Sickening Brilliance: Manhunt by Gretchen Felker-Martin

Posted 3rd February 2022 by Sia in Horror Reviews, Queer Lit, Reviews / 0 Comments

Manhunt by Gretchen Felker-Martin
Genres: Horror, Queer Protagonists, Sci Fi
Representation: Sapphic trans woman MC, bi/pansexual trans woman MC, Indigenous American trans man MC, brown bi/pansexual fat MC with chronic pain, queer cis woman MC
Published on: 22nd February 2022
ISBN: 1250794641
Goodreads
five-stars

Y: The Last Man meets The Girl With All the Gifts in Gretchen Felker-Martin's Manhunt, an explosive post-apocalyptic novel that follows trans women and men on a grotesque journey of survival.

Beth and Fran spend their days traveling the ravaged New England coast, hunting feral men and harvesting their organs in a gruesome effort to ensure they'll never face the same fate.

Robbie lives by his gun and one hard-learned motto: other people aren't safe.

After a brutal accident entwines the three of them, this found family of survivors must navigate murderous TERFs, a sociopathic billionaire bunker brat, and awkward relationship dynamics—all while outrunning packs of feral men, and their own demons.

Manhunt is a timely, powerful response to every gender-based apocalypse story that failed to consider the existence of transgender and non-binary people, from a powerful new voice in horror.

I received this book for free from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Highlights

~if you have a virus that takes out all men…what happens to trans people???
~this book has something for everyone!
~discomfort. the something is discomfort. this book has something to make everyone uncomfortable.
~when it comes to the apocalypse and everything else TERFs = cockroaches
~one (1) Elton John reference

adjective: sickening

1. causing or liable to cause a feeling of nausea or disgust.
2. amazing, great, perfect (slang)

This is very much a queer as in fuck you book.

And it’s fucking amazing.

Manhunt is as gloriously, defiantly provocative as the first brick at Stonewall, with just as much wrath and fierce pride and we have had ENOUGH behind it. This is a book that revels in its queerness and demands you look that queerness in the eye; not the carefully palatable, sexless, domesticated LGBTQ+-ness of a certain kind of cis white gay man or woman, but the raw messy uncensored queerness that makes so many people so very uncomfortable. Manhunt is equally graphic in gore and grime and fucking; threads of saliva joining two mouths; pus and blood; sweat and ugly crying; kink that isn’t dressed up nice and pretty for an audience but is sticky, clumsy, awkward, complicated, honest.

The monsters and the sex are described with exactly the same kind of uncompromising, meaty graphic detail, and I don’t for one second think that’s an accident. Not when the real world often has an easier time with horror-story monsters than the thought of trans sexuality, or fat people fucking, or the raw messiness of kink that’s not been polished up for a Hollywood screen. Felker-Martin brings the two – monsters, and trans people having sex – side-by-side, portrays them the same way to force you, the reader, to compare them. To acknowledge that they’re not the same, not for one fucking second, and if you’re feeling revulsion for both maybe think about why that is.

Are you uncomfortable yet?

You always could have done something, he thought… You were just afraid to be uncomfortable.

Manhunt is unequivocally anti-TERF, but it’s not satisfied with the progressive Left, either. The condemnation of open transphobia is only a little more intense than the contempt and fury directed at the kind of allies who talk the talk but don’t walk the walk, who use progressive, politically-correct language to dress up their discomfort and/or unwillingness to act on the behalf of trans people as Rational and Fair, when it couldn’t be less so – the kind of ‘allies’ who use that same language as a weapon against trans people when they most need help and support. Who don’t work to oppose and dismantle transphobia, and turn blind eyes when TERF bullshit then gets trans people hurt or killed.

There are multiple flavours of evil to choose from here; the mindless New Men, made honest monsters by the virus; the TERFs, out to kill every trans woman and ‘gender traitor’ they can find; and everyone who turns a blind eye, who is willing to trade principles for (perceived) safety, who compromises with TERFs rather than burning them out like the rot they are.

That was what scared her. The women who stayed silent.

The monsters and the TERFs and the hypocrites. Which are worse? The monsters aren’t in control of themselves…and the TERFs wouldn’t exist if the hypocrites didn’t let them.

Can you tell Manhunt left me with some pretty intense Feels?

Not for the first time, Beth wondered if they were lonely, those things that had been men. If they missed their wives, their mothers, their daughters and girlfriends and dominatrixes. Or maybe they were happy now, free to rape and kill and eat whomever, free to shit and piss and jerk off in the street.

Maybe this world was the one they’d always wanted.

I’m not going to talk to you about the plot; the book’s blurb covers that pretty well, and there are a lot of other reviews that go into detail on that. What I want to talk about is a central aspect of the premise that I couldn’t stop thinking about.

See, with this apocalyptic virus, anybody with too much testosterone – obviously mostly cis men, but plenty of cis women with various health issues too – transform into some of the most genuinely horrifying monsters I’ve ever seen.

New men, she thought, gripping the gutter and bracing a foot against the wall. Like Coke Zero. Same great vicious disregard for our lives, none of the socially enforced restraint!

This puts trans women, and many other nonbinary people, into a desperately terrifying situation; if they don’t get estrogen, the virus will get them, and in this post-apocalyptic society, you can’t exactly go get a prescription – or even buy pills or shots on the black market. There are some plants that can help – licorice root, for example – and one more effective but extremely dangerous source that the manhunters procure. But none of it’s 100% safe; if you need estrogen, you’re only one or two bad days or accidents away from potentially getting hit by the virus.

In the real world, there is no reason to be afraid, and therefore hate, trans women (or any other kind of nonbinary person). A trans woman is no kind of threat to anybody or anything, and anyone with working braincells can see that.

In Manhunt, though – in Manhunt, the fear isn’t completely unjustified. When a group kicks out their trans woman housemate, it’s because they’re fucking terrified she might turn into a monster. Which – she might. If something goes wrong, if she doesn’t get enough estrogen. One of the first things we learn from Beth and Fran is that every winter, when all they have are the supplies they’ve stored up throughout the rest of the year, they always start to experience the first symptoms of the virus. Every winter. They’ve survived so far, but. That’s pretty fucking frightening, for them, and for anyone who might be around them at the time.

This is a book that, in every possible way, is out to make you uncomfortable. But it is a whole different level of horror to have to sit with the awareness that – yeah. I’d be scared too, if my housemate, my friend, my neighbour might turn into a monster.

Reader, I did not enjoy that one bit. I didn’t, and don’t, want to be like those characters in the book who abandoned or forced out the people most at risk. And I believe that, despite being scared, I wouldn’t do what they did.

But I don’t know for sure. You never know for sure what you’d do when it’s life or death – or the risk of it – until you’re in that moment. So I believe. But I don’t know.

Telling yourself what to feel is a brick wrapped up in silk: it looks pretty, but it hurts the same.

Manhunt is all about making you look at all the aspects of transness – and the things we associate with it, like sex, because gods forbid we quit fetishizing trans people, or insisting they’re only faking so the men they really are can go be pervs in a woman’s bathroom – that make us uncomfortable, that we flinch away from, gloss over, don’t mention at the dinner table even if we’re supposedly capital-a Allies.

But that also means acknowledging that these things make us uncomfortable. In making us look so closely at the messy parts of transness, Felker-Martin is also making us look in the mirror. Why does x or y (hah) make us uncomfortable? What does that mean? Is it fair to feel that way? Is it prudish? Is it deeply buried prejudices we didn’t know we had?

I don’t know. But I’ll be thinking about it for a very long time.

To circle back to my previous point, though – Felker-Martin has created a set-up where it’s understandable and kind of fair to be scared of trans women. Which confused the hell out of me – justifying transphobia?! I don’t think Felker-Martin gives a fuck about precedent and messages and Art Must Be Moral, but I couldn’t wrap my head around it. The TERFs and those willing to work with them are terrible people who do unforgivable things. I didn’t want to sympathise with their fear! (See above: this book making me fucking uncomfortable about myself and my sympathies.)

I wrestled with it for ages…but I think I might have worked it out. And if I’m right, it’s actually deceptively simple.

a) The TERFs don’t do what they do out of fear; it’s hate. And in Manhunt, that hate isn’t really about the virus at all. It’s all shit that these people thought before – they’re just using the virus as an excuse to act on their hate now.

b) Even if it is understandable to be afraid that a trans woman might get hit by the virus, and turn into a monster – there are different ways to respond to that fear. The proper one, the correct one, would be to work your ass off to make sure she has a steady, safe supply of estrogen – not kick her out of your house.

c) There is a huge difference between a potential monster and a real, actual, right-now monster. And the people who act on their fear – and hate – by abandoning, abusing, hunting, and murdering trans women?

They’re not potential monsters. They’re right-now monsters. And it’s not a virus that’s done that to them – unless it’s the virus of hate they made and spread themselves.

We see over the course of the book several places, several communities, that are not afraid of trans women; that just work to make sure that they get the estrogen they need. And that’s it. Fear neutralised and un-justified. Voila. Trans women are only threatened by the virus when they’re cast out and alone; backed and supported, they’re no threat to anyone. And being backed and supported by their community is what they deserve, because every human deserves that.

Maybe that works as commentary for real-world transphobia too: things are only scary when they’re Othered. We see maybe-monsters (where there fucking aren’t any) and cast them out, and the distance we’ve created is what makes them frightening. And the cure for that is to invite them in and stand beside them – and fight the TERFs on the fucking beaches.

Community is when you never let go of each other. Not even after you’re gone.

Manhunt is in no way a preachy book – you don’t have to care about queer politics/ethics/whatever; you don’t have to read a deeper message into it if you don’t want to. This functions just as well – excellently – without any of that; as ‘just’ an intense, addictive horror novel, one as guaranteed to turn your stomach as it is to keep you turning pages. It’s queer as fuck, and it’s messy and complicated except for the parts that aren’t complicated at all; every single character is so damn human that it hurts, even the ones whose eyes you want to rip out and stomp on. Good gods, Felker-Martin knows what she’s doing: I’ve always called myself a wimp when it comes to horror, but it didn’t matter how disgusted or freaked I was, or how horrible the mental images she painted in my head were; I couldn’t stop reading (even when I actually tried). It just wasn’t possible to walk away from Beth, from Fran, from Robbie, from Indi, from the whole horrible situation they were in from the first page to the last.

And there’s this…wry, dark humour that threads its way through everything, so that sometimes in the midst of something that makes you want to scream or cry or throw up, you end up choking on a laugh instead.

A real Pinterest board of a house,

It feels legit, is the thing. They’re the kind of jokes survivors make, the gallows humour you laugh at because gods, you’ve been there – while everyone else in the room winces because you can’t say that! or how can you make fun of this?!, shock-horror-gasp. And yes, I winced too a few times, but…if you’ve gone through hell and come out the other side – or if you’re still in it – sometimes your sense of humour gets twisted, and you say things that are outrageous, but everyone who’s been there laugh as well. I don’t know how to put it any better than that.

The same note of oh, she gets it! rings true for Indi, a cis woman who is a doctor and fat and has terrible chronic pain. I don’t know if I have a favourite character, but I adored Indi, probably because she’s ridiculously smart and has to put up with idiots far too often in order to take care of her friends. One very simple line just shocked through me, as someone who lives with chronic pain myself;

Indi pulled another smile out of the drawer.

Yes. That. That’s exactly what it’s like.

With all the different characters… I loved how Felker-Martin makes it so clear that there is no trans monolith; that things are not the same for femmes and bricks, that no trans person is a ‘good queer’ (whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean), that different trans people want different things – that different trans people are different, full stop. That being some flavour of queer does not make you an ally; that some of the worst transphobia comes from within the queer community. And that, gods, cis women are not sweet magical angels; the worst thing you can think of done by a man? A woman can do it too, can match evil for evil and viciousness for viciousness. Women aren’t intrinsically better. Matriarchy isn’t any better than a patriarchy, it just changes who’s on top.

“What we’re doing to them…” Her voice was a ragged croak not much louder than a whisper. “It’s just the same shit men did to us before.”

I said Manhunt isn’t preachy, and I meant it. Felker-Martin doesn’t lecture the reader. She just drops you into the middle of this post-apocalyptic nightmare and shows you how it could be so much worse than you ever imagined. It’s sickening and defiant and incisive as a bullet; it’s brutal and bitter and brilliant. It will rip your heart out and eat it. It will definitely keep you up at night. No matter what angle you’re coming at it from, there will be something to horrify you; the body-horror Felker-Martin revels in, or the psychological nightmare of it all, or literally everything about the TERFs – or maybe the fact that not for one second did this ever feel like a satire.

Are you feeling uncomfortable yet?

Manhunt is a queer-as-fuck horror novel that doesn’t play nice and pulls no punches; that is sickening in every sense of the word; that puts trans people front-and-center in a gender-divide apocalypse; that shows you a nightmare you can’t look away from and a mirror you’ll want to smash. It is, without question, one of the best books not just of the year, but the decade.

It comes out on Feb 22nd. Preorder it immediately – you don’t want to miss this one.

five-stars

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