To be sure, the underlying sensibility that characterized “Wallflower” is present in the new book, particularly in its empathetic portraits of people struggling to recover from personal tragedy. Beyond that, “Imaginary Friend” is a radical departure on virtually every level. Perhaps its most impressive aspect is the confidence with which Chbosky deploys the more fantastical elements of his complex narrative, using the baroque, hallucinatory imagery of horror fiction to tell a very human story with universal implications.
That story begins with an enigmatic prologue that takes place 50 years before the primary narrative begins. David Olson, a young boy living in the small, isolated town of Mill Grove, Pa., sneaks out of his house in the middle of the night on a hazardous mission that he alone can undertake: to prevent a demonic entity known as “the hissing lady” from entering our world, and to save the life of his beloved older brother, Ambrose. The prologue ends when David disappears into the nearby Mission Street Woods — a haunted stretch of forest bordering the town — never to return to this world.
The narrative then moves to the present day. A new family, Kate Reese and her 8-year-old son, Christopher, have just moved to Mill Grove, fleeing an abusive relationship. Christopher — lonely, dyslexic, still mourning the recent suicide of his father — wanders into the same stretch of forest that swallowed David Olson. Unlike David, Christopher returns home after six days, subtly changed. And the town around him soon begins to change as well.
From this point forward, the mysteries of the Mission Street Woods dominate the novel, and two central premises quickly emerge. First, a distorted, disorienting alternate world — “the imaginary world” — lies parallel to our own “real” world, and it can be accessed only through portals in the woods. Second, two opposing figures are conducting an ancient war below the surface of Mill Grove. One of these is the hissing lady. The other is a mysterious figure known alternately as “the soldier” and “the nice man.” In Christopher’s limited view, the nice man is the one force standing between the vulnerable human world and the hissing lady’s malign designs. Things, it turns out, are a lot more complicated than that.
Although he doesn’t realize it, Christopher now possesses previously untapped powers, and his arrival in Mill Grove is the precipitating event in a supernatural drama. Once he has returned from the woods, life in Mill Grove begins to darken. One young, devout Catholic girl finds herself pregnant for no discernible reason. Unhappy marriages turn suddenly lethal. Parents who were once the victims of abuse now inflict the same abuse on their children. As the barrier between worlds grows steadily thinner, reality and fantasy, dreams and waking life, begin to blur together. And Christopher, newly empowered, becomes a major player in a primordial battle that threatens, quite literally, to establish Hell on Earth.
Beneath its gaudy supernatural surface, “Imaginary Friend” is a book with many things on its mind. It is, of course, a horror novel, and it delivers more than its share of profoundly disturbing moments. Beyond that, it provides a compelling portrait of small-town life, while examining the ways in which lovelessness and systematic abuse eat away at the fabric of family and community life. At the same time, through its portrayal of the relationship between Christopher and his ferociously protective mother, it offers one of the most affecting accounts of parental devotion I’ve seen in a very long time. The result is a page-turning meditation on human suffering whose spiritual dimension does not become fully apparent until the entire story has been told. “Imaginary Friend” may have been a long time coming, but the time was well spent. This is an absorbing, original and genuinely surprising novel. I hope we don’t have to wait 20 more years to see where Chbosky goes next.
Bill Sheehan is the author of “At the Foot of the Story Tree: An Inquiry into the Fiction of Peter Straub.”
Stephen Chbosky will be discussing his book at Politics and Prose at the Wharf on Friday at 7 p.m.
By Stephen Chbosky
Grand Central. 706 pp. $30.00