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One of The Year's Best Books (People, EW, Lithub, Vox, Washington Post, and more)
I just wanted to say about all those listed that there would be no book without them, and I thank them with all of my heart.
Liz, Maccie, and Theo Chbosky
Kelsey Nicolle Scott
Stacy, John, and Drew Dowdle
Fred and Lea Chbosky
Emma Watson, who inspired the ending on the Perks of Being a Wallflower set
and Stephen King, who inspired everything else.
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50 years before…
Don't leave the street. tHey can't get you if you don't leave the street.
Little David Olson knew he was in trouble. The minute his mother got back with Dad, he was going to get it. His only hope was the pillow stuffed under his blanket, which made it look like he was still in bed. They did that on TV shows. But none of that mattered now. He had snuck out of his bedroom and climbed down the ivy and slipped and hurt his foot. But it wasn't too bad. Not like his older brother playing football. This wasn't too bad.
Little David Olson hobbled down Hays Road. The mist in his face. The fog settling in down the hill. He looked up at the moon. It was full. The second night it had been full in a row. A blue moon. That's what his big brother told him. Like the song that Mom and Dad danced to sometimes. Back when they were happy. Back before David made them afraid.
I saw you standing alone.
Little David Olson heard something in the bushes. For a second, he thought it might be another one of those dreams. But it wasn't. He knew it wasn't. He forced himself to stay awake. Even with his headaches. He had to get there tonight.
A car drove past, bathing the fog in headlight. Little David Olson hid behind a mailbox as rock 'n' roll poured from the old Ford Mustang. A couple of the teenagers laughed. A lot of kids were being drafted into the army, and drunk driving was on the rise. That's what his dad said anyway.
"David?" a voice whispered. Hisspered. Hisss.
Did someone say it? Or did he just hear it?
"Who's there?" David said.
It must have been in his head. That was okay. At least it wasn't the hissing lady. At least he wasn't dreaming.
Or was he?
David looked down the hill at the street corner with the big streetlight on Monterey Drive. The teenagers passed it, taking all the sound with them. That's when David saw the shadow of a person. A figure stood in the middle of the pool of streetlight. Waiting and whistling. Whistling and waiting. A song that sounded a little like
The hairs on the back of David's neck stood up.
Don't go near that corner.
Stay away from that person.
Little David Olson cut through the yards instead.
He tiptoed over an old fence. Don't let them hear you. Or see you. You're off the street. It's dangerous. He looked up in a window where a babysitter was making out with her boyfriend while the baby cried. But it sounded like a cat. He was still sure he wasn't dreaming, but it was getting harder and harder to tell anymore. He climbed under the fence and got wet grass stains on his pajama bottoms. He knew he couldn't hide them from his mom. He would have to wash them himself. Like how he was starting to wet the bed again. He washed the sheets every morning. He couldn't let his mother know. She would ask questions. Questions he could not answer.
Not out loud.
He moved through the little woods behind the Maruca house. Past the swing set that Mr. Maruca had put up with his boys. After a hard day's work, there were always two Oreos and a glass of milk waiting. Little David Olson helped them once or twice. He loved those Oreos. Especially when they got a little soft and old.
The whisper was louder now. He looked back. There was no one around. He peeked back past the houses to the streetlight. The shadow person was gone. The figure could be anywhere. It could be right behind him. Oh, please don't let it be the hissing lady. Please don't let me be asleep.
The twig snapped behind him. Little David Olson forgot about his hurt foot and ran. He cut through the Pruzans' lawn down onto Carmell Drive and turned left. He could hear dogs panting. Getting closer. But there were no dogs. It was just sounds. Like the dreams. Like the cat baby crying. They were running after him. So, he ran faster. His little booties hitting the wet pavement. Smack smack smack like a grandma's kiss.
When he finally got to the corner of Monterey Drive, he turned right. He ran in the middle of the street. Like a raft on a river. Don't leave the street. They can't get you if you're on the street. He could hear the noises on either side. Little hisses. And dogs panting. And licking. And baby cats. And those whispers.
"David? Get out of the street. You'll get hurt. Come to the lawn where it's safe."
The voice was the hissing lady. He knew it. She always had a nice voice at first. Like a substitute teacher trying too hard. But when you looked at her, she wasn't nice anymore. She turned to teeth and a hissing mouth. Worse than the Wicked Witch. Worse than anything. Four legs like a dog. Or a long neck like a giraffe. Hssss.
"David? Your mother hurt her feet. They're all cut up. Come and help me."
The hissing lady was using his mom's voice now. No fair. But she did that. She could even look like her. The first time, it had worked. He went over to her on the lawn. And she grabbed him. He didn't sleep for two days after that. When she took him to the house with the basement. And that oven.
"Help your mother, you little shit."
His grandma's voice now. But not his grandma. David could feel the hissing lady's white teeth. Don't look at them. Just keep looking ahead. Keep running. Get to the cul-de-sac. You can make her go away forever. Get to the last streetlight.
David Olson looked ahead to the last streetlight in the cul-de-sac. And then, he stopped.
The shadow person was back.
The figure stood in the middle of the pool of streetlight. Waiting and whistling. Whistling and waiting. Dream or no dream, this was bad. But David could not stop now. It was all up to him. He was going to have to walk past the streetlight person to get to the meeting place.
The hissing lady was closer. Behind him. David Olson suddenly felt cold. His pajamas damp. Even with the overcoat. Just keep walking. That's all he could do. Be brave like his big brother. Be brave like the teenagers being drafted. Be brave and keep walking. One little step. Two little steps.
"Hello?" said Little David Olson.
The figure said nothing. The figure did not move. Just breathed in and out, its breath making
"Hello? Who are you?" David asked.
Silence. The world holding its breath. Little David Olson put a little toe into the pool of light. The figure stirred.
"I'm sorry, but I need to pass. Is that okay?"
Again there was silence. David inched his toe into the light. The figure began to turn. David thought about going back home, but he had to finish. It was the only way to stop her. He put his whole foot into the light. The figure turned again. A statue waking up. His whole leg. Another turn. Finally, David couldn't take it, and he entered the light. The figure ran at him. Moaning. Its arm reaching out. David ran through the circle. The figure behind him. Licking. Screaming. David felt its long nails reaching, and just as it was going to grab his hair, David slid on the hard pavement like in baseball. He tore up his knee, but it didn't matter. He was out of the light. The figure stopped moving. David was at the end of the street. The cul-de-sac with the log cabin and the newlywed couple.
Little David Olson looked off the road. The night was silent. Some crickets. A little bit of fog that lit the path to the trees. David was terrified, but he couldn't stop. It was all up to him. He had to finish or the hissing lady would get out. And his big brother would be the first to die.
Little David Olson left the street and walked.
Past the fence.
Through the field.
And into the Mission Street Woods.
Am I dreaming?
That's what the little boy thought when the old Ford station wagon hit a speed bump and knocked him awake. He had that feeling of being cozy in bed, but suddenly needing to go to the bathroom. His eyes squinted in the sun, and he looked out over the Ohio Turnpike. The steam from the August heat came off it like waves at the pool that Mom took him to after saving up by skipping lunches for a while. "I lost three pounds," she said and winked. That was one of the good days.
He rubbed his tired eyes and sat up in the passenger seat. He loved riding in the front seat when his mom drove. He felt like he belonged to a club. A special club with him and this cool skinny lady. He looked over at her, framed by the morning sun. Her skin was sticking to the hot vinyl seat. Her shoulders red around her halter top. Her skin pale just under the cutoffs. She had her cigarette in one hand, and she looked glamorous. Like the old movie stars in their Friday Night Movies together. He loved how the ends of her cigarettes had red lipstick. The teachers back in Denver said cigarettes were bad for you. When he told his mom that, she joked that teachers were bad for you and kept on smoking.
"Actually, teachers are important, so forget I ever said that," she said.
"Okay," he said.
He watched her stub out her cigarette and light another instantly. She only did that when she was worried. She was always worried when they moved. Maybe it would be different this time. That's what she always said since Dad died. This time it will be different. Even though it never was.
And this time, they were running.
She took a drag, and the smoke curled up past the beads of August sweat on her upper lip. She peered out over the steering wheel, deep in thought. It took her a full minute to realize he was awake. And then, she smiled.
"Isn't this a great morning?" she whispered.
The boy didn't care about mornings at all. But his mom did. So he did.
"Yeah, Mom. It sure is."
He always called her Mom now. She told him to stop calling her Mommy three years earlier. She said it made him small, and she never wanted her son to be small. Sometimes, she told him to show her his muscles. And he would take his skinny little arms and strain to make his biceps be anything other than flat. Strong like his dad in that Christmas picture. The one picture he had.
"You hungry, buddy?" she asked.
The boy nodded.
"There's a rest stop right up the turnpike over the state line. I'm sure there's a diner there."
"Will they have chocolate chip pancakes?"
The boy remembered the chocolate chip pancakes back in Portland. That was two years ago. There was a diner under their apartment in the city. And the cook always gave them chocolate chip pancakes. There had been Denver and Michigan since. But he never forgot those pancakes or the nice man who made them. He didn't know men other than his dad could be nice until him.
"If they don't, we'll get some M&M's and throw them in the middle of the stack. Okay?"
The little boy was worried now. He had never heard her say that. Not even when they moved. She always felt guilty when they moved. But even on her guiltiest day, she told him that chocolate was not a breakfast food. Even when she had her chocolate SlimFast shakes for breakfast, she told him that. And no, those shakes do not count as chocolate. He had asked her that already.
"Okay," he said and smiled, hoping this wasn't a one-time thing.
He looked back at the turnpike. The traffic slowed as they saw an ambulance and a station wagon. The emergency men wrapped a man's bloody head with gauze. He looked like he cut his forehead and might be missing some teeth. When they drove a little farther, they could see the deer on the station wagon's hood. The antler was still stuck in the windshield. The eyes of the deer were open. And it struggled and twitched like it didn't know it was dying.
"Don't look at it," his mom said.
"Sorry," he replied and looked away.
She didn't like him to see bad things. He had seen them too much in his life. Especially since his dad died. So, he looked away and studied her hair under her scarf. The one she called a bandanna, but the little boy liked to think of it as a scarf like the ones in the old movies they watched on Movie Fridays. He looked at her hair and his own brown hair like his dad's in the one picture he had from Christmas. He didn't remember much about his father. Not even his voice. Just the smell of tobacco on his shirt and the smell of Noxzema shaving cream. That was it. He didn't know anything about his father other than he must have been a great man because that's what all fathers were. Great men.
"Mom?" the little boy asked. "Are you okay?"
She put on her best smile. But her face was afraid. Like it had been eight hours ago when she woke him up in the middle of the night and told him to pack his things.
"Hurry," she whispered.
The little boy did as he was told. He threw everything he had into his sleeping bag. When he tiptoed into the living room, he saw Jerry passed out on the sofa. Jerry was rubbing his eyes with his fingers. The ones with the tattoos. For a moment, Jerry almost woke up. But he didn't. And while Jerry was passed out, they got in the car. With the money in the glove compartment that Jerry didn't know about. Jerry had taken everything else. In the quiet of night, they drove away. For the first hour, she looked at the rearview mirror more than she did the road.
"Mom? Will he find us?" the little boy asked.
"No," she said and lit another cigarette.
The little boy looked up at his mom. And in the morning light, he finally saw that her red cheek was not from makeup. And this feeling came over him. He said it to himself.
You cannot fail.
It was his promise. He looked at his mother and thought, I will protect you. Not like when he was really little and couldn't do anything. He was bigger now. And his arms wouldn't always be flat and skinny. He would do push-ups. He would be bigger for her. He would protect her. For his dad.
You cannot fail.
You must protect your mother.
You are the man of the house.
He looked out the window and saw an old billboard shaped like a keystone. The weathered sign said YOU'VE GOT A FRIEND IN PENNSYLVANIA. And maybe his mother was right. Maybe it would be different this time. It was their third state in two years. Maybe this time, it would work out. Either way, he knew he could never let her down.
Christopher was seven and a half years old.
They had been in Pennsylvania for a week when it happened.
Christopher's mother said she chose the little town of Mill Grove because it was small and safe and had a great elementary school. But deep down, Christopher thought maybe she picked it because it seemed tucked away from the rest of the world. One highway in. One highway out. Surrounded by trees. They didn't know anyone there. And if no one knew them, Jerry couldn't find them.
Mill Grove was a great hiding place.
All she needed was a job. Every morning, Christopher watched his mom put on lipstick and comb her hair all nice. He watched her put on her smart-looking glasses and fret about the hole under the right armpit in her only interview blazer. The rip was in the fabric, not the seam. So, there was nothing to do except throw on a safety pin and pray.
After he ate his Froot Loops, she would take him over to the public library to pick out his book for the day while she looked over the want ads in the paper. The book of the day was his "fee" for eating Froot Loops. If he read a book to practice his words, he got them. If he didn't, he got Cream of Wheat (or worse). So, he made sure to read that book, boy.
Once Mom had written down a few promising leads, they would climb back in the car and drive around to different interviews. She told Christopher that she wanted him to come along so they could have an adventure. Just the two of them. She said the old Ford was a land shark, and they were looking for prey. The truth was that there was no money for a babysitter, but he didn't care because he was with his mom.
So, they went "land sharking," and as she drove, she would grill him on the state capitals. And math problems. And vocabulary.
"Mill Grove Elementary School is really nice. They have a computer lab and everything. You're going to love second grade."
No matter where they lived, Christopher's mother hunted for great public schools the way other moms hunted for bargains on soda (they called it "pop" here in Mill Grove for some reason). And this time, she said, he would have the best. The motel was near a great school district. She promised to drive him every day so he wouldn't be called a "motel kid" until she saved enough to get them an apartment. She said she wanted him to have the education she never got. And it was okay that he struggled. This was going to be the grade when he'd be better at math. This was the year that all of his hard work would pay off, and he would stop switching letters when he read. And he smiled and believed her because she believed in him.
Then, when she got to each interview, she would take her own private moment and say some words she read in her self-improvement books because she was trying to believe in herself, too.
"They want to love you."
"You decide this is your job. Not them."
When she was finally confident, they'd go into the building. Christopher would sit in the waiting rooms and read his book like she wanted, but the letters kept switching, and his mind would wander, and he would think about his old friends. He missed Michigan. If it weren't for Jerry, he would have loved to stay in Michigan forever. The kids were nice there. And everyone was poor, so nobody knew it. And his best friend, Lenny "the Loon" Cordisco, was funny and pulled down his pants all the time in front of the nuns in CCD. Christopher wondered what Lenny Cordisco was doing now. Probably getting yelled at by Sister Jacqueline again.
After each interview was over, Christopher's mother would come out with a shaken look on her face that acknowledged that it really was their decision to hire her. Not hers. But there was nothing to do but climb back in the car and try again. She said that the world can try to take anything from you.
But you have to give it your pride.
On the sixth day, his mother pulled into the middle of town in front of a parking meter and took out her trusty paper bag. The one that said OUT OF ORDER on it. She threw it on the meter and told Christopher that stealing was bad, but parking tickets were worse. She'd make it up to the world when she got back on her feet.
Normally, Christopher had to go into the waiting room to read his book. But on the sixth day, there was a sheriff and his deputy eating across the street in a diner. She called out to them and asked if they were going to be there for a while. They gave her a salute and said they'd keep an eye on her boy. So, as a reward for his reading, she let Christopher in the little park while she went into the old folks home to interview for a job. To Christopher's eyes, the name of the home read like…
"Shady Pines," she corrected. "If you need anything, call out to the sheriff."
Christopher went to the swings. There was a little caterpillar on the seat. He knew Lenny Cordisco would have smushed it. But Christopher felt bad when people killed small things. So, he got a leaf and put the caterpillar under a tree where it would be cool and safe. Then, he got back on the swings and started to pull. He may not have been able to make a muscle. But boy could he jump.
As he began to swing, he looked up at the clouds. There were dozens of them. They all had different shapes. There was one that looked like a bear. And one that looked like a dog. He saw shapes of birds. And trees. But there was one cloud that was more beautiful than all the rest.
The one that looked like a face.
Not a man. Not a woman. Just a handsome pretty face made of clouds.
And it was smiling at him.
He let go of the swing and jumped.
Christopher pretended that he landed on the warning track. Top of the ninth. Two outs. A circus catch. Tigers win! But Christopher was near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, now. And it was time to switch teams so the kids would like him. Go Pirates!
After ten minutes of swinging, his mother came out. But this time, there was no shaken look. There was only a big smile.
"Did you get the job?" Christopher asked.
"We're having Chinese tonight."
After she thanked the sheriff for his help, and was warned about her OUT OF ORDER bag, she got her son back in the land shark and took him out for Movie Night. Friday was their night. She wouldn't miss it. Not for anything. And this was going to be the best one in a long time. No Jerry. Just their special club with only two members. Junk food. And old movies from the library.
THE INSTANT NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLEROne of Fall 2019's Best Books (People, EW, LitHub, Vox, Bustle, Washington Post, Associated Press, and more)
- "Twenty years after his smash hit novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Stephen Chbosky returns. . . an ambitious tale narrated through multiple perspectives, mashing together horror, fairy tales and the (rewritten) Bible. . . But Chbosky's true skill is in turning a book of absolute horrors -- both fantastical and real -- into an uplifting yarn. [This is] a book about so much -- fate, destiny, redemption, power. . . Chbosky has his eye firmly on humanity."—New York Times Book Review
- "Imaginary Friend is an all-out, not-for-the-fainthearted horror novel, one of the most effective and ambitious of recent years. . . To be sure, 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. . . Perhaps its most impressive aspect is the confidence with which Chbosky deploys the more fantastical elements of his complex narrative. . . A very human story with universal implications."—Washington Post
- "Chbosky's horror writing stands on its own. . . a gleeful meditation. . . the nine years Chbosky reportedly spent writing the book shows in his well-crafted scares, snappy pacing and finely turned plot. Imaginary Friend is well worth the time for those who dare."—TIME Magazine
- An epic work of horror. . . Ambitious and compulsively readable. . . a Grand Guignol exploration of what it means to have faith, even in the face of absolute hopelessness. . . His willingness to pursue and present answers to such meaningful queries is what elevates Imaginary Friend from a more than competent attempt at the horror genre to a formidable work on par with other genre operas that also tackle spiritual matters, like Stephen King's 1978 behemoth 'The Stand' or Justin Cronin's 'The Passage' trilogy. Imaginary Friend is a book that far outstrips the expectations of his chosen genre. . . a book full of it's own light."—Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
- "A haunting and thrilling novel pulsing with the radical empathy that makes Chbosky's work so special."—John Green, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Fault in Our Stars
- "Like The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Imaginary Friend says that no matter how dark the places you have been or the things you have seen, no one and nothing and nowhere is beyond redemption. What is astonishing and laugh-out-loud genius is that Chbosky has disguised all this wisdom in an entertaining thriller. In true Stephen Chbosky style, he gives you the bran and the doughnut. Spiritual enlightenment and horror. I don't know how he did it. But he did it. It's a masterpiece."—Emma Watson, actor and activist
- "If you aren't blown away by the first fifty pages of Imaginary Friend, you need to get your sense of wonder checked."—Joe Hill, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Fireman and NOS4A2
- "If you grew up reading The Perks of Being a Wallflower, you won't want to miss this spooky, surreal thriller. . . You'll feel locked in the battle between good and evil as Kate and Christopher fight for their lives."—Good Housekeeping
- "A creepy horror yarn that would do Stephen King proud. . . The reader will want to be sure that no one is hiding behind the chair. . . That's the nature of a good scary story -- and this one is excellent. A pleasing book for those who like to scare themselves silly, one to read with the lights on and the door bolted."—Kirkus
- "Reminiscent of the epic novels of Stephen King. . . With multiple points of view that probe the thoughts and nightmares of characters from all over town, this is an immersive read that walks the line between dark fantasy and horror [and] reads like a season of Stranger Things. . . [Imaginary Friend] will sell itself to readers who have waited twenty years for a new novel from Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower, 1999), but horror fans will also be curious. A big, scary book."—Booklist
- "An unputdownable, extraordinary book. Stephen Chbosky manages to combine the heart and emotion that suffuses all of his work with Stephen King chills. The pages practically turn themselves."—Greer Hendrick & Sarah Pekkanen, #1 New York Times bestselling authors of The Wife Between Us and An Anonymous Girl
- "Sure, this unputdownable book is the scariest thing I've read in a long time. Mysterious woods. Evil forces. Unseen worlds. But it's also, like everything Chbosky does, imbued with heart and soul. You'll fall in love with these characters. That's why they stay with you, like a haunting."—R. J. Palacio, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Wonder
- "Imaginary Friend is a sprawling epic horror novel that hearkens back to the classics of 1970s Golden Age, but, like Stranger Things, with a twinkle in its malevolent eye. Enormous, scary fun."—Dan Choan, bestselling author of Ill Will
- "Imaginary Friend has bee a long time coming. And like a fine Bordeaux, it rewards that wait in countless ways. This is a fearsome, remarkably ambitious novel that breaks through the boundaries of the horror genre to become epic -- in all the best senses of the word."—Lincoln Child, #1 New York Times bestselling coauthor of Verses for the Dead and City of Endless Night
- "Imaginary Friend is simply extraordinary reading experience -- it reminded me of discovering a classic Stephen King novel from two decades ago, but all funneled through Chbosky's utterly unique style. A tremendous read, every bit worth the wait."—Blake Crouch, New York Times bestselling author of A Dark Matter
- "With Imaginary Friend, Stephen Chbosky has written another classic, setting a new high watermark for fantasy horror. It is the greatest story ever told of love and salvation in which a little child shall save them. It is as spine-tingling sinister as a Stephen King tome, as ghastly as any ghost story by Peter Straub, as gothic as any Neil Gaiman title. It should become a horror perennial, taken out at Halloween and Christmas or any other time a reader wants a proper fight."—Washington Independent
- "Chbosky brings deep humanity to his characters and creates genuinely unsettling tableaux, including a nightmarish otherworld that Christopher accesses via his treehouse."—Publishers Weekly
- "You won't want to miss this spooky, surreal thriller."—Good Housekeeping
- "The author of Perks of Being a Wallflower goes full Stephen King in his new supernatural thriller of epic proportions. . . This is my kind of Christmas novel!"—LitHub
- "This is an immersive read. . . With its highly precocious young hero, the novel reads like a season of Stranger Things."—Booklist
- "It's not just horror that Stephen Chbosky is tackling: it's religion, too [which] makes the world-building all the more richer...not a light read, but it is a thrilling one."—Variety
- On Sale
- Oct 6, 2020
- Page Count
- 736 pages
- Grand Central Publishing