Some of the most popular dystopian novels in recent years have actually been written in the YA genre space, whether they are stories of teens competitively killing each other for the amusement of rich elites (The Hunger Games), set in bleak faction-oriented societies that privilege certain groups over others (Divergent), or focused on a caste-based world in which young girls literally compete against each other to win the hand of a prince and the chance at a better life (The Selection). But even if you’ve read a lot in this particular subgenre—I promise you, nothing has prepared you for Andrew Joseph White’s Hell Followed With Us.
A pitch-black dystopian nightmare rippling with righteous fury, this is a story about the end of the world and the monsters who bring it about, and as a result, it contains everything from genocide and torture to murder and body horror. Full of explicit gore and violence, including shockingly detailed images of melting flesh, snapping bones, and various other mutilations and mutations, this is in no way a story for the faint of heart. And while there are wisps of occasional hope in White’s world, even the best of all possible outcomes are ones edged in (sometimes very literal) teeth and claws.
Yet, there is a complicated catharsis to be found in these pages, which are ultimately a story of both queer survival and queer perseverance, an unfortunately timely ode to those still fighting for the opportunity to be both seen and accepted for who they are. Hell Followed With Us is, truly, like nothing else you’ll read this summer, and its deft balance of destruction and rebirth offers a satisfying, if far from saccharine, end.
Set in a nebulous near-future time, Hell Followed With Us follows the story of Benji, a young trans boy who flees the cult that raised him. The Angels, an eco-fascist fundamentalist group that believes genocide is the only way to save both the planet and humanity, released a deadly virus known as the Flood as a plague to “cleanse” the earth. Billions die and more still are forever cursed, essentially melted and fused into the multi-faced nightmare creatures known as Graces, who seem to want nothing more than to die, but which the Angels continue to use to hunt survivors of their initial plague.
Benji was meant to serve as the cult’s final solution. Injected with a perfected version of the virus called Seraph, his body is slowly being changed and corrupted—White’s book is rife with descriptions of Benji coughing up various body parts and internal sludge—into what is essentially a living bioweapon. The process is unstoppable and irreversible, and part of the tragedy of this story is watching Benji slowly lose himself to the virus, just as he’s decided to finally lay claim to who he really is.
While trying to escape the clutches of his abusers, Benji is rescued by a ragtag group of queer resistance fighters who live in the town of Acheson’s former LGBTQ+ center. Led by Nick, an autistic sharpshooter, the teen rebels are an incredibly interesting and effortlessly diverse group of supporting characters encompassing multiple gender identities and represent the first time Benji is allowed to see others like him, living out their true gender identities even in the face of a world that has quite literally gone to hell.
As the group struggles for survival—getting basic supplies involves trading with a local militia group that will only swap food for proof that the teens have successfully killed Angels—Benji tries to contain the virus that’s corrupting his body from the inside out and becomes ever more determined to use Seraph against those that created it, even as he questions aspects of the life he left behind. (His feelings about his ex-fiancee Theo are particularly fraught, as are his memories of his mother, a high-ranking figure within the Angels’ movement who refuses to acknowledge Benji’s identity and chose him specifically for the Seraph program..)
As the group plans what may well likely be a suicide mission, Benji does his best to come to terms with the faith he abandoned and the things that have been—and likely will be—done in his name. White’s clear understanding of the dangers of fundamentalism, and how faith can be weaponized to justify violence and even death in the name of something holy meshes perfectly with the story’s larger questions about colonialism, capitalism, and environmentalism.
Given that the book’s title is a play on one of the most famous descriptions from Revelation, it’s not a spoiler to say that Hell Followed With Us doesn’t have a happy ending, per se, and certainly not one that will look the way most readers expect. Remaining human is not in the cards for Benji, as the graphic changes taking over his body are both large scale and permanent. The ruined world the Angels left behind in their wake cannot revert to the one the Acheson teens remember.
Instead, all that is possible for right now is survival, whatever that ultimately comes to look like for each of these characters, who end the story in many ways where they began it: Furiously reaching for whatever love or hope or freedom they can find in this mess of a world with both hands, and hoping that is, in its way, enough. (Here’s hoping, for the record, that it is.)
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.