I’ve been a fan of Stephen Chobsky ever since The Perks of Being a Wallflower came out when I was in college. Needless to say, I was excited to hear that he was dipping his feet into the horror genre with Imaginary Friend. The book centres around a young boy named Christopher Reese who goes missing in the woods after following a disembodied voice. Upon returning, Christopher realises he has something akin to superpowers: he’s no longer dyslexic, he wins the lottery, and he can somehow hear people’s thoughts. But there’s a catch. He keeps having reoccurring nightmares about a “hissing lady” who wants to tear down the wall between the “imaginary world” and the real one, which has something to do with another little boy who went missing fifty years ago.
The premise of Imaginary Friend is an interesting one, similar to Stephen King’s It in terms of the fact that horror is also a way of understanding childhood trauma. From a writer’s perspective, it’s also incredibly well-written: the imaginative dream sequences are clear and the horrific imagery is not tasteless. This being said, there was a lot that bothered me about this book.
For starters, it’s obvious the descriptions of domestic violence were written by a man. Kate Reese is written in a one-dimensional way: she’s a superwoman when it comes to providing for her son and leaving her deadbeat alcoholic boyfriend, but she also heavily blames herself for not surrounding herself with better men. Any woman who’s gone through domestic violence knows that while there are red flags, abusers will often groom their victims to take the abuse. It’s a much more insidious process than Chobsky lets on. Blaming women for not leaving or that they’re more stupid than the ones who do only feeds into this problem. It’s also strange that Kate doesn’t notice that her best friend Betty is a functioning alcoholic despite growing up in that environment.
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Second, the book becomes incredibly religious. That wouldn’t be a problem if I knew what I was getting into, but I felt tricked that the horror that the book was leading up to was a battle between heaven and hell. And an immaculate conception to boot. Granted, it is speculative fiction so weird supernatural stuff is a given. However, with the religious component, I felt like there was some kind of moral undercurrent to the story that I just couldn’t shake as I read the last 300 pages or so. It was like going to a haunted house attraction only to discover that the entire thing was a set up by the local church to scare teens about premarital sex and abortion. Which was entirely disappointing.
I’d still recommend the book for its first few hundred pages. It’s a compelling story, religious overtones or not. Initially, the characters of the nice man (via a talking plastic bag) and the hissing lady were intriguing concepts, especially the hissing lady’s army of deer and “mailbox people” with their eyes and lips sewn shut. But they didn’t need to be more than that to be effective. For example, Coraline by Neil Gaiman featured an imaginary, alternate reality without any references to hell or the devil and it was scary enough. But I would urge you to read it and judge for yourself.
Imaginary Friend by Stephen Chbosky is published by Orion (UK) and Grand Central Publishing (US). Buy the book.