- By Stephen Chbosky
- Grand Central Publishing
- 720 pp.
- Reviewed by Robert Allen Papinchak
- October 3, 2020
This smart, terrifying tale deserves a place of honor in the spine-tingler canon.
Stephen Chbosky’s heart-pounding Imaginary Friend begins with a warning: “Don’t leave the street.” The imperative is directed at 6-year-old David Olson, who disappeared from his small town of Mill Grove, Pennsylvania.
It might just as well begin with a warning to the reader: “Don’t start reading this book. You won’t be able to stop.” Or, at least: “Do not read it at night.”
Chbosky published The Perks of Being a Wallflower in 1999. It became a successful book and a popular film and was the quintessential novel of modern adolescence in which he reimagined the angst of teens. Twenty years later, he has reinvented the literary horror novel.
Imaginary Friend starts with young David slipping out of bed on the second night of a full blue moon and into the Mission Street Woods. He is never seen alive again. The story picks up 50 years later, when 7-and-a-half-year-old Christopher and his mother, Kate, arrive in Mill Grove from Michigan. Kate is fleeing an abusive new relationship begun after Christopher’s father died. With little money, they move into a motel.
Kate thinks the town near Pittsburgh will be a safe haven. There is only one highway in and one highway out. She doesn’t take into account the place’s terrifying past or her son’s efforts to fit in as the new kid in school.
Christopher has always been a slow learner. He mixes up letters when reading; he struggles with the simplest math problems. His mother encourages him, “Keep trying. You’ll get it.”
On his first day in second grade, he finds a kindred spirit, Edward. Mentally challenged, he is nicknamed Special Ed by bullies. One of those bullies, Brady, is the son of the owner of Collins Construction, which plans to tear down the woods to build a subdivision. Brady and a girl named Jenny become Christopher’s nemeses. Jenny constantly taunts Christopher about his short pants. Twins Mike and Matt (called the M & Ms) befriend Christopher and Edward.
One day, Christopher spots a huge cloud in the sky that he thinks has teeth and a happy smile. He follows it into Mission Street Woods and is not heard from for six days. Those days are the foundation for the remainder of the novel. They change Christopher’s life forever. They also affect the destiny of the entire community.
Seventeen-year-old Mary Katherine is a member of that community, and it is she who contributes most significantly to Christopher’s fate. Her innocence and commitment to Catholicism function as a major plot element. Wracked with guilt from a late-night-movie date where a young man puts his “hand on top of her fuzzy sweater,” she pleads for spiritual guidance and forgiveness and vows to live a charitable life.
As a new driver speeding to get home before a midnight curfew, she nearly kills Christopher when he staggers out of the woods. Their stories overlap dramatically for the rest of the story.
When Christopher returns to school after a brief hospital stay, he is no longer intellectually encumbered. He aces a math test. The librarian, used to giving him easy books to read, hands him Treasure Island. He races through it.
Luck seems to have descended on him and his mother. She plays the numbers Christopher answered on the math exam and wins the lottery. She finds a job at Shady Pines, a retirement home.
By October, they are able to move out of the motel and into their own house. For Kate, the only shortcoming is that it backs onto the woods where Christopher disappeared. For Christopher, that seems a distinct advantage for the plans he has in mind.
From Halloween until Christmas, he is determined to build a magnificent treehouse, complete with a roof, shingles, windows, a red door, and a ladder of two-by-fours. He enlists Special Ed and the M & Ms, swearing them to secrecy.
What the other boys don’t know is that Christopher is on a mission, guided by the “nice man” he claims saved his life in the woods. He is also receiving instructions from a talking plastic bag. If he doesn’t complete the task by December 25th, the entire town may perish.
Chbosky hits the ground running in the first chapter, and the tension continues to soar as peculiar incidents begin to occur. Everything changes for everyone. Christopher develops a superpower that allows him to hear other people’s thoughts. Kate discovers a connection between the long-missing David and one of the residents of the nursing home. The sheriff is haunted by the cold case of another vanished child even as he tries to unravel the truth about what happened to Christopher. The whole town begins to suffer mysterious illnesses.
Even more mysterious is the purpose of the treehouse. It is a portal to another world. When Christopher first crosses into that world, he sees his other self sitting with Ed, Mike, and Matt. He wonders if he was “outside of his own body. Or out of his mind.”
Captivated readers may also wonder if they’ve passed into the fourth dimension. Chbosky skillfully makes reading this book an immersive experience of participatory fiction.
Soon enough, Christopher learns there is a supernatural connection between the two worlds. His task is to save the real one from devastation and destruction. The novel hastens to a breathtaking, climactic clash between good and evil. Between the servants of darkness and the saviors of light. As it moves rapidly toward the apocalypse, it escalates to a goose-bumpy, monumental battle to save souls.
As he did in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Chbosky grounds the novel with regional details of the Pittsburgh area. Those familiar with the locale will recognize the Fort Pitt Tunnel, Premanti Brothers’ sandwich shop, Mercy Hospital, the Hill District, Town Talk bread, the South Hills Village Mall, Kennywood Park, and other settings. The specifics function as more than local color. They help to authenticate the imaginary world of the novel and the imagined world of the woods.
With Imaginary Friend, Stephen Chbosky has written another classic, setting a new high watermark for fantasy horror. It is the greatest story ever told of love and salvation in which a little child shall save them. It is as spine-tinglingly sinister as any Stephen King tome, as ghastly as any ghost story by Peter Straub, as gothic as any Neil Gaiman title. It should become a horror perennial, taken out at Halloween and Christmas or any other time a reader wants a proper fright.
It is the scariest novel of the year, a menacing book for all seasons.
[Editor's note: This review originally ran in 2019.]
Robert Allen Papinchak is a former university English professor whose reviews and criticism appear in numerous newspapers, magazines, literary journals, and online.