A Ballsy New Take on the Post-Apocalyptic Thriller
If you’re even a casual traveler in the realm of contemporary horror fiction, there’s a good chance you’ve heard the buzz surrounding author Gretchen Felker-Martin’s debut novel, MANHUNT. Genre luminaries such as Carmen Maria Machado and Brian Keene have sung its praises, along with mainstream outlets including Library Journal and Publishers Weekly. MANHUNT isn’t due out until February 22, but it’s already entered a second printing.
What’s even more impressive than MANHUNT’s list of supporters, though, is the range of responses the book provokes. Nemesis trilogy author April Daniels called it “[a] pitiless, nerve-shredding descent into Hell,” while Library Journal described it as “sensual, tender, honest, and inspirational.” Cassandra Khaw (Nothing but Blackened Teeth) says MANHUNT is “a barbed hook that will dig deep and split you open,” while Detransition, Baby author Torrey Peters is here to assure you it’s “fun as hell.”
You’d be forgiven for wondering if they’re talking about different books, but MANHUNT is all those things and more. Set in a terrifying, all-too-recognizable America ravaged by a virus that turns men into feral, murderous monstrosities, Felker-Martin’s novel centers on two trans women, Beth and Fran, who keep the disease at bay by hunting infected men and harvesting their reproductive organs for estrogen. (The virus preys on any human with sufficient testosterone levels.) Dangerous as men are, though, the most immediate threat to Beth and Fran’s survival usually comes in the form of heavily armed, militant TERFs (trans exclusionary radical feminists), a group of violently transphobic cis-gendered women who hunt down and execute trans women. Beth and Fran eventually meet up with a gun-toting trans man named Robbie, and the three of them band together to contend with savage cis men, a murderous cult of TERFs, and the constant ordeal of being trans people in a world that’s almost universally out to kill them.
MANHUNT, then, isn’t so much a novel as a primal howl of rage and loneliness, shot through with glimmers of humor and hope. “MANHUNT is a story about the worst things I’ve ever thought about myself boiling over into reality,” Felker-Martin says in a statement from the book’s publisher, Tor Nightfire. “It’s about the visceral fear of returning to manhood, which I left at the age of 25. It’s about what it feels like to stand in front of the mirror as a newly out trans woman, convinced down to your marrow that you’ll never pass, that no one could ever love you, and the hideous moment when those feelings start to poison your perceptions of others like you. I wanted to come back to these ugly emotions from a place of adult queerness, from a place of trans community and trans love and romance, a radically different context than the isolated and caustic one my 25-year-old self lived in.
In her first-ever interview with The Big Thrill, Felker-Martin talks about the inspiration for her novel, her unconventional path to publication, and her upcoming horror thriller The Cuckoo.
Obviously, an apocalypse isn’t going to be fun for anybody, but MANHUNT highlights how uniquely hellish a complete societal breakdown would be for transgender people. How did you approach building the world of your story?
I started writing a few months before the pandemic hit, and at the time I was deeply stressed out by the still ongoing waves of anti-trans legislation moving across the US. Bathroom bills, sports bans, gender and name change and hormone therapy bans and restrictions, all this stuff where essentially you and everyone you love are on the chopping block on a daily basis. In my experience of the genre, post-apocalyptic fiction often leans toward fascist sensibilities— “undesirables” like the fat, the disabled, the seriously mentally ill are typically nowhere to be seen, any kind of violence is acceptable if it protects the in-group, nobody trusts anybody. I kept thinking, what would these people do to us if what few protections we have were gone? What would they do if you put us together in a locked room? I’ve been attacked in the street before, and I know what it’s like to see in somebody else’s eyes that they would happily murder you and laugh about it later. I wanted to get across how that feels. Now of course we’re seeing the legislative aggression against us ramp up again, not just here but in the UK and Poland. Other places. It’s a frightening time.
Please tell me a bit about how Fran, Beth, and Robbie took shape for you.
Fran really came from my attempts to put myself in a thin, well-off trans woman’s shoes because I thought a person who had been comparatively comfortable in our society would have an interesting viewpoint on a world where she’d lost everything. She still wants to conform, she wants to belong, and these things are attainable for her. She could conceivably assimilate and vanish into this new world. Beth doesn’t have that option; she’s much more straightforwardly autobiographical, much more based on my own life and experiences as a big, hard to miss trans woman who comes from poverty and has a lot of experience with the world being hostile to her. Robbie I think has the least complicated genesis, in that he’s more or less a composite of many trans guys I’ve loved in different ways—as partners, as friends, as family. He represents my experiences being loved and protected by trans mascs.
Infected men aren’t really the villains of the story; they’re terrifying, but they’re essentially reduced to animalistic beings operating on instinct. Rather, it’s TERFs who are the real threat—they’re the ones who are making the conscious choice to do terrible things. Why was that distinction important?
It was important to me because it’s TERFs who have built coalitions with the Heritage Foundation and other hate groups, who have gotten tangled up with far-right religious think tanks and slush funds, who are willing to do and say anything to immiserate trans people—trans women especially. These are people whose principles are fascist, who hold incoherent beliefs because it allows them to feel martyred and victimized and then to turn the social capital of that victimhood against people more vulnerable than themselves. Essentially, if women are all the proverbial crabs in a bucket, TERFs are the ones making sure nobody gets out. They’re sick, evil, vicious people torturing other human beings for no real reason at all, and I wanted to splash that right across the page.
I understand you got your book deal after you’d mostly given up on traditional publishing. Can you elaborate?
Sure! I started self-publishing in 2016. My best friend Julia Gfrörer, who makes and sells her own incredible zine comics, encouraged me to give it a shot, and we printed off a short run of my first novella No End Will Be Found and sold those over the next few years. From 2016 to 2020, I self-published the rest of my work in the form of PDFs, and it’s a decision with which I’m really happy. It let me get my fiction out there, I had total control, I got the chance to work with my incredible cover artist Tom Horstmann—it was really liberating. I submitted traditionally before all this, but I never really got any traction. After a while, I stopped trying.
Once MANHUNT found a home with a major publisher, were you ever tempted to tone anything down?
Absolutely not. I think my editor, Kelly O’Connor Lonesome, cited exactly one scene as gratuitous, and I did cut it, but I replaced it with something much more horrific but a little better integrated into the story, and we ended up both really loving the change. My goal with writing horror is to disturb and discomfit, and who knows what I’d say about this if I was poor again, but if I was asked to tone my books down now, I’d walk.
How has your work as a professional horror critic influenced your work as a writer of horror fiction?
The biggest way it’s influenced me is that I have a deep well of inspiration to draw on. I’ve seen thousands of horror movies, everything from Hammer to A24, and I know what I like and what I don’t. It always sounds so stuck-up to say this, but I have a developed sense of taste. I worked hard for it, and I think that’s very valuable. The other big thing is that I’m very aware of structure and pacing; that’s helped me a lot, as they’re not natural strengths of mine.
I love that you didn’t wait for an outlet or a publisher to make you a full-time writer; you did that yourself, by building a career on Patreon. What works for one writer might not work for others, but do you have any advice for writers about making Patreon work for them?
Thank you! It was very hard, and my typical advice to younger writers—I know this sounds snide or like a wisecrack, but I promise it’s genuine—is to write for yourself and make money doing something else. It’s a brutally difficult field to break into. As for Patreon, I’d advise people to under-promise and over-deliver, to work on a weekly schedule, and to make the art or criticism you’re passionate about before you make the kind you think will sell well. Nine times out of 10, your weird individual insights are going to be more interesting to your audience.
What kind of writer are you—plotter, pantser, or some unholy hybrid? Has it changed now that a publisher is waiting for your next book?
I’m not a plotter, I can tell you that much. MANHUNT was the first book of mine ever to have any kind of outline, and it was honestly like pulling teeth. I hated doing it. My inclination is to build a book around a single crisis image, like No End Will Be Found, my book about witch trials, came out of a scene I wanted to write where a plow horse drags a drowned girl out of a pond. So my style has changed a little, but mostly it just means that my kudzu writing process now has a little bit of a trellis to grow on. I’m still writing the same way, and I’m still following any big changes I want to make on a whim. I like to write from the gut.
People are always trying to define horror or tell us what it is or isn’t. One thing I love about your critical writing is that you’ve advocated for a more fluid approach to the genre—for instance, you’ve made the case for The Sopranos as a precursor to the “prestige horror” movement. Have you ever come across a definition of horror that works for you?
Thanks, I try hard to think big when it comes to genre. I don’t think you really gain anything by partitioning work into what is and isn’t any particular genre, at least not past the obvious. There was that woman last year who tweeted that horror can’t be set in space and that Alien is therefore pure science fiction, and to my mind that’s just a really pedantic, silly way of thinking. I think it was Michelle Park who said that horror is anything trying to evoke disgust or fear in the viewer, and I broadly agree with that.
If you could choose one piece of horror fiction to place in a time capsule to freak out future generations, what would it be and why?
I’d love to leave Melanie Tem’s Wilding or Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle for the next generations to read, both because I think they’re tremendous, difficult, complicated books and because they’re both really engrossing. I think you could build a whole literary culture out of those two books.
I see that MANHUNT is part of a two-book deal. Can you tell us anything about your next book or anything else we can expect from you in the near future?
My next book, which I think is slated for early 2023, is The Cuckoo, and it’s about a group of young queer and trans teenagers who in the mid-90s are sent off to a conversion therapy camp in the Utah desert. As they adjust to being out there, to knowing their families have completely rejected them and start to deal with self-loathing and desire and homesickness, they realize that something in the camp is replacing kids with straight, cis doppelgangers, copies who behave themselves and conform and who go home to the parents. I can’t really say more than that, but I can tell you it’s much scarier and ickier than MANHUNT. I’m really excited to see what people think of it.