Photo Courtesy of Tor Nightfire

You ever notice how often kids these days invoke physical harm as shorthand for a strong emotional reaction? Like, if you run in even remotely the same circles as I do you’ve probably heard enough variations of “this post delivered 500 pounds of blunt force to the back of my skull” or “I want that girl to literally break my spine” that the whole premise has started feeling cliche. As such, I feel the need to specify that when I say Gretchen Felker-Martin’s upcoming apocalyptic horror novel Manhunt slid a stiletto dagger between my third and fourth ribs, shattered both my kneecaps with a somehow femme sledgehammer, and finished me off with a crossbow bolt to the head, I mean every single goddamn word.

So, what is this thing? Very broadly, it’s one of those “gender apocalypse” stories that crop up from time to time, sharing dubious company with the likes of The Power and Y: The Last Man. Historically, this subgenre has been hobbled by the inevitable cisness of its authors. It’s not that there’s anything inherently wrong with the premise, but once you spend enough time powerleveling your own gender all those variations on “what if all the men/women died/turned evil” with zero consideration given to the permeability of those categories start looking at best quaint and at worst kinda sinister. Seemingly as a retort to this, Manhunt explores the horror of a gender-based apocalypse from an explicitly transfeminine perspective, and in doing so becomes one of the most harrowing and chillingly relevant works of horror fiction in recent memory.

Here, the end of the world comes in the form of a particularly nasty riff on the zombie virus, one which transforms individuals with high enough levels of testosterone into mindless, sexually violent cannibals. As such, the book’s predominantly transfem cast are forced to hunt feral men and synthesize estrogen for their corpses to avoid joining the slavering horde. Right off the bat, it’s a brilliantly horrifying premise. Like all the best horror, it takes extant fears — the fear of male predation and violence, the fear of losing access to your hormones and seeing your body unmade — and drags them to the surface in a squirming, visceral hyperreality. The most impactful example of this (or at least the one that personally affected me the most) doesn’t even come from the virus itself. See, despite the feral men being the back-cover feature, the true antagonists of this story are a faction called the Maryland Womyn’s Legion. The Legion is a cult of militant TERFs who have leveraged the apocalypse to achieve a position of societal power from which they can enforce the sanctity of biological womanhood the way they’ve secretly always wanted to: with indoctrination, riot gear, and death squads. It’s tough reading. Witnessing the monstrous, police-state apotheosis of a real-world ideology that wants you dead doesn’t exactly make for a fun experience. However, something about this book kept me coming back, no matter how many times a gut-wrenching depiction of transmisogyny hit too close to home and I had to put it down for the night. There’s a kind of perverse catharsis that you can only find in a work like this. One that looks you in the eyes and acknowledges the anxieties that keep you up at night. One that doesn’t bullshit you about how bad things are, but still shows people like you struggling to make them better. It is, for lack of a better word, validating, more so than any pastel-colored piece of queer™ representation squeezed out by the Disney/Netflix/Cartoon Network industrial complex could ever hope to be. It’s a type of validation which I didn’t realize until after the fact that I really, really needed.

It helps that Felker-Martin’s writing is exactly as caustic and incisive as the subject matter demands. Her words are like a scalpel and forceps, peeling back layers of calcified respectability to reveal the raw flesh and shrieking nerves underneath. Those innards are visible not only in the story’s vivid moment-to-moment grotesquery, but also the broad strokes of plot and characterization. Our protagonists suffer in excruciating detail; their bodies break down and oppose them as they are subjected to nearly every horror and indignity the world has to offer, and when they manage to fight back it is with resolute brutality. While in less careful hands this might have simply come across as off-putting (looking at you Garth Ennis), here all of that blood and gore is inextricably woven into the fundamentally lovable truth of these characters. The ways they love and fuck and hurt each other resonate with the kind of messy queer relationships I’ve seen so often in life and so rarely in fiction, and it’s only because of the story’s commitment to tackling its ugly subject matter head-on that this aspect ends up being so profound and ultimately affirming. I pretty much immediately fell in love with Beth and Fran, the two tough-as-nails trans women who serve as our initial main protagonists. They’re beat to shit when we first meet them and seemingly surviving on pure inertia, but still able to crack jokes and care for each other. In time I grew to love the other members of their dysfunctional found family: Robbie, a chronically reclusive transmasc sharpshooter, and Indi, the maternal cis doctor who supplies their hormones. I even felt a certain type of way about Ramona, a ruthless but (eventually) repentant TERF, and our sole foray into a legionnaire’s POV, although that one I should probably talk to my therapist about. (Because, oh yeah, this book is horny, in ways that are almost as uncomfortable as they are compelling.) I could go on, but there’s so much complex emotional scar tissue built up between these characters that delving deeper into any of their dynamics would only serve to add several paragraphs of incoherent sobbing and wild gesticulation to the end of this review. 

Plus, I want to give you the chance to discover them for yourself, because in case you couldn’t already tell, Manhunt comes with my most emphatic possible recommendation. It’s absolutely not for everyone — it’s brutal, it’s upsetting, and hashing out all the requisite content warnings would probably take upwards of two pages in 11 point font. But if you think you can stomach it, and if you’re in the mood for a deftly-plotted, tear-jerking queer thriller that’s gonna mess you up, stick with you for a long time, and probably leave you with some deeply problematic kinks, I cannot press this book into your hands hard enough.

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