Even if you aren’t familiar with the name Stephen Chbosky, it’s very likely you know of The Perks of Being A Wallflower; his smash hit debut novel that was eventually adapted into the 2012 movie of the same name with Logan Lerman, Emma Watson and Paul Rudd. Long after its publication in 1999, The Perks of Being A Wallflower has remained hugely popular amongst teens and is a staple among coming of age novels.
Like so many other Millennial, and Gen Z girls I know, I read The Perks of Being A Wallflower in high school and fell in love with the main character Charlie, felt hurt alongside him through his personal struggles, and empathized with his journey to understanding himself. One of the book’s most memorable excerpts, “We accept the love we think we deserve,” has become a mantra of sorts for people whose lack of self-worth bleeds into the dynamics of their personal relationships.
Imaginary Friend is the long-awaited sophomore novel Chbosky’s been developing for years. This author who wrote this classic bildungsroman has come out with his second novel after 20 years, and much to my delight it’s a horror novel.
What I’m trying to say is that I had very high hopes for Imaginary Friend because of how profoundly Perks affected not just me, but generations of young people.
I won’t be getting into too much detail surrounding Imaginary Friend’s plot for two reasons: first, is it a very long novel. The physical copy of this book is over 700 pages long. The audiobook I listened to was over 22 hours.
Secondly, this book’s ending pissed me right off.
Let’s get into it.
Imaginary Friend starts out wonderfully – 50 years in the past, a little boy named David Olson is being chased in his dreams by an unidentified, terrifying woman known only as the hissing lady. In the modern day, our protagonist Christopher Reese, also a seven-year-old boy, goes missing in the woods for six days with no memory of where he went or what happened to him.
Before going missing, Christopher struggles with dyslexia affecting his ability to perform in school. After he emerges from the woods, he has newfound intellectual abilities, his dyslexia is gone and a secret imaginary friend who speaks only to him, known as the Nice Man. Voices in Christopher’s head urge him to dig in the woods where he finds David Olsen’s body.
The hissing lady relentlessly chases Christopher in his dreams, which are part of “the imaginary side.” The voices in Christopher’s head urge him to build a tree house in the woods to act as a portal to the imaginary side.
The novel sets up all these questions that I’m excitedly anticipating the answers to. Who is the hissing lady? Why does she only appear in dreams? Who is the Nice Man? What happened to David? What happened to Christopher? At this point, I am invested enough that I am dedicated to spending 22 hours of my time to get to the end of this story
I’ve finished over half of the novel when it becomes a repetitive slog to the finish, but I was determined to finish and get my answers. Unfortunately for me, the answers I got were not worth the 22 hours I spent on this.
Prepare for me to spoil the ending, because here it is: the hissing lady is Jesus’ sister, the Nice Man is the devil and the imaginary side is hell. But don’t worry – Christopher saves the town with God’s love.
You might be saying, “Well, Erika, I don’t see you writing any novels.” And you’re right, but I’m still bitterly disappointed by this one. Maybe if I were a more religious person this might have been a satisfying ending, but this just felt… lazy. It almost felt like he wrote himself into a corner and didn’t know how to end it so he threw in the God explanation and voila, but sadly, I think this conclusion was planned all along.
This ending bothered me for a few reasons that I can explain by comparing this book to the works of Stephen King. It’s not that Stephen King’s books are perfect. I love him with all my horror-loving heart, but he writes dialogue like your great-great-great-great grandfather who believes people talk like characters from Archie comics. But you cannot argue that his contributions to the horror genre are unmatched.
This book parallels some of Stephen King’s works in certain ways – a little boy protagonist and a group of his friends band together to fight an unknown evil lurking in the shadows of their small town. One difference between King’s novels and Imaginary Friend is that King creates his own wild explanations for the supernatural effects instead of falling back on a tale as old as time.
A second difference is that King’s novels rarely have such a hunky-dory ending. It’s not that you can’t have happy endings in horror, but Imaginary Friend’s ending is so saccharine sweet and so heavy-handed with its religious message and symbolism it’s off-putting. I mean, the protagonist is called Christopher, we have a pregnant virgin named Mary… it’s all just a little too much.
It’s not that religious themes don’t belong in horror – The Omen, The Exorcist, and Nick Cutter’s Little Heaven are all examples of that. Religion and happy endings have their place in horror, but the way this book ends it takes it out of the horror genre and starts reading like Christian propaganda.
I finished this book well over a month ago and I’m still mad. I don’t know if a book has ever made me feel so betrayed. I know I’m ranting but Jesus Christopher this book is the Toby to my Michael Scott. I do not accept this because I do not deserve it.