Lunatic Fringe by Allison Moon has a lot going for it. It has supernatural occurrences and mystery. It has lesbomance and politics. It has characters defined through action and dialog. But the most important thing this novel has going for it is Allison Moon herself. Moon manages to be artistic while being succinct. The reader will not find many rambling compound sentences or quirky stream-of-consciousness musings in Lunatic Fringe but within the tight sentences there is a clarity that delights while maintaining purpose.
Enjoy the opening sequences. Let them stroke the nostalgic pleasure centers of your brain. Those beats clearly have the feeling of classic teen horror movies. Everything is tranquil and optimistic, but just slightly too bright and idyllic. If Lunatic Fringe were a film, this entire opening sequence would occur with minimal soundtrack - a helicopter shot of the truck driving the forested highway, and then the score would build as we are treated to blocky white credits- ending in an ominous crescendo as Lexie sees her new college for the first time. Soak in the atmosphere and tone. Think Final Destination, Halloween, Carrie. It all looks swell, but something dark is lurking at the fringes.
Moon is taking readers on a journey of self-discovery, sexual awakening, and personal growth. She is also lampooning some pretty specific “types” within and without the gay community, but she is doing so with a straight face and a loving acknowledgement. Best of all, Lunatic Fringe is a high wire act of social commentary and ridiculousness. Moon has decided our werewolf lore isn’t getting the love and examination it deserves so she is out to set the record straight. Or gay. Slanted, maybe?
Whether werewolves serve as the stinking, snarling nightmare fuel of your fevered dreams; or they are the furry, misunderstood cuddle bunnies of your fantasy romance – Moon is going to change how you think about them, about yourself, about women, and about sexual politics. Or maybe she is just joshing ya’ and this is all a terrific lark with a clever premise and a lot of sex. Either way, it is worth a download.
Favorite Lines: You have to love an author who writes about werewolves and uses the word insouciance. It’s that kind of book. And I like it. How about this one:
Her skin was the color of incense and rolled like smoke over her ample figure.
Natalee had gotten out of the natural tub and stood in the moonlight, ineffable wings of steam rising from her body like her soul ascending. Her skin was as white as the moon, a cold angel.
Who ever said werewolves can’t be sexy? Pshaw.
Issues or Satire? The hectoring, smug tone of some of the women (or should I more PC’edly say womyn?) gets wearisome in spots. In fact, it becomes distractingly over-the-top. In the beginning, Lexie is forever being lectured by Blythe and the rest of the Pack on all things feminist. Don’t get me wrong, it works for the characters as they are uber ramped-up college aged radicalized feminists who, naturally, have all the answers. I mean, didn’t everybody when they were in college? But having no valid counterpoint to Blythe’s diatribes seemed to lend them an endorsement by the author, which had the unfortunate side-effect of taking the reader out of the fantasy and focusing too heavily on the politics of the situation. At least early on. Moon created interesting dynamics between her characters but the intrigue of these scenes sometimes got lost in political rally cries. To add salt to that wound, our protagonist (Lexie) is chronically inundated with moronic id monsters masquerading as frat boys. In truth, it felt heavy-handed and scraped painfully against the subtlety and symbolism of the rest of the work.
(While appreciating much of the Pack’s ideology – I did find myself wanting to point out some of the gross assumptions and logical fallacies in it’s arguments. Then again, I’m a nerd. And nerds think we know everything, too.)
Intentional or not, I found the Pack to be mostly ridiculous in their self-seriousness and yet they still completely worked within the narrative. Lexie started off without any agency and proved a frustrating counter to the debate of male/female dominance and control – given that she was willing to flip flop between two powerful forces that were forever telling her what to do and who to be – as long as it was within their image of femaleness. And there were the guys. Even I began to feel a little brow-beaten by the man-as-perennial-bad-guy themes, but dressing it up in fur and going to such hyperbolic lengths to make the point, made these stand-by arguments fun and fresh.
Hang in there, even if the polarizing arguments feel wearying… our protagonist’s name is Lexie Clarion for goodness sake. And she does eventually find herself and begins to act as a gentling, clarifying voice for the lunatic fringes surrounding the novel’s core issues. It just takes her a while to get there.
The Sex: Good lord is there sex! It takes a while to happen, but once it does, Moon turns her ample talents to the task of giving us some legit cliterary wonder with Lunatic Fringe. Then she snuffles and pads around the territory of wolf-human lovin’. Fortunately, she doesn’t actually go there, but having Lexie marvel at the musculature and muskiness of her animal-form lover was plenty for The Worm to feel naughty about without having to seek professional or legal help.
The Straight Truth: This book will appeal to some lesbians and most feminists for sure. If I’m being honest (when is The Worm not?) I do not see it being a pleasant read for mainstreamers. The problem isn’t in Moon exploring equality of the sexes, or even that she has her characters take such strident positions… it is, frankly, how committed Moon is to her satirical look at the ideology. In pushing the werewolf as female metaphor, she has thrust it into every conceivable aspect of her story. The Worm surely gets it. Much has been made of vampirism as metaphor for sexual dominance. I mean, who doesn’t intuitively understand the impaling, seductive, quasi-rapey nature of vampirism as metaphor to male sexual aggression and manipulation? But in doing the same for werewolves as symbols of a reclaimed femaleness, Moon has decided to abandon some of the more subtle suggestions and go right for the blunt cudgel of graphic biology. Of course, I am talking about the monthly moon change as it relates to menses. Yup. And it isn’t cute or “told slant.” You will be treated to tampons and finger checks and all sorts of real, graphic, plain speak that might feel out of place tonally for such an otherwise sly work.
While reading some scenes in Lunatic Fringe, the reader may feel the author is intentionally challenging his or her notions about what is acceptable and what is not in our phalus-loving world. As if Moon is just daring the reader (or reviewer) to criticize certain passages. But the trap is too easily seen, and the arguments too predictably false. If The Worm were to gripe about the abundance of bloody menses action in the book, it might mean The Worm is uncomfortable with femininity or ashamed of what bodies are meant to do naturally. Bad Worm. And yet, my criticism of this element is two-fold: 1) just because something happens naturally doesn’t mean it warrants use in the novel, and certainly doesn’t demand graphic explanation every time it is used. I mean, where are the descriptions of feces and flatulence? Those could be important plot points in a thriller so connected to scents and tracking. 2) Moon gracefully constructed the rest of the descriptions in her novel, why do these beats about menstruation and body hair read so, well, clunky? I’m all for Moon making me see these aspects of femininity in an empowering way, but she’s got to work for it. Having the nerve to pass them off as sexy or strong isn’t the same thing as making them so. And given the rest of Moon’s skill on display, I think she could have pulled it off if she’d worked harder at it.
One last bit of straight truth for y’all; be prepared for quite a bit of slapdash moralizing. Yes, some of it is character building. Some of it is for ambiance. Some of it is intentionally grandiose and goofy. And some of it is sneaky snark slipped into what could ostensibly be read as politically centrist – but don’t be fooled. Moon does draw some of her feminist characters archly over-the-top, but even her more moderate characters cram a few logical fallacies into their feminist platforms. And don’t be shocked to learn that no “heterotypical” male character in this novel is going to be a rock solid good guy. I’m just saying. Take this bit as a taste of what there is to be found in Lunatic Fringe. A wise, older woman is explaining to our protagonist how the Pack came to be:
Feminists like the Pack get a bad rap for hating men. But it’s a defense mechanism in response to the hatred men have for women. For every nice guy like your dad, there’s another man who turns his desire for women into contempt, or exaltation, which is just as dehumanizing.
Okay, keep in mind this is the more open-minded character speaking. She is trying to mitigate the harsh feelings Lexie is having for the feminist group known as the Pack. My problem is the false premise for the Pack’s defensiveness. It boldly asserts, as fact, that men hate women. Of course, given that premise, it is easy to see why they are so virulently anti-male, right? But is that a fact? Again, this is our wiser, more moderate character speaking.
And as an FYI, the protagonist’s father isn’t so much a “nice guy” as a spectacularly weak one.
Geek Out Moments: Loved the naming of one of the Pack Corwin. Maybe the author meant it, maybe she didn’t – I loved it anyhow. In fact, many of the names in the novel feel like either one-the-nose character descriptions or nods to existing lore. All good stuff. (Having the tale set in the Pacific Northwest, with its Native American heritage, also helped keep the spot-on names believable to the characters and the reader alike.)
In an effort to mutate the werewolf lore in keeping with the “anti-vampire” theme, Moon even played with the key trans-formative action in all werewolf legends: the bite. I’ll try to avoid spoilers here, but one concept had me geeking so hard that I can’t help but give Moon props for it. In vampire tales, our newbies are converted through a bite and exchange of fluids, yes? And we can all sort of agree that the very penetrative nature of this action lends itself perfectly to the vampirism/male sexuality metaphor, yes? Okay, let me say Moon does not use a bite as her catalyst for change into a werewolf. There is a seemingly innocuous explanation for change given, and it involves lapping up water from a very specific location (get your minds out of the gutter). That is all I can say without ruining some of the mystery in Lunatic Fringe, but the visual and the concept, and the active participation required in said ritual, works wonderfully in this story. It is still vaguely ridiculous, but gets uber-points for creativity and metaphor continuity.
Favorite Scenes: The entire dorm room disaster scene was fantastic. Here, more than almost anywhere else, Moon demonstrates the “less is more” style of her writing. Symbolically a lot is going on in this scene, but it also has plot significance, character introduction, and stunning visual/aural intensity.
The transformation scenes were handled very nicely. Less ink was spent describing ghastly, painful external change than on the internal rearrangements and shift in sensory awareness.
Which brings us to the physicality in Lunatic Fringe. Moon has a strong sense of the physics of movement and power in her werewolf characters, so the action beats are timed and delivered perfectly. But more than this, the author also seems to understand the nature of her creatures (whether in human or wolf form) so well that she uses their innate physicality to communicate character, tension, and danger as well. It gives the entire piece a different vibe than one would get from, say, an angsty internalized vampiric wank fest?
Final Thoughts: The above critiques aside, I had a blast with Lunatic Fringe. I just do not think it is meant for, nor going to be enjoyed by, everybody. That works for me. (Have you seen our tagline?) What’s more, I think the entire novel is to be read with a wink and a nod. Moon has brilliantly tweaked the werewolf lore to fit lesbianism, college cliquiness, sexual awakening, and self-awareness themes. But I think she has done it with a gleeful giggle. There is just no way she did not intentionally make the whole thing damned funny and self-deprecating. Don’t misunderstand… this is not a “funny book” in the sense that you have goofy, quippy characters running around. It is written with a steady hand and sober tone. However, from the title to the plot, to the themes within – Lunatic Fringe is self-referential and gently mocking.
The Worm gives a strong recommendation for Lunatic Fringe to any lesfic or feminist readers out there. The rest of The Worm Army? Hmmm. Maybe pass on this one unless you are really ready for something completely different and likely to make you squirm a bit. Hell, now that I think about it, that may apply to my feminist lesbian readers, too! If you are already in the militant camp – enjoy! If you aren’t, but just love your sexy werewolf lovin’, give this one a try. Just don’t take it too seriously. It’s okay to laugh and still be a feminist. (And if this novel weren’t meant to be a little tongue-in-cheek, I’m convinced Allison Moon is a vawy scawy lady!) I’ll let you know if that opinion changes once I’ve read the sequel, which is already downloaded and waiting.
Unrelated Rant for Podcast Listeners Only: I need to thank the Cocktail Hour podcast for their April 25, 2013 interview with author Allison Moon. In truth, I don’t remember what was said to attract me to this work but I’m sure it had something to do with the author’s disdain for things teen and vampiric.
Ladies of the Cocktail Hour, a quick note: less podcast housekeeping and fawning, huh? If you are not going to drive the interview, at least let the author speak uninterrupted. It doesn’t all have to be self-satisfied laughs and cool disinterest. You’ve got a damned good thing going and serve to introduce listeners to new authors and new concepts. But do some homework or feign some interest in the subject matter and guest. I love your platform and you have amazing access to authors – don’t squander it by turning every interview into a mumbled phone conversation that sounds like something I could overhear at the supermarket. Get in there and mix it up, ladies! Access is a huge advantage, and it is clear you have personal relationships with many of your guests… but your listeners don’t. Stop shortchanging the discussion by glossing over in-depth discussions and information just because it is something y’all have discussed off air. We tune in for the interview because we care about the work and the author, not to hear incomplete sentences and half-formed referrences to drinking games and shenanigans that only reinforce how “in” y’all are with the guest.
In particular, the interview with Cari Hunter was wildly uncomfortable. How do you fumble her introduction, even bragging that you didn’t prepare one… and then put her on the spot by asking her to do her own intro and book synopsis? Then you spend the bulk of the interview knit-picking her British/American language differences? And then jump to a juvenille game to determine which of her characters she would sleep with? I couldn’t believe I was actually hearing that. Levity is one thing, but these authors are not mega-stars whom we are all dying to see “uplugged.” For many of them this is an opportunity to get their works and their talents before a larger audience.
So, my advice for what it is worth… shape up, ladies. You have a lock on the market for this niche audience. Chances are you won’t have it for long, so step it up or you’re going to lose it. Your guests may be your friends but they are also important voices in a fledgling, evolving art form. Let them be heard or someone else is going to start asking the questions.
By the by, I am North Carolina born and Southern California-raised. I have people in New England, the Midwest, and the deep South. I am a pretty typical American with varied linguistic influences and traditions. To the embarrassment of many, I say “reckon” all the time. So cut Hunter a damn break, huh?
(I also still occasionally use the terms “britches,” “business,” and “nethers” in ways that make my girlfriend cringe. I’m working on it, though, baby.)