Twenty years ago Stephen Chbosky had a massive hit with coming-of-age novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Now the director/producer/scriptwriter is back with an epic, kid-centric horror.
Early on in Stephen Chbosky’s frustrating new horror novel, Imaginary Friend, its seven-year-old protagonist Christopher is sitting down to watch his favourite cartoon, Bad Cat. Christopher is a megafan – toys, clothes, lunchbox, sleeping bag, everything. He’s also been venturing secretly into the nearby woods, at the behest of a not-so-imaginary friend who he thinks of as “the nice man”, where he and his friends have discovered the twisted skeleton of another young boy who went missing decades ago. Inexplicably, Bad Cat starts to address Christopher from the television, plugging him for information about the context of this morbid discovery. Whatever is using Bad Cat’s form becomes more threatening, telling Christopher that he’s pretty fucking disappointed, warning the boy that if he doesn’t stop lying, something bad will happen to his beloved mother, Kate.
It’s a scene that reads, to an adult, like an obvious act of grooming, marked by cajoling promises and veiled threats, and punctuated by that ice-cold phrase: it’ll be our little secret. Just as Christopher reaches out to touch Bad Cat’s paw through the television – hello Poltergeist reference – Kate walks in, shattering the reverie, leaving Christopher fearing that he is ‘crazy’ like his late father, who was driven to suicide by visions and voices.
This is a chilling and tense sequence that twists the everyday into something first uncanny and then horrific. It’s effective because the adult reader grasps all too well the danger that faces the vulnerable child, and it successfully places an innocent in the centre of an unfurling conflict between forces well beyond his limited comprehension. The problem is that Imaginary Friend, which clocks in at a weighty 700 pages, eventually drops this dread-inducing, intimate approach in lieu of something explicitly didactic. The book is overlong, overpacked and profoundly inconsistent, opening with creeping domestic and supernatural terrors, before collapsing into preposterous, overtly religious nightmare fuel. For all the compelling set up, the book stretches both the reader’s patience and sense of credulity.
Although Chbosky has been working on this novel for nine years, its release comes at a time when narratives about gangs of plucky kids facing off against some kind of human or metaphysical evil are having a cultural moment. The book recalls the small-town, kid-centric work of 80s-era Stephen King and Stephen Spielberg, and more recent 1980s horror throwbacks such as the television series Stranger Things.
Christopher and Kate move to a small town in Pennsylvania after fleeing Kate’s abusive ex-boyfriend. However, something unsettling keeps drawing Christopher to the mysterious and creepy Mission Street Woods, which we realise house a seeping malignance that has periodically infected the entire town with a violent, all-consuming fever. At the behest of a seemingly friendly entity, “the nice man”, he and his friends – Matt, Mike, and Special Ed – begin to secretly build a treehouse in a clearing. The longer they spend in the woods, the more they inherit unexpected powers, including enhanced cognitive capacity and telepathy. They also begin to suffer from crippling headaches and nosebleeds.
The completed treehouse acts as a portal to a horrifying alternate version of the town. This is populated by monstrous “mailbox people” whose eyes and mouths are sewn shut, and is overseen by a badly burned “hissing lady”, who keeps a version of the nice man captive. Christopher’s task, he thinks, is to somehow free the man and kill the witch, although we soon learn that a much greater metaphysical conflict is at play. By the end the town will nearly destroy itself, and Christopher and his mother will have to work together to protect one another and save all of humanity from an eternity of suffering. Hang on, what? I’ll get back to that.
The novel is most successful – and enjoyable – when it is exploring the friendships, experiences, and shifting perceptions of the oblivious young boys. Readers familiar with Chbosky’s previous book, the much-loved epistolary novel The Perks of Being A Wallflower, will find that there’s a similar bluntness to the prose. Where that novel’s teenage narrator has been affected by trauma, here we understand that the boys’ perceptions are limited by their age and their inability to successfully interpret the magnitude of events around them. In this sense, Imaginary Friend reminds me a little of Neil Gaiman’s feted children’s novel Coraline; the gaps in the prose of both books allows an adult reader to read between the lines, creating a rising sense of anxiety as we recognise exactly how much trouble the poor kids are in, and how badly they are being manipulated by supernatural forces.
Similarly, the novel succeeds when we peer into the minds of the various townspeople, whose desires, hypocrisies and barely-concealed resentments fuel the town’s implosion. It’s hard not to think of peak-King novels such as Needful Things, although it’s also important to note that Chbosky’s small town world-building doesn’t feel derivative. There are also frequent small references to other horror films and books, and some well-rendered, horrific set pieces (such as when the boys tell each other ghost stories, or when Christopher needs to hide inside a body bag with a dying man) which clearly acknowledge the book’s self-aware genre play. So far, so good.
This sense of dis-ease is first accompanied, then offset, by the novel’s real conflict, and it’s impossible to discuss this shift without spoiling the story’s twists. The book starts off full of religious allegory, but eventually pitches into a literal space. The small town is deeply Catholic, and anyone with even a smattering of Sunday school under their belt will quickly notice the preponderance of overt and covert religious imagery as the book races towards its chaotic Christmas Day conflict. This ranges from Kate’s role as a perfect mother, to Christopher’s role as a perfect son, to discussions about salvation and forgiveness, and a real-life immaculate conception. There’s a sequence that recalls the stations of the cross, allusions to the trials of Job, and revelations (a definite play on words) about the true identity of some key players. Biblical allegory, religious fervour and theological conflict have long fuelled significant and highly successful subgenres of horror, but the problem here is that subtext becomes obnoxiously on the nose. It’s not quite the Left Behind of horror literature, but by the end I felt like I was left playing iconography bingo. (I see the tree of knowledge! House!)
My sense of frustration was exacerbated by the book’s uneven pace. The first half of the book drip-feeds a mounting sense of dread, but once the literal nature of the narrative’s allegory is revealed, it’s like the air goes out of the room, despite the significant acceleration in action. The last third of the book is a 250-odd page action sequence as Kate, Christopher, and various allies run through the real and alternative version of the town, which by now has descended into Satan-sponsored carnage. The pell-mell sense of catastrophe reminds me (perversely, given the religious content) of C S Lewis’s final Narnia book, The Last Battle, in which the characters race joyously “further up and further in” to Aslan’s Country, as their own version of Narnia is swallowed up by sea and time. Here, though, the characterisation and tension that’s been carefully built up bolt from the stable. It’s cacophonous and exhausting. I admit that I gave up and scanned the last 150 pages or so, and became increasingly irritated at the book’s use of multiple typefaces and font sizes, and its occasionally unusual layout.
By the end of Imaginary Friend, I was pretty confused about what the book was meant to be, beyond an overstuffed Anti-Christmas stocking. The first half delivers some top end, child-centric horror, but its bombastic, overly-literal conflict – as well as its incredibly on the nose climax and coda – are tiresome. It also highlights how necessary light and shade are when trying to create and maintain a sense of tension, especially within horror, which balances on the fulcrum between anticipation and revelation. I wonder where an editor has been in all of this, as there are only so many times you can read that people are screaming, that poor little Christopher is dying, and that roads are running with rivers of blood, before you have to ask: “are they, though?”
Imaginary Friend, by Stephen Chbosky (Orion, $37.99) is available from Unity Books.
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