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Imaginary Friends by John Marco and Martin H. Greenberg, editors

Published by DAW Books

When you were a kid, did you have an imaginary friend? A companion only you could see, or a plush toy that became a living being when only you were around? It's a common phenomenon, yet as we grow up, a certain embarrassment about childish things covers them over to the point that we act as if they never existed in the first place. As a result, even the literature of child development shows a woeful paucity of discussion of the phenomenon, as editor John Marco relates in his introduction. Hence his decision to create this anthology as a means of exploring the phenomenon through literature.

The first story, "A Good Day For Dragons" by Rick Hautala, seems at first to be a story of the adventures of a boy and his magical companion, along the lines of the old Peter, Paul and Mary song "Puff the Magic Dragon." But as we reach the end we get a surprising twist in which we discover that this is in fact a world where winged archosaurs rather than primates are the dominant life-form.

Ann Bishop gives us a darker look at the concept of the imaginary friend in "Stands a God Within the Shadows." Her protagonist is imprisoned within a tower on an island in the middle of the river, constrained to look at the outside world only through a mirror. Her mysterious keeper warns her that if she should look out the window, she will be cursed. Yet the glimpses she sees of an idyllic paradise have flaws that suggests deliberate illusion, leading her to a determination to find out what is really going on. When she sees the horrible truth that lies beyond the walls, it nearly breaks her mind. Yet she draws strength from some inner wellspring, and the ending is a heartwarming triumph of the spirit of creativity and impossible beauty amidst ruins.

In "Neither" Jean Rabe gives us another story with a surprising revelation in the end. Homeless Sid and hopeful Lee have forged an odd friendship on the streets of Nashville, amidst the tourist-trap bars with their memorabilia of the country music industry. Both of them show affection to a stray dog who hangs around the area. When two young punks decide to steal some valuable Elvis memorabilia, all three of them work together to stop them. Except only one of them is real, and it's not the one you'll expect. It's kind of neat to read a story about an animal with independent agency that isn't a kids' story or a nature documentary.

Juliet E McKenna's "Walking Shadows" takes us to a magical world where a kingdom is protected by forces both material and immaterial. However, the power to conjure up companions from one's imagination comes at a terrible risk, not dissimilar from Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkovan adage of "an untrained telepath is a danger to herself and others." Already the king's son lies locked in madness, unable to master his talent. Can his sister be saved before her talent destroys her as well?

In "Say Hello to My Little Friend" Kristijne Kathryn Rusch gives us a story of a barkeeper who's somewhat amused by a good-looking guy with an astonishingly clumsy pickup line. As the incidents continue, she becomes concerned enough to take him in hand and give him some advice. In doing so she discovers that he's not a dweeb who's trying to introduce women to his penis, but a friend who's having a nasty prank pulled on him by a buddy with a truly astonishing talent.

Beginning writers are generally warned not to write about writers, for the simple reason that it can turn into navel-gazing or self-pity far too easily. However, Kristine Britain's "Justine and the Mountie" actually manages to make it work, complete with the rival writer using magic to steal the protagonist's ideas. It ends on a hopeful note, but to say more would be to spoil it.

In "Suburban Legend" Donald J. Bingle gives us an odd twist on the concept of the imaginary friend. All the people are real enough, but they move within a web of deception. The protagonist has reason to believe his wife is cheating on her, and when she disappears right after an ugly argument, suspicion falls upon him. All his evidence he offers of an affair is dismissed as a fabrication or delusion, and he soon discovers that all the friendships he thought he had existed only in his own imagination. The final scene reveals that no, his suspicions weren't unfounded, and just how the real killer used his weaknesses against him to ensure he took the fall for the crime and nobody would ever look further.

Tim Waggoner shows us the dark side of the imaginary friend in "Best Friends Forever." At first it appears to be the story of a harried stay-at-home dad trying to juggle the responsibilities of parenthood and his freelance work. He was supposed to meet with a new client about a project, but his daughter has fallen ill and he hasn't been able to arrange daycare for her. But as she keeps seeing a giant toy dog, we get the sense that something is very much amiss -- and then everything falls apart and we discover the real story behind the delusion of a grief-broken mind.

In "Greg and Eli" Paul Genesse gives us a story of a boy whose family has been torn by an accident that resulted in the expectant mother's miscarriage. The grief-stricken parents can't bear to remain in the area that reminds them of their heartbreak, so they uproot little Greg and move to a tiny town in the desert where he is cast among strangers. In school he encounters a bully and his posse, and is soon dabbling in some dangerous things. But he has one friend, a shy lad by the name of Eli who has an odd tendency to disappear when other people are around, and who counsels him against mischief. A boy who bears the name his lost brother would've have been given -- perhaps an angel or departed spirit?

Russell Davis weaves us a story of love and loss in "A Rose for Valdis." the protagonist is a mail carrier who was the only link with humanity for an elderly recluse. When the old man dies, he leaves his hermitage to the protagonist, along with a letter that tells the sad story of the old man's love and loss, of how a dream can be destroyed.

Bill Fawcett gives us a more conventional imaginary friend in "The Big Exit." Thumper began as his child's amalgamation of Uncle Sam and George Washington, everything that was big and wonderful about America. Now the lad has grown up to be a man and is serving his country in Iraq, where he's pinned down by sniper fire. He hasn't thought about Thumper in years, but now his desperate need has summoned that old imaginary friend, and there is one thing he can do to save his old friend. It will come at a terrible price, of course, but it will spare his friend that price.

In "Whether 'tis Nobler in the Mind" Fiona Patton gives us an entire isolated community of people with powerful paranormal abilities. Some can levitate objects, some have knacks with mechanical systems, and some can create illusions so powerful that everybody can perceive them. Which leaves our protagonist wondering about the ethics of creating a consensus reality so blatantly at variance with the objective facts of the family's genealogy -- and in the process is forced to squarely face his own aging.

The final story, Jim C. Hines's "Images of Death," also deals with our battle against mortality. The protagonist's father was a cartoonist who created a wondrous, surreal world over the decades-long run of his comic strip. As his life drew to a close, a new character began to appear, a weird grinning Death. Now the protagonist's son has been stricken by leukemia, and that same terrifying figure has appeared in his own drawings, never mind that he has never been exposed to his grandfather's body of work. The protagonist is frantic to drive away this alarming specter -- but in the end it may be that the only way to beat it is to let her son know the part of his heritage that she's denied him for so long.

On the whole, it's a really impressive set of stories. I don't think there was a single clunker in the whole bunch. I especially liked the ones from the point of view of the imaginary companion, when it seemed that the human child was drawing them from some kind of realm of mind and spirit.

Table of Contents

  • Introduction by John Marcos
  • "A Good Day for Dragons" by Rick Hautala
  • "Stands a God Within the Shadows" by Anne Bishop
  • "Neither" by Jean Rabe
  • "Walking Shadows" by Juliet E McKenna
  • "Say Hello to My Little Friend" by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
  • "Justine and the Mountie" by Kristine Britain
  • "Suburban Legend" by Donald J. Bingle
  • "Best Friends Forever" by Tim Waggoner
  • "Greg and Eli" by Paul Genesse
  • "An Orchid for Valdis" by Russell Davis
  • "The Big Exit" by Bill Fawcett
  • "Whether 'tis Nobler in the Mind" by Fiona Patton
  • "Images of Death" by Jim C Hines

Review posted June 4, 2012.

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