Book Review: Imaginary Friend by Stephen Chbosky
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 2.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Horror, Mystery
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing (October 1, 2019)
Length: 720 pages
So, wow, lots to unpack with this one. I’ve never read Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower which was the book that really put him on the map, but I’m familiar enough with it to know Imaginary Friend is quite a departure. Like everyone else, I dove into this one with no clue as to what to expect, though the synopsis gave some hints.
It’s a horror story, obviously. Mostly following central characters Kate Reese and her son Christopher, Imaginary Friend begins with the two of them settling in the small town of Mill Grove, Pennsylvania. Kate has been on the run for a long time; after the death of her husband, she fell into a relationship with a man who turned out to be abusive and has been trying to get away from him since. It is her hope that Mill Grove would be the start of a new life for both her and seven-year-old Christopher.
But then came a nightmare for any parent. Christopher goes missing, and for one terrifying week, Kate is beside herself with fear and worry. Against all odds though, the boy is eventually found alive and well, describing a harrowing escape that was only made possible by a nice man he met in the woods. While this mysterious man was never found, the only thing that mattered to Kate was that her son was back safe and sound. And miraculously, he seemed even better than before. Christopher begins excelling in school, making a lot of new friends. Kate also wins the lottery, allowing her to move them into a new house and pay off her debts. Life was as good as it could be.
However, unbeknownst to Kate, Christopher has been going through a lot of changes. There are the headaches, which he seems to get all the time now. And then there are the thoughts that just come to him, allowing him to know things he shouldn’t know, or to do things that shouldn’t be possible. He also starts seeing an “imaginary friend” in the woods where he was found after his disappearance, telling him to do things. And one of his friend’s first instructions to Christopher? Build an elaborate treehouse, right there in the middle of the woods, and it is of utmost importance that it is completed before Christmas, or else bad things will come to everyone Christopher knows and loves.
Based on many of the themes found in Imaginary Friend—like that of the power of boyhood friendships or the presence of skewed religious allusions, creeping plague, small town paranoia and hysteria, and a cosmic battle between the forces of good and evil—it seems rather clear to me that Chbosky was influenced heavily by the work of Stephen King. But I had to wonder, did he really have to emulate the man’s tendency for wordiness as well? Sitting at over 700 pages, a novel of such length is certain to cause me to give it the old side-eye, leaving me skeptical that the story actually has to be this long. And sure enough, by 25% I knew was one I’d have to tag team with the audiobook, as it was proving much too long-winded for me to cope with and I didn’t want to spend weeks forcing myself to pick it up. By 50%, I was starting to feel the brunt of the fatigue, even when tackling it in both print and audio formats. And at 75% I was asking myself holy fucking crap why isn’t this damn thing over yet?
Let’s be clear, this wasn’t a wholly bad novel, but man, if I had been the editor, I would’ve taken a chainsaw to this bad boy and hacked away all the repetition and extraneous, unnecessary detail to get it down to a more reasonable and readable length. Still, if you’re possessed of a strong mental resolve and iron determination, you should be able to disregard the blatant overwriting and enjoy some of the book’s more memorable moments and highlights. Yes, parts of it are actually pretty good, and those who picked up this book for the mystery and paranormal creep factor will also get a good dose of both. Yet for the most part, its cumbersome length and the rambling nature of the story severely impacted my enjoyment. It seemed the more the author added to the plot, the more complicated and chaotic it became, without delivering any real answers.
I hate being so negative, because Chbosky plainly put a lot of his heart and effort into writing Imaginary Friend, and there are enough strong points for me not to pan it completely. But on the whole, this simply came across as an overblown, very self-indulgent novel that could have been edited down—by a lot. In fact, that’s my biggest regret after reading this—that without the tedious, confusing and dragging parts, this book could have been great and needn’t have been such a chore to read. I say check out the novel if you’re a horror buff or if you’re curious to see what it’s all about, but just be prepared for the patience and time investment it demands.