As a little boy, Stephen Chbosky was afraid of many things. There were the deep western Pennsylvania woods surrounding his home in the township of Upper St. Clair. One could easily get lost in those woods, and the boy was sure it was a place where evil lurked. Little Stephen would warily observe the deer that often came close to his house. “I always thought they were very mysterious and frightening,” he says. Then there was his strict Catholic upbringing. It might not have instilled the fear of God in him, but it most certainly instilled a deep and lasting fear of the devil. “When I was a little boy, they scared the living shit out of me with the idea of the devil,” he says. “There is this horrible place and when you sin and you don’t confess, you’re going to burn forever. It became an obsession of mine when I was a teenager. Yes, my early years left quite an impression on me.”
All these deeply ingrained childhood horrors come into play in Chbosky’s new novel, Imaginary Friend. It took him nine years to write the book, and it’s being published 20 years after his first novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, a coming-of-age story about a socially awkward teenage boy. Chbosky also wrote the script and directed the film adaptation of the book.
“Most of my professional and artistic life has consisted of making movies and television,” he says. Most notably, he cowrote the screenplay for Beauty and the Beast (2017) and directed Wonder (2017), staring Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson. Wonder revisits Chbosky’s favorite subject matter: vulnerable boyhood, this time through a boy with facial deformities entering fifth grade after years of home schooling.
Chbosky says he considers himself a hybrid: He’s a novelist whose other half belongs to the movies. “Ironically, it was the movie adaptation of The Perks of Being a Wallflower that made me fall in love with writing novels all over again,” he says. “I do know it’s not going to be another 20 years before I write the next book.”
In Imaginary Friend, Chbosky added an element of horror to the vulnerability of his main character, a young boy named Christopher. “I was excited to use my ability to write about what kids experience and what they’re going through,” he says, “and take it into the horror zone.”
Imaginary Friend’s title has a double meaning: Not only does 7-year-old Christopher hear the voices of imaginary people, but the book also poses the question: “Who can you trust?” Is this voice in your head really your friend? Does this imaginary person truly have your best interest in mind? “The book tells us that the only people who see things that are not there are visionaries and psychopaths,” Chbosky says. “The difference between the two is very slight.”
It doesn’t escape Chbosky that as a novelist he is not just creating an imaginary world but also inhabiting it while writing. He hears the voices of his characters, and they often become more real to him than the people around him. “I started writing the book nine years ago,” he says. “Back then I had no kids. Now when I come home I’m thankful that the voices of my 7-year-old daughter and my 4-year-old son are loud enough to drown out the voices of my characters.”
Imaginary Friend is not just a horror story; it’s also a deeply religious book. To this day, Chbosky considers himself a Catholic and is fascinated by Christian mythology, which he sees as the foundation of our civilization for the last 2,000 years. “There are many allusions in the book to the Old Testament and also a few to the New Testament,” he says. “There are allusions to the tree of knowledge. Sometimes the book is repetitious, because repetition is how we learn the Lord’s Prayer, the rules and the stories of the Bible. I combined that with the horror of the Brothers Grimm, my own childhood fears, and my love for Stephen King.”
The book begins with a cloud that always appears in the same place in the sky. Little Christopher sees a face in that cloud. He can speak to it, and the cloud answers. The cloud leads him into the woods, and he follows without knowing where it will take him. Chbosky says that when he started writing the book, he also followed the cloud without knowing where it would take him. Mostly it took him into his own subconscious, where he faced the question, “How does one deal with fear?” The book, he says, answers: “We can swallow our fear or let our fear swallow us.”
Ultimately, Imaginary Friend celebrates the best of human qualities: love, devotion, and goodness. “The ultimate point of the book is the importance of the truth,” Chbosky says. “Telling the truth, seeing the truth, speaking the truth, and knowing the truth in your heart can deliver every single one of those characters. And the truth is love. All characters in the book have some version of that. Not embracing the truth is what keeps them in chains.”
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.