Imaginary Friend by Stephen Chbosky

Reviewed by Rod McLary

It is difficult to categorise this latest book by Stephen Chbosky written some twenty years after his first – The Perks of Being a Wallflower.  On one level, it is a straightforward horror story primarily involving a group of eight-year-old children but, on another, it seems to be a battle between good and evil.  Along the way, the book touches on social issues such as domestic violence, child abuse, alcoholism, unethical business dealings, and schoolyard bullying.

The children themselves personify some of these social issues.  Christopher – the main protagonist – is escaping with his mother from domestic violence; Brady [the class bully] is punished by his mother by being forced to sleep [literally] in the doghouse; and Jenny barricades her bedroom door to prevent her stepbrother from coming in and molesting her.  Other of the issues are represented by the adults – ‘Special Ed’s’ father drinks himself to sleep each night; and Ms Lasko – the children’s teacher – starts her day with alcohol.  Even Mrs Henderson – the school librarian – has a husband who comes home at dawn after his nightly liaison with his ‘girlfriend’.

All of this is occurring in Mill Grove a small town in Pennsylvania.  No wonder good and evil have chosen this town to be their battleground for supremacy.  Good and evil are represented by the ‘nice man’ and the ‘hissing lady’ – which is which is not fully revealed until the end of the book and, even then, it is all rather ambiguous.  The source of much of the horror is the effect of the battle on the children.  But it is a battle which is largely fought out in Christopher’s mind as the reader is reminded more than once.

Fifty years ago, a boy called David – aged eight – disappeared from his home in Mill Grove and his body is never found.  He was taken from his home after he opened the front door when he heard a baby crying.  Of course, there was no baby – just a tape recording placed in a pram.  Although this is somewhat of a cliché, there is sufficient horror in the description of the event to engage the reader immediately.  This section is perhaps the most successful section of the book.  It is succinct and to the point.  The reader can almost feel the terror of the boy and the overwhelming guilt of his older brother Ambrose who was supposed to be looking after him. 

Everything is quiet until fifty years later Christopher and his mother come to town.  Somehow, he is chosen as the ‘next one’ and the horror starts again.

However, the horror is not able to be sustained over the subsequent 700 pages or so. 

The unfolding of the story occurs through the eyes of an eight-year-old boy – Christopher – and, although he is very bright, he is still just eight and some of the language reflects that.  This becomes rather tedious after a while and some of the descriptions of the various events and the characters are told and unnecessarily retold more than once.  Christopher’s thoughts as he navigates an increasingly complex and potentially deadly path to safety are set out in detail as in the following passage:

My mother is …

My mother is … with me on the real side.

My mother is …

My mother is …  saying she will get me out of here. [405]

Even some of the adult characters think in this way.  Jerry – the perpetrator of the domestic violence from which Christopher and his mother Kate are escaping – thinks the following about Kate –

You miss her, Jerry

But she doesn’t miss you.

She’s the best you’ll ever get, Jerry.  And she’s gone. [419]

The reader is tempted – and often succumbs to that temptation – to skip such passages.  Unfortunately too, there is also considerable repetition in the story which has the consequence of slowing down the narrative and interrupting the tension.  While there are some all too infrequent moments of real horror and considerable tension, the overall effect is of a book which just a little too long.

Stephen Chbosky has also indulged in some authorial tricks which add little to the narrative or to the horror.  Tricks such as one word to a page – presumably to emphasise the drama, the ‘nice man’s’ dialogue being in a smaller font than the rest of the book, and some parts written in faux handwriting are not helpful in sustaining the momentum of the story.

Imaginary Friend is Stephen Chbosky’s homage to the renowned horror writer Stephen King.  Like the characters in some of King’s books, the protagonists are young children dealing with a horror they cannot fully comprehend.  However, unlike King, Chbosky does not deliver what he would have wanted to.  Even though there are moments which rise above the rest, there are simply not enough of them so Imaginary Friend ultimately disappoints.

Imaginary Friend

[2019]

by Stephen Chbosky

Orion Books

ISBN 978 1 4091 8481 2

706pp; $32.99

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