This post of Imaginary Friend by author Stephen Chbosky was adapted from two previous posts. First is the spoiler free review, followed by the spoiler full review and summar.
Spoiler Free Review
Imaginary Friend is about a young boy who starts hearing voices. From here, Christopher gets lured into a strange world of dark magic and more power than he ever dreamed of having.
The first third of the book is solid supernatural horror. It’s creepy, it’s mysterious, and it’s intriguing.
Unfortunately, by the end the supernatural is all explained by traditional Christianity and it’s ruined.
Imaginary Friend has some wonderfully unnerving scenes throughout and truly does delivers on the horror. Where it fails is attributing the horror to the devil. It’s such a cop out!
The book becomes preachy about good vs. evil and dissolves into religious tropes involving virgin births and martyrdom. It also contains specific references to Christian mythology but does not build them up enough to mean anything new or special.
With a page length of over 700 pages this became extremely tiresome to me by the end. I do not care to read religious fiction of any kind and I felt tricked into it. By the twist at the end, which is another issue entirely, I was completely bored by the whole mythos.
That’s just my opinion, you may fall into the target audience for Christian horror. If you do, go for this book, you might really love it. But it’s not for me.
The book is well written as far as style and pacing goes. Additionally, there are some wonderfully disturbing images and scenes which is exactly what a horror novel should deliver.
The main characters are also delightful. Christopher is endearing and is mom is incredible. She’s an admirable balance of responsible and badass which is something I’d love to see more for female protagonists.
Chbosky does a good job of attributing complete personalities to even small characters in the book. The only character that becomes completely trite is Mary, the virgin babysitter who begins all of the religiosity in the book.
I would have loved to see this book written with a different ending. The first part of the book really captured me but my opinion changed strongly by the halfway mark. It was still well written and I still liked most of the characters but by the big twist reveal I had stopped caring about what the outcome would be.
If you are the type of reader who would be interested in the niche genre of Christian American horror then this is definitely for you. If that doesn’t sound like you you’ll probably also find it just meh.
Imaginary Friend Summary
Imaginary Friend is a horror novel with elements of the supernatural and religious ideology. Actually, I was pretty surprised with how religious it got. We’ll get into that shortly deeper into the summary.
The book opens with a young boy, David, who can see monsters that no one else can see. He’s drawn away from his home by the voice of a hissing lady. He goes missing and is left unfound for decades.
The bulk of the story follows Christopher years later. Him and his mother Kate are on the run after leaving her abusive boyfriend behind. They’ve had a string of misfortunes ever since Christopher’s father killed himself in the bathtub.
Christopher is dyslexic and doesn’t fit in at school. He doesn’t understand why he is perceived as stupid and why he can’t read and study as well as the other students. He does, however, find comfort in a cloud shaped like a smiling face that he starts to see in the same spot every day.
The smiling cloud is the beginning of mysterious messages that he finds all over town and in his own home. They tell him to go to the woods.
When he gets to the woods he follows the distraught voice of a child yelling for help and gets lost in the forest. He finds his way to a mine where he reaches down to help a child and then… is not heard from for six days.
When he finally stumbles out of the woods he says the nice man helped him find his way but offers no further information as to who this nice man is.
He gets admitted to the hospital where he begins to hear the hissing lady’s voice. He also befriends an old crank named Ambrose who we later find out is David’s older brother.
After being discharged from the hospital he returns to school to discover that he is no longer dyslexic and all school subjects just click into understanding. Fellow kids also start defending him to bullies in ways he’s never experienced before.
He gets his first perfect score ever and proudly brings it to his mother. She plays the lottery with the numbers on his math test and wins. Smartly, she uses the winnings to pay off her current debt and buy a modest home for her and Christopher.
I like Kate a lot. She’s my favorite character in Imaginary Friend. She’s smart, fierce, and the best darn mom anyone could ask for.
However, the house she buys is within ear shot of the spooky woods that are about to cause them a lot of trouble.
Christopher follows a voice there and meets with the nice man who has taken the form of an unassuming plastic bag. The plastic bag tells him that it is imperative that he build a tree house in the center of the woods.
Meanwhile, Kate starts dating the Sheriff. He’s a nice fella who gets just a little nervous every time he sees her and they deserve each other for all the best reasons. Seriously, she’s the best part of the book.
The Nice Man tells Christopher to dig in the woods. Christopher enlists his new friends to help him dig. They find a child’s skeleton, later revealed to be David’s. It is also revealed that David was buried alive.
Every night Christopher trades sleep for building sessions in the woods. Sleep deprived and unwell, he starts to hear threatening voices come to him from his television set.
They tell him frightening things and he knows he must get the tree house completed in order to stop the voices and the intense headaches he gets whenever he’s away from the woods. Through childlike negotiation he convinces his new friends to help him build. They need a day away from school so Christopher demands that the nice man give them a snow day. It works.
I really enjoyed this part of Imaginary Friend. I liked the vague writing that allows the reader to form their own opinion of whether or not Christopher is actually communicating with supernatural forces or if he’s just severely mentally ill.
Upon finishing the tree house Christopher steps inside and enters the imaginary world. He meets the real Nice Man. His friends do not see any of this happening. He returns from the imaginary world with a heightened sense of intuition.
He knows everyone’s secrets
In addition to mind powers he also gets a fever that he can control outwardly. He uses both powers against some bullies and gets into some trouble at the school but his heat power is perceived as a fever and he’s sent home sick.
That night he sneaks past his babysitter to visit the imaginary world but the hissing lady is hot on his trail and trying to block him from receiving messages from David.
Christopher’s friends also start hearing voices and getting smarter.
Christopher’s devout christian babysitter starts to feel urges she cannot explain. She knows that it is a sin but she feels compelled to give her boyfriend oral sex in his car and then runs off to the woods just to pass out in the tree house.
This is about when things start to have a hint of religiosity. Mary, the babysitter, acts as a catalyst to introducing the concept of sin to the story.
Christopher finds a note in the library hidden by David. It tells him to rescue the Nice Man.
Ambrose visits his childhood home and finds a diary left by David. At the same time Christopher is there on the imaginary side. He finds the Nice Man being tortured in the basement. He releases him but learns that they need a key that the Hissing Lady keeps around her neck in order to return to the real side.
The town begins to all become infected with the sort of fever that Christopher first exhibited. The fever, an itch, and mysterious voices start telling everyone to do terrible things.
The school librarian follows these urges and stabs her husband.
Ambrose learns from the diary that the voice causing these sins is the Hissing Lady.
Although everyone starts behaving violently and out of character no one is dying. The hospitals are full but the morgue is empty.
Mary, the babysitter, who is very purposefully still a virgin, discovers she is pregnant. She doesn’t understand how this could’ve happened and despite knowing that something is definitely wrong with the scenario she goes mad with Catholic guilt and ends up driving her car full speed into Christopher and his mother as they drive away from the madness.
Kate had been driving, attempting to get Christopher out of this town after she found him talking to the Nice Man. He appeared to be talking to himself but he manages to convince her of everything that has happened.
However, they are unable to leave due to the crash and Christopher gets admitted to the hospital completely brain dead. He’s in the imaginary side where the Hissing Lady is keeping him trapped.
Everything is getting pretty chaotic. The Sheriff is trying to solve what’s happening but keeps falling asleep and forgetting all of the clues. The librarian goes on a violence spree. A kid steals a ton of ammo for his dad’s gun after witnessing a clown commit suicide at a children’s theme restaurant. And Kate’s abusive ex finds his way back to her.
The townspeople follow an urge to get to the tree house where the librarian and the main bullies from the school are helping everyone sew their mouths and eyes shut and then hang themselves from the tree. Still no one is dying, but they do feel pain.
Kate finds a message from the real David, some of the hidden messages have actually been a trap. It says to not kill the Hissing Lady, she’s the only thing keeping the devil in hell.
Turns out the Nice Man is actually the devil and the imaginary side is hell. Oooo twist.
Sigh, this is when I really lost interest.
All of a sudden the book gets really preachy about good and evil, heaven and hell, and Christian morality. This is not interesting to me. Psychological and supernatural horror do not need religion to muddy everything. Keep your proselytizing out of my reading time!
So David is on the imaginary side and helps Christopher escape from hell. A bunch of *hell* breaks loose and there’s a lot of conflict that occurs very quickly.
It comes to a climax when people start martyring themselves from the second coming of Christopher.
Mary plows through a bunch of mean deer that are about to attack Christopher in order to save him.
Then the Sheriff and Kate both take bullets for him.
David kills himself in hell which somehow weakens the Nice Man, aka the spooky spooky devil.
Apparently, the Hissing Lady is Jesus’ sister. In some way this is supposed to be important but it is not discussed further.
Christopher gives his powers to his mother so that she can live. It works and she also becomes even more badass.
In the end Christopher saves everyone with the power of god’s love. Mary is alive and still pregnant with a virgin birth and everyone lives happily ever after.
I really enjoyed the first third of this book but it really falls apart at the end. It gets way too religious and stops being interesting or unique.
It feels very lazy to me to make the enemy the devil. It’s too easy and it’s just so lame. Come up with your own reason that all of this madness occurred!
The forced twist of the Hissing Lady being good and the Nice Man being bad left me unimpressed. I saw it coming and truly believe that twists shouldn’t be used just to manipulate the reader, they should really mean something.
I liked the characters in the real world and enjoyed that aspect of the book a lot but I would strongly prefer a different ending. It’s obvious why some people might like this christian brand of horror but it is definitely not my favorite.
I also enjoyed a lot of the imagery in the book. Some of the scenes were actually pretty creepy or unnerving. Imaginary Friend is not poorly written. It just falls into some bad tropes and assumes that the reader is an American Christian. It’s less than universal.
But you might be in the target audience for this book and in that case I’d recommend it, you might really love it.
3/5 mean deer 🦌🦌🦌
To really get your fill of horror check out my Joe Hill compendium.
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