. Crowds pack into Percy's readings. His next reading will be 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Hennepin County Southdale Library in Edina, Minn.

Percy has come a long way from his early attempts at writing about werewolves. He recently rediscovered a 6th-grade research project on lycanthropy, which included a practical demonstration.

"In my backyard beneath a full moon, I attempted to transform myself," he recalls. "But despite my dedication to the subject matter, I received a B-minus. That's one of the reason it feels so good to hold this book in my hand now and say 'In your face, Mrs. Ziegenhagen.'"

Percy now teaches writing at St. Olaf College in Northfield. No word about whether he is leading moonlight transformations, however.

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