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Sunday, October 17, 2010

A VAULT RERUN: MOON DANCE by S.P. Somtow (1989)

Dear Vaulties-

Just as I was starting to get back on a roll with posting stuff, my lower back went out a few days ago and I've been in varying degrees of agony ever since. Hopefully I'll be back in commission soon enough, but until then please enjoy this review of a highly recommended horror novel. There will be some new Halloween/seasonal material as soon as possible, so I thank you for your patience.

-Yer Bunche

I'd heard of this described both as "the Great American werewolf novel" and also "the GONE WITH THE WIND of lycanthropy," so as a fan of lycanthropes how could I not be intrigued?

Somtow crafts an epic tale of European immigrants coming to the dying Wild West in hope of setting up a colony where their community of werewolves can hunt and thrive without being hunted to extermination by normal humans, but what they don't take into account is that the area they've chosen might already be home to another community of shape-shifters, this time of the Injun variety. Anyone who's read a western novel or seen a western movie in the past forty years knows that situation will lead to a clash of native spiritualism and European devaluing and destruction of a "lower" culture, and that's exactly what this book is about.

This epic unfolds amid a framing device where a young writer in 1963 seeks out a mental institution in South Dakota that's home to an aged inmate with multiple personalities who committed a series of hideous psycho-sexual murders, violent atrocities that earned him infamy as "the Laramie Ripper." As the writer interviews the madman, she discovers that he, or rather one of his personalities, was prophesied by the shapeshifting Shungmanitou tribe as a messiah who would bridge the gap between man and beast and heal the world in the process. But the road to that clearly failed mission is a long, hard and cruel odyssey of genocide, unbridled racial hatred, scads of brutal western-style violence — i.e. loads of shootings, scalpings, torture and rape — Native American metaphysics and examinations of exactly what may or may not separate man from beast, all populated with a cast where every single character is earmarked for some sort of tragedy.

MOON DANCE is first and foremost a western on an operatic scale, and if not for the lycanthropy hook it would have been a straight-up downer western to rival
SOLDIER BLUE (although much better written). It is utterly unflinching in its depiction of a filthy, nasty west whose spirit is being ravaged by the juggernaut of Western Expansion and the decimation of indigenous peoples (and the Chinese, in sequences that are genuinely stomach-turning), and the violence and gore will no doubt be extremely off-putting to some readers (but not me, lemme tell ya!).

The other element that might not sit well with some is the rather sensible depiction of the habits and behaviors of the werewolves, both Eurotrash and Injun, which includes such wolflike traits as relentless scent-marking (even when in human form), disturbing displays of dominance that are equivalent to rape and torture (depending on how one looks at it), and the powerful and visceral effect that certain smells have in causing sexual arousal in the werewolves and the humans caught helplessly in their thrall. The description of a redheaded female werewolf's shameless presenting of her befurred, menstrually-dripping nether parts to a cavalry officer she seeks to mark as hers is at once utterly revolting and highly erotically charged (the bit where she pretty much paints his face is so graphic that you'll damned near feel like it's happening to you), so if grotty imagery of human and inhumanly bestial shape-shifters engaging in all kinds of ultra-animalistic sexual shenanigans disturbs you, I suggest you give this one a miss.

MOON DANCE is extremely well written and is much better than many horror stories I've read, especially those featuring werewolves — my favorite archetypal monster, but they always get the shit end of the stick when it comes to fiction, although the wolves in this book probably wouldn't balk at a doody-covered stick — and its epic length is definitely worth making one's way through. My only real caveat is that it's a major downer from start to finish, and even the bright spots that really communicate the sacred and beautiful connection between the shape-shifters and the natural order of things cannot lift the tale's inevitable and depressing conclusion. We know what happened to the Indians in real life so you already know how this story ends, but the storytelling magic lies in the book's ability to compel as we journey along with the characters to a bleak oblivion.

And if there is a Hell for fictional characters, I sincerely hope that both the incredibly evil and sadistic Cordwainer Claggart and United States Cavalry Colonel Sanderson are suffering an enduring and vitriolic torment for the agonizes they wrought upon many characters in this book. Both are among the most heinous villains I've ever encountered in literature, and they will leave an indelible mark upon any who read MOON DANCE.

Lastly, what with Hollywood mining all corners for movie fodder, I strongly doubt that MOON DANCE could ever be successfully translated to the big screen with its spirit and intent intact for a number of reasons. Its scope alone would prove cost-prohibitive, and then there are the understandably touchy depictions of Native American genocide — something covered to nigh-unwatchable effect in SOLDIER BLUE — and the ultra-gory ravaging and gleeful disembowelings perpetrated by the werewolves. The assorted acts of cruelty and gender-regardless rape and torture committed by Claggart and Sanderson would push this straight into instant NC-17 territory, even if handled with restraint (how?), and don't even get me started on all the territorial pissing (even on people) and wolf/human sex... The MPAA's collective head would explode!

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