OCTOBER 22, 2022
“[A] MONSTER IS not such a terrible thing to be. […] To be a monster is to be a hybrid signal, a lighthouse: both shelter and warning at once,” writes the poet Ocean Vuong. It reminds us of sirens, dragons, satyrs, and for the scripturally minded angels. Biblical angels often appear with the greeting, “Do not be afraid,” and still, such a warning reminds us that there is a reason to fear. Unlike their Renaissance and Hallmark representations, they are described as terrifying beings. Among their ranks are seraphs: six winged fiery beings, “full of eyes all around and inside” (Revelations 4:8, NRSV). However, in Andrew Joseph White’s Hell Followed with Us16-year-old trans boy Benji is constantly reminding himself, “It’s okay to be scared,” all while he is mutating into a seraphic creature — fangs, six wings, and many eyes included.
Hell Followed with Us opens in a dystopian world where an evangelical cult has bioengineered a plague, creating “Graces,” nightmarish creatures, out of former humans. Benji is escaping from the cult when he’s rescued by the local Acheson LGBTQ+ Center, which, in the time of dystopia, has survived by hunting cult members. Furthermore, he’s been unwillingly subjected to a variant of the plague, mutating him into a seraphic monster and the cult’s purported savior who will lead the Graces to doomsday. It’s holy horror embodied in a teenage boy.
White’s young adult debut novel is uncompromising in tackling horror, anger, and faith. When Benji joins and fights alongside the Acheson LGBQT+ Center, he is brought face to face with the violence that the virus and cult have produced, which White renders in visceral and explicit detail. While the novel grapples with real world themes of environmental destruction, political extremism, and whether of course, in this day and age, a plague, it also approaches the human body — gendered, disabled, or mutated — with surprising tenderness.
At the Acheson LGBTQ+ Center, Benji is surrounded by a diverse cast of characters who come to accept him as one of their own. But although the members of Benji’s new “found family” serve as a foil to the cult and an emotional stake for the character, many of them simply cycle through the background. Instead, a love triangle between Nick, Benji, and Benji’s fiancé Theo dominates the stage. It’s a shame, given how characters like Faith, Sadaf, Alex, and Calvin provide openings for conversations on gender performance, religion, and grief that carry little follow up. Moreover, Benji’s longstanding concern over their response to his cult origins and “Seraph” mutation are rendered unnecessary in the face of an “us versus them” dynamic. It’s reframed into a question of loyalty when Nick asks: “Are you a monster because you were an Angel […] or because you’re Seraph?”
However, the latter is a far more compelling question. White’s approach to body horror is vivid and persistent, constantly reminding us of Benji’s transformation into a monster. In the tradition of monster narratives, such as Frankenstein, The Hunchback of Notre Dameand The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, we are reminded that this genre of stories often serves as a reflection on humanity. As Leslie Fielder writes in “The Tyranny of the Normal,” these types of monstrous characters provide to their audiences and readers “a revelation of what in our deepest psyches we suspect we recognize as the Secret Self”: the belief that in their monstrosity we find our own internalized horrors. In a similar manner, Benji’s first-person voice is most intimate and personal during these moments of reflection on his bodily mutation. It brings us closer to the character, not despite but rather because of his transformation into the Seraph. In turn, White’s approach to Benji’s internal dialogue as he reckons with his physical transformation provides an opening for readers and young adults to recontextualize their own relationships to their bodies.
Anne Fausto-Sterling’s “That Sex Which Prevaileth,” an analysis of historical gender binaries, reminds us of how Westernized social norms of sex and gender have been exerted over ambiguous bodies. Figures in the political and medical fields have historically been granted an outsized power over an individual’s sense of self. Fausto-Sterling argues that “the science of physical difference was often reported to invalidate claims for social and political emancipation.” White’s novel offers a similar view to the body, not only in its experience of gender, but also in the face of physical transformation and change.
Although many transgender narratives grapple with body horror and the experience of dysphoria, White, like Fausto-Sterling, recontextualizes where that horror originates from: an external gaze. It’s a universal experience among young adults encountering puberty, but also an ongoing one for gender performativity. In the novel, we see this as the cult repeatedly invokes Benji’s physical body through his assigned sex at birth and through forced mutation, trapping him into the role of the Seraph. Even Benji acknowledges the hold it carries over himself, stating, “My dysphoria comes from the way other people see me, and I can’t help but look at myself from the outside.”
So in grappling with his Seraph mutation, Benji is forced to reconcile his interiority with his physical reality. Early in the plot, Benji describes becoming the monster as antithetical to being “good,” insinuating that his mutation has some relation to a segued internal identity. Benji goes so far as to compare goodness to an Edenic choice, “turning away from the virus’s power the same way Eve should have turned away from the apple.” However, this changes throughout the course of the story. As Benji changes both physically and emotionally, the role of the “blessed Seraph” becomes less inherent to his transformation.
In fact, by the time Benji is organizing the downfall of the cult, he is determined to be “good” while also acknowledging: “I am a monster standing among the living, a boy made of raw meat and dying flesh. […] I’m turning into an abomination.” It’s a neutral acceptance of humanity and monstrosity altogether. By reclaiming the Seraph, not as a savior for the cult’s means but for his own emancipation, Benji is able to recognize the good alongside the monstrous. (It’s worth noting that the word “abomination” comes from the Latin verb abominarior “from an omen” — a warning to his enemies, indeed.)
Although it’s clear that Benji’s transformation inspires awe among both members of the Acheson LGBTQ+ Center and the evangelical cult, that same veneration and gaze isolates him. White’s writing, wrought with anger and emotion, is best able to hold its weight when centered on the interiority of his protagonist’s sense of self. As a result, in a story that circles around communities, it’s only when Benji is alone as the Seraph — “full of eyes all around and inside” — that he is able to turn his gaze on himself, stating that “it’s who I am , and I am done being thrown among so many bodies.”
In this manner, he’s able to embrace that postlapsarian revelation that, as Adam and Eve opened their eyes unto themselves as well, allows him to reclaim his body as the Seraph. This enlightenment coincides with another of Benji’s realizations: that he does not believe in God or the cult’s fundamentalist faith at all. And perhaps we recognize the fall from faith as a felix culpa because it allows us to see ourselves as we are, human and monstrous all at once — not so terrible a thing to be at all.
Helena Gabrielle Ong is a writer currently based in New York. She is also an editorial producer at The New Yorker. Her past work has appeared in NBC4 News, The Tempest, San Francisco Public Press, and more. You can find her on Twitter @theyhellohelena.