Testo Zombies

Cropped pieces of zombie and gory eyes and mouths
In the horror novel Manhunt, gore meshes with love

By Stephanie Monohan

In Gretchen Felker-Martin’s novel Manhunt, the world is plagued by a virus that transforms anyone with high levels of testosterone into a feral, cannibalistic man. But before this apocalyptic turn, the book opens with a smaller drama: A trans woman named Beth is kicked out of her queer communal house after her roommates suggest it would perhaps be best if those at risk of contracting the virus (that is, Beth and two other trans women, Venus and Tara) relocate to a nearby quarantine camp until a vaccine is available. The ringleader behind this decision — the landlord’s kid, of course — pontificates in a house meeting about the importance of “accountability,” and how certain roommates do not feel safe having to share a space with “potential vectors.” Beth, not wanting to stay with people who hate her, agrees to leave, but Venus protests and punches the door (adorned with a sign declaring the house a safe space) as it slams behind them. And then: The women hear a scraping sound, see a hand in the window above, and watch as an air conditioner, clearly pushed by someone inside, tumbles out of the window and fatally crushes Venus. At this moment, her former friends’ moral gymnastics — the idea that they’re not responsible for the deaths of their housemates by turning them away — quickly and violently unravel. 

As the veil of performative allyship falls away, Beth comes to believe that solidarity is a mirage, a buzzword turned to vapor. In a sense she is relieved; once the self-deceptions are gone, you know who the enemy is.

The big question in Manhunt is how to forge solidarity under threat of brutality. Even as murderous, raping monsters are never far off, the true antagonists of the novel are a faction of fascist cis women (TERFs) who have grown their ranks along the East Coast and are determined to secure power and exterminate trans women. And as Beth’s experience with her housing collective has taught her, having queerness in common does not guarantee comradeship with cis friends or “allies.”

From the moment we meet Beth and Fran, her friend and fellow trans woman, they are fighting to stay alive, hunted by both the TERFs and the roving, raping, feral “men” from turning into monsters themselves. In real life, we’re rather saturated with zombie media; the wandering, mindless undead beings always on the heels of the protagonists, threatening not only to eat their insides but to turn them into something inhuman. If the classic zombie archetype has typically stood in for consumerism, then the roving monstrous hordes in Manhunt represent violation. They appear on the scene erect and in heat, ready to not only to eat but to rape — the quintessential threat posed by menacing masculinity. 

Beth and Fran are skillful hunters. They track, kill, and castrate these feral men, extracting estrogen from the testicles of their victims in order to ensure their own survival. Eventually, the women team up with Indi, a friend and a doctor who has perfected this hormone extraction process; and new ally Robbie, a trans man and roaming loner who takes a chance on his potential new friends. Beth wonders if the men they hunt ever feel loneliness or whether they’re happy being “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.” This post-viral rampage of maleness is framed as the logical conclusion to the escalating male violence that society had tolerated before its collapse. New men, Beth observes, remind her of Coke Zero. “Same great vicious disregard for our lives, none of the socially reinforced restraint.” Embodying the shame and self-contempt that Beth and Fran carry with them, the men also violate the protagonists’ sense of selfhood. The emotional and physical scars of life before the virus are not gone; neither is the dysphoria. 

By centering the experiences of trans and non-binary characters, Felker-Martin offers a corrective to the genre of post-apocalyptic fiction, which has historically ignored the existence of non-cis people even as it frequently considers the possibility of a world without cis men. Ever since Joanna Russ’ seminal (and quite transphobic) 1975 novel, The Female Man, feminist science fiction has imagined alternate worlds wherein men are suddenly wiped out, leaving cis women to rebuild society. There’s been a peculiar flurry of such books recently, including Lauren Beukes’ Afterland, Christina Sweeney-Baird’s The End of Men, and Sandra Newman’s forthcoming The Men. While each of these books explores different aspects of a post-male society, the authors seem to be more invested in the narrative contrivance of a chromosomal-based pandemic than in interrogating assumptions about gender itself. While not all of the post-apocalyptic scenarios are presented as utopian per se, they do play into a liberal, white, cis-feminist delusion of the world in which women could not possibly wreak the same terror as men. This world, notably, does not include trans women.

Perhaps the most well-known work to which Manhunt is responding is Brian K. Vaughan’s much-lauded comic book series “Y: The Last Man.” That series depicts a society plunged into chaos and rebuilding after all living mammals with a Y chromosome die simultaneously — with the exception of one man named Yorick and his pet monkey. Aside from a passing and derogatory mention of transness, the series offers no explanation of what might have happened to trans women and non-binary people. The short-lived television adaptation attempted to correct the problems of the comic book by adding trans men to the world (and main cast), but the fixation on chromosomes as the crucial factor still led to a bio-essentialist fantasy, born of cis feminist fears, in which characters’ identities are immutable and destinies pre-determined. 

This is where Felker-Martin’s contribution to the genre is especially meaningful. By building a world in which the killer virus is linked to mutable hormone levels rather than chromosomes, Felker-Martin acknowledges that every person in the world would be forced to deal with the ramifications of a testosterone-targeting virus. While trans men eschew the testosterone they had been taking in order to avoid transforming into monsters, trans women are on the hunt for estrogen, along with cis women who have too much testosterone, who are menopausal, or who have conditions like Polycystic Ovary Syndrome. In this new economy built around estrogen access, wealthy survivors commodify survival by turning estrogen extraction into a systemized, large-scale operation. With everyone left on the planet just a hormonal imbalance away from mutating into a rabid beast, solidarity is the only way forward for humanity.

After Beth is wounded in battle with the TERFs, she notices, “She always scarred like that, as though her body had known ahead of time that it was going to be torn open. As though it were prepared for mutilation.” Body horror is not simply about gore and viscera — although it usually includes a lot of both — it is also about fear of one’s own body, and how little control we really have over it. If our protagonists were to lose access to estrogen and succumb to the virus, they would become the monsters they’re trying to outrun, as well as the monsters that TERFs see them as. Just as every moment of physical pleasure or serenity carries a sense of memento mori, the fear-inducing thought that a chromosome will always inevitably determine how others perceive you runs throughout the narrative.

In Manhunt, gore meshes seamlessly with love, and Felker-Martin renders both in savagely beautiful ways. After all, sometimes the best thing a friend can do for you is to sew up your cheek or pull out your infected tooth. And for all of the intense illustrations of violence, there are equally vivid descriptions of sexuality and pleasure featuring bodies of all types and sizes. The desire captured on the page is realistically messy: characters seek sex and touch solely for personal validation, they fuck people they’re supposed to hate — and sometimes even do. Felker-Martin deftly conveys the tension of wanting to know what it would be like to, even briefly, kiss the person you’re about to shoot with an arrow.

This messiness is also what makes the book so politically potent. The heroes we’re rooting for have both suffered in their lives, and caused pain to others. They make self-serving, sometimes callous decisions, and have to redeem themselves. Felker-Martin does not shy away from spending time with one particular TERF soldier who climbs the ranks while concealing her own desire for trans women. Yet just when it seems that Ramona might finally see the light, she stands by as her comrades commit yet another heinous public execution. When she does finally help the trans survivors who are fighting back against her fellow soldiers, it’s noble, but too little too late. Ramona’s character arc works because Manhunt’s anti-fascist politics are unapologetic and unambiguous, and instead of creating sympathy for a “complex villain” by delving into her inner life and contradictions, Felker-Martin uses the latter to lay out the serious threat of TERF ideology, displaying them as the fascists that they are. Human fascists, with feelings and traumas, but fascists nonetheless. 

Beth, Fran, Indi, and Robbie eventually find relief at an abandoned lighthouse inhabited by a group of survivors who have decided to take their chances fighting the encroaching TERFs. The protagonists see what this new group has been able to accomplish thus far by bringing different skills to the table and collaborating: they’ve repaired computers and electronics, started a library, and of course, secured defenses to protect against TERFs and roving monstrous men. When Beth and her friends agree to stay, they do so in order to fight for the larger group, and not just for their own survival. They perform care, and in turn, learn to accept it from others, knowing that those same people might die tomorrow. They begin to build and laugh together, and to fight on behalf of one another. 

What begins as a story of individuals scavenging alone in the shadows becomes one about the beauty of clawing, collectively, towards the chance at a dignified life. The novel ends with a substantial amount of carnage, but also with tremendous mourning. It offers no promises that those remaining will continue to survive for much longer. However, a quiet hopefulness emerges as the survivors forge a solidarity worth killing for. If this world is going to kill you anyway, at least you can be buried by true sisters.       

Stephanie Monohan is a writer and illustrator from New York City. Her work is inspired by things that go bump in the night. She’s quite online: @shdwbxng

Collage by Chloe Scheffe.