As much as I love horror movies, I struggle to enjoy reading much horror writing. Maybe my indoctrination wasn’t done right, or I simply haven’t read enough. Regardless, whenever I’ve had to read horror short stories in writing workshops, my first inclination is to suggest a link to the most common horror tropes and clichés in the genre. This might not be the most constructive approach, but I’m hard pressed to find much else that works better. The best horror, whether it’s film or literature, should function as a drama, with thematic, dark symbolism to convey a bigger message—otherwise, it wouldn’t have been made into horror.
After practically two decades since his first book, the 1999 cult classic, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” Stephen Chbosky returned last year with his second book, “Imaginary Friend.” What’s so startling—and at the time, exciting for me, since I adored his debut—is that “Imaginary Friend” is conspicuously the opposite of “Perks” in every way.
That is to say, it isn’t good. I need to slow down already.
“Imaginary Friend” is a massive piece of horror literature—a 700-page tome—and sputters between multiple perspectives, particularly in the effort of demonstrating the “hell on earth” the protagonist, Christopher, experiences. Over and over. And over. If the length weren’t similar to Stephen King, then the prose surely is. In fact, it’s almost compulsive in its homage to King; the themes and imagery are nothing new. Moreover, much like how King is notorious for over-writing and not good at writing endings, it’s easy to consider that “Imaginary Friend” should have ended hundreds of pages before its predictable ending, as well.
I want to respect Chbosky’s act of risk-taking here. It’s no small attempt to craft a novel this large in scope. He’s proven he can write—he’s done so as a screenwriter for longer than he’s been a novelist—and can write when he has a concept. “Imaginary Friend,” however, feels like a hodgepodge of just that: concepts and ideas that don’t complement each other as a cohesive plot, let alone as remotely edited or workshopped. The prose and descriptions, in turn, read as if Chbosky had forgotten how to write since his debut. Perhaps that’s his intent here: to write another cult classic, to not stagnate in one place or genre. And although some of the imagery early on can be incredibly bizarre and surreal, it doesn’t carry well, especially if it gets consistently repeated.
I shouldn’t say all horror is bad; that would be to disenfranchise an entire genre that has constantly offered cultural significance as thematic entertainment for a long time. Rather, the point in the limelight I want to make is that horror is a genre where it’s extraneously easy to be clichéd. When a fresh release does appear, though, it’s often revered to where it becomes a cult classic. One could argue “Midsommar” is just “The Wicker Man” re-stylized fifty years later, but there’s a clear line of symbolic difference between the two.
Stephen Chbosky has had an interesting career, to say the least, but he seems content with being defined as just the author who wrote and directed “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” and nothing more substantial than that. I want to say I’m disappointed, but really, it’s just a waste of words.