An ambitious novel that attempts to pile on the horror, but fails to give competition to those reigning the genre
By Suvanshkriti Singh
The last time Stephen Chbosky was the toast of the publishing world was in 1999. The Perks of Being a Wallflower was not wholly inventive, but became a smash hit for its sensitive, hopeful, and relatable portrayal of the teenage experience. Arguably though, the movie, also helmed by Chbosky, was a greater hit than the book. Two decades later, the same argument could speculatively be made for Imaginary Friend—although he hasn’t released any details of the project, Chbosky has, in principle, confirmed that a screen adaptation of his latest authorial venture is a definite eventuality. A visual narration that reduces to images the jarringly repetitive descriptions that easily comprise a third of this sprawling, 700-odd-page horror-adventure would be a sorely-needed service to audience experience.
Imaginary Friend revolves around the misadventures of eight-year-old Christopher Reese as he discovers an alternate world in the woods abutting the small town of Mill Grove. Christopher and Kate, his mother, are trying to outrun a past of many traumas, and hope that the secluded Pennsylvania town will mark the beginning of a happier, safer life. But the best laid plans of mother and son go terribly awry. Christopher begins seeing a smiling face in the clouds, and one day, after school, follows it into the Mission Street Woods. For six days, he goes missing. When he is found, he appears to have no memory of his time in the woods.
Predictably, however, the incident becomes a catalyst in the duo’s lives. All of a sudden, Christopher finds himself cured of his learning disabilities, while Kate wins the lottery. This change in fortunes is attributed to “the nice man”, who Christopher claims helped him escape the Mission Street Woods and who manifests physically as a plastic bag.
The nice man reveals to Christopher the “imaginary world” that exists parallel to the real Mill Grove. This is a town of secret wonders and terrors. Populated by “mailbox people” whose eyes and mouths are sewn shut and predatory deer, it is terrorised, the nice man informs us, by “the hissing lady”. In this alternate reality, the otherwise spindly Christopher possesses unprecedented powers.
The revelations, however, come at a cost. The more he engages with the nice man and the imaginary world, the weaker Christopher’s grip on reality becomes. He is tortured by near-constant headaches and nosebleeds, and hallucinatory, nightmarish encounters with the hissing lady.
With the whole town being drawn into a frenzy of violent rage, it is clear Chbosky is building up to an imminent confrontation of epic proportions. His narrative, however, struggles to keep up. Imaginary Friend is marred by its inability to make the reader successfully suspend disbelief. Even within the schema of the genre, boys being driven to action by a voice in the wind, and immaculate conception following oral sex are tired, if not unbelievable, plot devices. And, Chbosky’s dilettantish, staccato writing does nothing to bring coherence to a novel that flounders in striking a balance between suspense and horror—to say nothing of judiciously tending to themes that run the gamut, from religion to xenophobia.
Stephen King’s influence looms large in the elements and style of Chbosky’s novel. From the child protagonist with an absentee father to flawed characters whose personal traumas inform their interactions within a small-town community, much of Imaginary Friend is a tribute to King. The spectre of Neil Gaiman is present, too, with aspects of the novel bearing an uncanny similarity to Coraline. However, what Chbosky’s misses is the ability of King and Gaiman to truly terrify.
Imaginary Friend does boast of its own array of grisly scenes, but these are to be found not in the imaginary realm, but in the real. Trigger-happy schoolboys, child sexual abuse, and public stoning are far more chilling than carnivorous children or undying corpses, and invoke pertinent questions of public morality. However, they are never quite fully explored, being disposed of as they are in an oversimplified good-triumphs-evil resolution. Chbosky’s one unquestionable achievement in this novel is the sensitivity with which he has portrayed interiority and psychological violence, but the goodwill that this earns him with the reader is more than negated by the long-delayed, dissatisfying patchwork that is the denouement.
Imaginary Friend is an ambitious novel, and has every formulaic element that goes into creating an enjoyably scary book. But, its chaotic plentitude is in desperate need of an editorial intervention to give it coherence and meaning. For fans of Chbosky’s debut, and those of horror a la King, this first draft of a novel is sure to disappoint.
Pp 706, Rs 799