Imaginary Friend

By Stephen Chbosky

Grand Central. 706 pp. $30

Reviewed by Bill Sheehan

Imaginary Friend is Stephen Chbosky’s first new novel in 20 years, and it comes as a complete surprise.

Chbosky’s only other published work, 1999′s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, concerned a trio of self-styled misfits navigating the complexities of high school, adolescent angst, sexual confusion, and assorted personal traumas. The book has led a charmed life, acquiring millions of readers and serving as the basis for a film adapted and directed by Chbosky. Those many readers now have something new — and unexpected — to contemplate. Weighing in at over 700 pages, Imaginary Friend is an all-out, not-for-the-fainthearted horror novel, one of the most effective and ambitious of recent years. Who would have guessed?

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, though, 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.

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.

Imaginary Friends is a book with many things on its mind. It is 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. 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 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.

Sheehan is the author of “At the Foot of the Story Tree: An Inquiry into the Fiction of Peter Straub.” This review first appeared in the Washington Post.