Holy, Holy, Holy Hell: Hell Followed With Us by Andrew Joseph White

Posted 20th November 2021 by Siavahda in Queer Lit, Reviews, Sci-Fi Reviews / 0 Comments

Hell Followed with Us by Andrew Joseph White
Representation: Queer MC, assorted queer cast
Published on: 7th June 2022
Genres: Queer Protagonists, Sci Fi
ISBN: 1682633241
Goodreads
four-half-stars

Sixteen-year-old trans boy Benji is on the run from the cult that raised him—the fundamentalist sect that unleashed Armageddon and decimated the world’s population. Desperately, he searches for a place where the cult can’t get their hands on him, or more importantly, on the bioweapon they infected him with.

But when cornered by monsters born from the destruction, Benji is rescued by a group of teens from the local Acheson LGBTQ+ Center, affectionately known as the ALC. The ALC’s leader, Nick, is gorgeous, autistic, and a deadly shot, and he knows Benji’s darkest secret: the cult’s bioweapon is mutating him into a monster deadly enough to wipe humanity from the earth once and for all.

Still, Nick offers Benji shelter among his ragtag group of queer teens, as long as Benji can control the monster and use its power to defend the ALC. Eager to belong, Benji accepts Nick’s terms…until he discovers the ALC’s mysterious leader has a hidden agenda, and more than a few secrets of his own.

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

Highlights

~everything is a metaphor and the metaphors are A++
~the apocalypse is queer as fuck
~transitioning with testosterone hell-virus
~absolutely every adult in this thing can fuck off forever
~bead lizards = true love
~if they want a monster, give them Hell
~#HugsForGraces2022

My immediate response to finishing this book was: THERE HAD BETTER BE A SEQUEL COMING BECAUSE I AM NOT READY FOR THIS TO BE OVER.

Which is kind of odd, because if you asked me, I wouldn’t say that I loved Hell Followed With Us, not the way I hoped and expected to when I first heard the premise. I wish it hadn’t been written in first-person (although I’m also not sure that was the wrong choice for this story; it’s more that I, personally, am generally not a fan of first-person) and I wish the prose hadn’t been so simplistic and so blunt. I wish the climax had been a bit less rushed, and that there’d been more showing and less telling about the monsters and Benji’s powers. I wish the diabolus ex machina in the final showdown had felt less like it came out of absolutely nowhere.

And yet.

And yet, I couldn’t put it down. And yet, I was utterly fascinated by Benji’s transformation into Seraph, the monster-messiah of the cult that wiped out most of the human race. And yet, I want to stand up and applaud Andrew Joseph White until my hands burn.

Hell Followed With Us is going to be one of the heavy-hitters of 2022, and it absolutely deserves to be.

The plot is pretty much as the blurb describes: Benji is a trans teen desperately trying to get away from the doomsday cult (who call themselves the Angels) that brought about the end of the world with an engineered virus – a cult that reveres him as an almost-messiah, because he’s been infected with a strain meant to turn him into Seraph, a monster that will wipe out the last of humanity’s survivors. A community of queer teens struggling to get by welcome him in, not knowing his backstory, but their acceptance can’t stop the virus and Benji’s transformation.

It’s post-apocalyptic queer horror, and it’s very much a book about rage – queer rage and teen rage and righteous rage.

It’s glorious, getting angry so quickly. Maybe the Flood has given me something in return for my body: the anger I never let myself have as a little girl, the rage I swallowed down every day of my life. It feels like it’s slotting into place where it was meant to be all along.

And every time you peel back a layer, there’s more underneath it – White has woven so much meaning and symbolism into every aspect of the story, the characters, and the general aesthetic. There’s a parallel to be drawn, for example, between Benji and the teens of the ALC who adopt him, and Benji’s let’s-call-it-psychic bond to the Graces, the monsters created by the apocalypse-virus. The Graces are terrifying, and hideous, and deadly – but Benji refuses to call them ‘it’, croons to them when they’re scared, feels empathy and sympathy and maybe something we can call affection for them. I’d argue the Graces embody, in some aspects, the view fundamentalists and queerphobes have of queer people – hideous monsters – but the truth is that the Graces are creatures with feelings who deserve to be valued. The Graces fight with, and for, Benji, and there’s just something so fucking excellent about that, about aligning queerness with a monstrousness that isn’t evil, but is massively powerful. Queerness has been aligned with monstrousness for a while by gross idiots; Hell Followed With Us embraces that, reclaims it, revels in it. Fucking celebrates it. Says, if you want a monster, I’ll give you a monster.

And there shall be no night there; and they need no candle, neither light of the sun; for the Lord God giveth them light.

For the world will burn under the weight of it.

And it’s thrilling. It is. It’s empowering and glorious and it keeps you locked on to every page, reading as fast as you can, drinking it in.

If they want me to be a monster one step closer to God, that’s fine. In what world was their God ever a benevolent one?

There’s no way White did not intentionally, deliberately spin it so that Seraph really is a messiah – to the monsters. And to the people the cult consider monsters; queer people and BIPOC people and people who are both. That’s just – clever and subversive and gods damn delicious, and I want to write a thesis on this book, okay? On all the layers, all the metaphors, all the symbolism, all the ways in which Hell Followed With Us sears through your veins and makes you want to howl, want to roar.

No, this book isn’t going to be for everyone. But it is the embodiment of the feelings most queer people have experienced at least once, even if we never act on them. Hell Followed With Us is as much power-fantasy as it is horror, in its way.

The Angels were made to be the servants of the Lord, but I am the wrath, the flaming sword, the six-winged beast.

And like – okay, I wish the writing had been more descriptive, sure. But damn is White brilliant at packing a hell of a punch into just a few short words; the prose is concise because it is distilled, pure and powerful and true. I love descriptive purple-shaded prose, but Hell Followed With Us doesn’t need it. More words would have diluted the effect; every word present has been chosen with care and deliberation, placed exactly where it needs to be to rip your breath away. And the biblical imagery! All the gorgeous, sharp-toothed biblical imagery makes me swoon with delight.

What’s left of my heart beating holy, holy, holy in my throat.

(Holy, holy, holy is what the seraphim – a kind of angel – sing in Heaven, constantly praising God.)

In fact, maybe the general sparseness of description makes those moments when it does appear more effective – they certainly stand out more. One of my favourite lines in the entire book is when the people at the ALC are handling supplies, which are obviously unspeakably precious in a post-apocalyptic setting, which is why the teens are

cradling painkillers like Fabergé eggs.

I just adore the wonderful similes we get occasionally, okay?

When it comes to the characters, one thing I dearly loved was the depiction of Benji’s relationship with his body and dysphoria. Cis writers especially often depict trans characters as unequivocally hating their bodies, but there are a lot of ways to be trans (or any other flavour of nonbinary), and some people experience much less dysphoria than others. So it was really, really great to see a trans character who, while uncomfortable with other people perceiving him as a girl (fair), didn’t feel the need to wear a binder, and didn’t feel emasculated by things like having periods. HI YES THANK YOU SO MUCH. More diverse depictions of the trans experience, please! That was excellent, especially contrasted against other trans characters, who all had different takes and approaches to their bodies and identities. THERE’S NO ONE RIGHT WAY TO BE TRANS.

Being transgender is who you are, and the pain is what the outside does to you. The pain is what happens when you and the world go for each other’s throats.

And speaking of breaking away from stereotypes, I was so freaking delighted to see Nick, our autistic sharpshooter kinda-sorta-probably love interest, was an excellent liar and able to manipulate people. (Not in a villain way, just in a leader way.) Autistic people are not all innocent naive sweethearts, and plenty of us are very good at lying, or making hard calls, or being ruthless. There’s no one-size-fits-all version of autism, either, and I’m so happy White kicked the stereotypes in the teeth with Nick. HELL TO THE YES.

I wish I could stay here forever, surrounded by ash and death and his laughter.

I have to admit, though, that I did not find the horror elements particularly horrifying. I think that’s for a few reasons: for one thing, the writing style – via Benji’s first-person narration – is very blunt and lacking in description, and even the most body-horror monsters just don’t feel very scary or even gross if you don’t describe them the right way, with enough detail. I think Hell Followed With Us would be marvellously terrifying on a screen, with Guillermo del Toro or someone in charge of the visuals…but in written form, it didn’t really work.

It’s more human than not, more human than some but less human than the inside-out man Dad and I saw on the apartment floor days ago. A head, a torso, close enough. But its ribs open into a second set of teeth, gray organs pulsing underneath like fat, heavy tonsils. Its lower jaw has melted into its chest, and molars stick out of its collarbones.

Sorry. There’s just something so…so matter of fact about the way the monsters are described, that it’s just not hitting the right note to squick me, never mind scare me.

The other reason the horror elements didn’t give me horror!feels is that I’m a freak who very quickly fell in with Benji’s softness, affection, and protectiveness towards the monsters. That is simply, as they say, my jam. Even as Benji himself was transforming and mutating, his new form didn’t disgust me – I thought he sounded monstrously beautiful, or beautifully monstrous.

It’s harder for someone to pin you down as a girl when they need a moment to pin you down as human.

But I think that’s a me thing, not any weakness in the writing! Your mileage will vary.

Put it all together, and Hell Followed With Us is an immensely powerful, darkly glorious book that I want to personally deliver into the hands of every nonbinary teen ever. And a lot of us nonbinary adults, too. It really, really, really needs to be on your TBR for 2022.

The good the world needs right now is teeth and claws and a taste for blood.

Preorder it immediately. You won’t regret it.

four-half-stars

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