Orion Books (www.orionbooks.co.uk)
Kate Reese’s life has been a series of bad decisions since her husband took his own life in the bath several years before. When her latest boyfriend hits her, Kate packs up her few possessions, and her seven-year-old son, and flees eastward in the middle of the night, ending up in the small town of Mill Grove, Pennsylvania. Christopher Reese first sees the Nice Man as a face in the clouds, but Kate isn’t too worried, because his imaginary friend is outnumbered by the group of friends he has made since joining Mill Grove Elementary. But one day, Christopher follows the Nice Man into the Mission Street Woods and isn’t seen for six days. Long-time residents of the town liken it to the disappearance of little David Olson fifty years earlier, though David never came back. When Christopher returns, he’s a changed boy: now he can read without the letters moving about the page, and his mathematical abilities have come along in leaps and bounds. And Christopher now has a purpose, for which he drafts his friends, all of whose intelligences seem to have benefitted from their friendship with the new kid: he has to build a treehouse, in a clearing at the middle of the Mission Street Woods. It’s a treehouse that will allow him to find his friend, the Nice Man, and from which will pour Good and Evil – as embodied by the Nice Man and the Hissing Lady, respectively – that will infect the citizens of Mill Grove, and make this small Pennsylvania town the key battlefield in the war for the survival of the human race.
Since publishing his first novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, in 1999, Stephen Chbosky has worked mostly in film and television. His long-awaited second novel, Imaginary Friend, is very different in tone to his earlier novel and was garnering praise that compared it to Stephen King’s IT long before publication. Focusing on seven-year-old Christopher Reese and the people who inhabit his world, Chbosky examines what happens when a child’s imaginary friend has a little bit more substance than you might expect. While Christopher’s initial disappearance happens more or less offscreen – we spend that week with Christopher’s mother, with the town’s sheriff, with Christopher’s friend – Chbosky quickly plunges us into a nightmare world populated by terrifying creatures, that Christopher must navigate in order to help his friend, and save our world from the insidious whisperings of the Hissing Lady who is holding the Nice Man prisoner.
Chbosky has an eye for detail that is second-to-none, and an ability to get into the heads of each of his characters – from the seven-year-old children, through teenagers, to adults and the elderly – that is, at times, uncanny. He understands what makes us tick and, most importantly, what dark secrets can be found in our hearts. His examination of childrens’ cruelty to one another is an eye-opener, and not the kind of sociological treatise we expect from a novel designed to scare the wits out of us, which is something the author also does with great aplomb.
Edward Charles Anderson ended up being in Christopher’s remedial reading class, lunch period and gym. He ultimately proved to be as bad at reading as he was at kickball. Christopher called him Eddie. But everyone else in the school already knew him by his nickname.
Imaginary Friend is bursting at the seams with characters, and Chbosky allows us glimpses into the minds of many of them, from devout Catholic schoolgirl Mary Katherine MacNeil, who finds Christopher after his six-day absence, to old Mrs Henderson, who runs the school library, and who has dreams of stabbing her husband to death to stop his philandering. Mill Grove, Pennsylvania comes to life between the covers of Imaginary Friend due to the author’s ability to bring his characters to life, and to make us care about who they are, and what they want from life.
Chbosky’s novel is as much about stretching the boundaries of the genre as it is the story of Christopher Reese and his friends, imaginary or otherwise. Imaginary Friend has the entire history of the horror genre to choose from, and it borrows freely from many of them. Here we find the stylistic tics of Danielewski’s House of Leaves; here a town in the middle of a civil war for much the same reason that Castle Rock was more or less destroyed in King’s Needful Things. The timeslip elements are rife throughout the genre, while the imaginary world where Christopher encounters the Nice Man and the Hissing Lady is reminiscent of the Upside-Down, familiar to fans of Netflix’s Stranger Things.
There’s a little bit of something here for everyone, yet the book feels like a coherent whole, an engaging and entertaining story that references the genre greats in passing, half-concealed little Easter eggs for the reader to find depending on their own past reading experience. But it never pauses to examine these references: the story is key, and Chbosky has no interest in making us stop and think about how clever he is. When the story’s climax arrives, it’s something of a surprise, though in hindsight it probably shouldn’t be. It’s dark and it’s terrible, and most of its impact is down to the fact that we’re watching it through the eyes of a seven-year-old boy.
Imaginary Friend marks the end of a twenty-year hiatus for Stephen Chbosky. It’s an accomplished novel, a taut, dark fable whose scope is as vast and far-reaching as the intentions of its antagonist. Beautifully written, it’s a tale that often feels light-hearted in the face of world-ending terror, but Chbosky’s narrative style brings a fresh and engaging approach to telling this kind of story. It is, at its core, a love letter to the horror genre and a welcome addition to that genre from an unexpected and very talented author. Expect this to feature highly on the soon-to-arrive end-of-year lists, and make sure you get your hands on a copy, especially if you are, in any way, a fan of horror fiction.