Imaginary Friend, by Stephen Chbosky***

It was the best of books; it was the worst of books. Big thanks go to Net Galley and Grand Central Publishing for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Chbosky met fame twenty years ago with The Perks of Becoming a Wallflower. He takes a bold step—and I would still argue, a good one—in switching genres with Imaginary Friend. The whole thing is written in accessible language and mostly short, simple sentences with the overall effect of the world’s creepiest bedtime story. At first I wasn’t sure I was down for 720 pages of simple sentences, but he makes it work. I like the horror of it, and I like the voice too. And so when I saw the mixed reviews, I was preparing my heated defense of this work before I was even halfway in. And halfway, sadly, it where the thing begins to weaken.

The premise is that seven year old Christopher is learning disabled, but his mother urges him to keep trying. Nothing much works until the day he is lost in The Mission Street Woods. He is called by a friendly face in the clouds; once he is there, he is incapacitated and held for six days. When it’s over, The Nice Man leads him out. He goes home; the perpetrator is never identified because Christopher recalls none of the six days nor who took him. But suddenly he is the world’s cleverest kid. His grades rise, and he graduates from the special classroom. Later in the story, he is called again to build the tree house to end all tree houses; he must do it furtively at night, because he is no longer allowed in those woods, and naturally that’s where the project unfolds.

This aspect of it is very cleverly conceived and executed. Christopher does all manner of things that no seven year old child, however advanced intellectually, would be able to do but it is plain to us that this is part of the supernatural effect that is part and parcel of The Nice Man and that face in the clouds. Likewise, there are many areas where he infers adult meanings and feelings, but we know that these are also supernaturally bestowed. Meanwhile, he is in most ways the way one would expect a child his age to be. As his friends—the twins and Special Ed—are drawn into the project, they too become capable students with unusual talents. But as to the tree house, that’s a big damn secret. Parents and the public are not in the loop for a long, long time.

As the story unfolds we have numerous subplots and several characters that have significant roles here. They are largely bound together by the children’s school, although we also have the sheriff and a handful of people from the nursing home where Christopher’s mother, Kate works. I have no difficulty keeping up with this large cast of characters, and Chbosky deserves kudos for creating so many distinct characters that stay consistent throughout the story. We see the ways that people become warped, often by the disappointments that life has meted out, and sometimes by mistaken goals, particularly where the children are concerned. I liked this a good deal too. We see a great deal of kickass figurative language, although I would have preferred to see a lighter hand with regard to the repetition. At first when the song “Blue Moon” is used, it gives me chills, but by the end of the story, whenever music enters a scene I find myself grumbling, “Oh let me guess. I bet I know what song is playing.” (The MAD Magazine of the 1970s would have had a field day with this book.)

A number of other reviewers have suggested that the second half of the story could do with some serious editing down, and I echo their concern. It would be stronger if it were tighter. But there are two other more serious concerns that dropped my rating from four stars to three. They have to do with mixed genre, and with Chbosky’s depiction of women and girls.

It is a brave thing to combine horror and literary fiction, but there is such a thing as trying too hard. The last twenty-five or thirty percent of this story becomes tortuous, confusing and overlong with the heavy use of allegory along religious lines. There are multiple places where the plot just doesn’t make sense at all, but because the author is determined to provide us with a virgin birth, stigmata in multiple characters (what?), sacrifice and redemption and yada yada yada, what has been a good horror story becomes a little ridiculous and a lot pretentious. It’s a crying shame. Had the author let the horror story be a horror story, or had he been satisfied with a more subtle level of allegory rather than the screaming-red-flags variety that is shoehorned in here, this would have been a much better book.

The other aspect , the one that made my feminist heart simmer is the way that women are depicted here. We have several important female characters, and none of them is developed in even the tiniest way beyond their relationship to men and their capacity to be nurturers. Our greatest female hero is Kate, mother of Christopher, and I have not seen as two-dimensional a character in many a year. The only thing that matters is her child. The only. The only. Gag me with a stick, already.  And had the author been content to have a horror story that is just a horror story I would cut him a little slack, because most horror stories do not have brilliantly developed characters. Even so it’s ham-handed, but I might have been tempted to call this a 3.5 star read and round it upward. But this is the most reactionary treatment of women—the girlfriend that feels filthy because she rendered oral sex; the women coming unstuck because of husbandly inattention; the stereotypical mean-old-broad at the nursing home—that I have seen in decades. It’s appalling, and it bothers me that other reviewers haven’t mentioned this at all. What the hell, guys?  And with literary fiction, a responsibility for nuance and character development is conferred in a way that horror novels do not require.

In other words, don’t talk the talk unless you’re gonna walk the walk.

Should you buy this book? Probably not, unless your pockets are deep and you have a good deal of free time. For the curious, I recommend getting it cheap or free. But if you are going to read it, read it critically, and don’t hand it off to your middle-schooler until you have read it yourself.

The Invited, by Jennifer McMahon

Delicious! This book is straight-up fun. McMahon—a successful author, but new to me—takes an old school ghost story and drops it into a contemporary setting, while providing alternating glimpses of what happened in this same place long ago. My thanks go to Net Galley and Doubleday for the review copy. You can get this book Tuesday, April 30, 2019, and I don’t know how you can stand the suspense until then.

Helen and Nate are ready for rural life. Using recently inherited funds, they purchase a chunk of land in Vermont, quit their jobs, sell their Connecticut condo, and head for the hinterlands. They will build their own house. They will get chickens and sell eggs on the side. They will grow their own food and be almost self-sufficient. Just smell that fresh air! Oh, aren’t they adorable.

Meanwhile, Olive, who has recently lost her mother and whose father is unraveling, is channeling Wednesday Addams, lurking in trees nearby and wishing these new people gone. “I banish you,” she says quietly. No one hears; well, nobody alive does anyway.

Nate and Helen are hurt and perplexed by the local residents’ reception. Why is everyone so surly? Why are they looking at them side-eyed all the time?  Turns out the locals don’t want them upsetting Hattie’s ghost. Everybody knows that Hattie is in the bog that is part of Helen and Nate’s land. The last owner, an elderly man that fled to Florida and won’t talk about it, apart from advising the new owners to get out of there also, saw some things. Not everyone does, though. Hattie chooses who will see her, hear from her. And Hattie isn’t happy.

At first, Nate and Helen are oblivious. Their belongings disappear, but that turns out to be Olive, whom they will befriend. But the more Helen learns about Hattie—who reveals herself to Helen and Olive both—the more distracted she is by her. Time and money that should be directed toward the house and improvements to the new property are instead spent on deep research, and on carrying out Hattie’s wishes. It becomes an obsession; first she procures a hunk of wood from the tree on which Hattie was hanged, thinking it will be perfect to frame the doorway she and Nate are building. Hey, who wouldn’t want something like that in their new home? Next, she finds old bricks from the mill where Hattie’s daughter died. And Nate can see this is just nuts, and he tries to talk her out of it, but she won’t let him in. She is lying to him now. But Nate has an obsession of his own: he keeps seeing an albino deer that visits him, and then leads him into the swamp.

A man could get lost in there. Nate wouldn’t be the first.  

Olive is on a mission of her own. She wants to find the treasure that Hattie buried somewhere near the bog. She is sure it is there, and it was a project that she and her mother worked on together. She secretly hopes that if she can find the treasure, her mother will come home to her.

The mystery of where Olive’s mama has gone segues in and out of the ghost story, and the plotting is deft and surefooted, never slowing, never inconsistent, and relentlessly absorbing. Helen is obsessed with Hattie; Nate is obsessed with the deer; Olive is obsessed with the treasure and her mama; and I am obsessed with this story.

The typical way for a book like this to end would be with the discovery that some sketchy character has somehow created all of the events that seem otherworldly in order to profit materially or achieve revenge. Although I am impressed with McMahon as we near the climax, part of me is expecting this. But this writer doesn’t use tired plot points or tired characters, and she sure as hell doesn’t end this tale in a way that is trite or expected. I guessed one aspect of the ending, but by the time I saw it coming, we were closing in on it, and I can’t help but believe the author means me to see it just before it’s revealed. And this is a hallmark of an excellent thriller: there aren’t brand new characters or plot points tossed in at the end that make it impossible for the reader to have guessed what’s going on. McMahon is a champ, and her respect for her readership is evident in the way she spins the climax and conclusion.

The book’s last paragraph is masterful.

Highly recommended to those that enjoy a classic, well turned ghost story. As for me, I’ll be watching for this author in the future, and….oh hey. Did you hear something just now?

The Woman in the Woods, by John Connolly****

thewomaninthewoodsConnolly is one of a handful of writers whose names I search when I go to Net Galley. He’s consistently brilliant, and so I am grateful to Atria Books and Net Galley for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

This is number sixteen in the popular Charlie Parker series, which began as detective fiction with mystic overtones reminiscent of James Lee Burke, and in the last volume moved into the horror genre outright. Either way it’s a compelling series. One of my favorite aspects of this series is the author’s incorporation of social justice themes. Here we find a sadistic butcher hot on the trail of the shelter volunteers that assisted Karis Lamb in escaping the father of her child, and a magical book she took with her.  Karis died in childbirth and is buried in the woods, and there are nightmarish individuals—human and not—trying to find her child so they can get the book. His adoptive mother and grandfather are determined to protect Daniel at all costs.

“Tell me the special story,” Daniel said. “The story of the woman in the woods.” 

Karis’s body is dead, but her spirit is not at rest. She is looking for her boy, and a particularly chilling detail is the repeated use of Daniel’s toy phone to call him from beyond the grave. 

At the same time, Angel, one of Parker’s two assistants who is also his close friend, is lying in a hospital bed following cancer treatment, and his partner, Louis, whose impulse control is never tiptop and is now strained to the breaking point, becomes enraged when he sees a vehicle bearing a Confederate flag parked near the hospital, and so he blows up the truck. As events unfold, our supernatural villains and the Backers—sinister characters whose lives hold no joy, and whose fate is eternal damnation—are joined in their pursuit of the Atlas, the child, and now also Parker by some local white supremacists seeking vengeance on behalf of the van’s owner.

As always, Connolly juggles a large number of characters and a complex plot without ever permitting the pace to flag, and he keeps the chapters short and the details distinct so that the reader isn’t lost in the shuffle.

This will be a five star read for most of Connolly’s readers.  Rating horror stories is immensely subjective, because some readers may find this book too horrible to be fun, whereas others will appreciate the way Connolly continues to turn up the creepiness and the gore. As for me, I had a rough time getting through the first half. I didn’t want it in my head at bedtime, and the graphic torture scenes prevented me from reading while I was eating. The result is that I had to read much more slowly than I usually would do; there were too many times I just couldn’t face it, and there were other times when I could read a short amount, then had to put it down for awhile. I suspect I am a more sensitive horror reader than most, but there will be some besides me that began reading when this was a detective series, and that may find it too grisly now.

None of this will prevent me from jumping forward when the next in the series comes around.

Highly recommended to those that love excellent fiction, and that can withstand a lot of horror and a lot of gore.