When I first cracked the pages of Champaign-based designer, illustrator, and author Daniel Charles Wild’s Stories for Imaginary Friends: 50 Fantasy, Horror, Sci-Fi Stories, And Essays, I read the forward in which Wild speaks of his favorite film, Mystery Men. That particular film happens to be one of my favorite films as well, and I was thrilled to read that someone else identified with the anti-superhero crew as much as I did.
Each tale in Stories For Imaginary Friends varies in length from a few sentences to several pages, ranging in many styles and themes but sticking mainly to horror and science fiction throughout. The world that Wild builds does not exist within the average horror universe, instead, he creates emotional vignettes dressed up as something scary and fantastical.
Wild does something unique in that he allows vulnerability in every story, and keeps that vulnerability coming with each story. He doesn’t slow down or attempt to surprise you with gory details simply for shock value. Wild instead holds your hand while he asks you to walk down a dark alley with him, pointing to all the corners where the darkness is thickest and the monsters may (or may not) be lurking. He asks you not to go it alone, but to come with him while he guides you, and in some ways that allow you to let your guard down and for the fear to creep in.
Stories For Imaginary Friends evokes emotion without manipulating you into being afraid. You’re invited to feel things and see things from a slightly different perspective and begged to look inward and find the pieces of yourself that you’ve been convinced didn’t matter.
While reading you are asked to have love and compassion for the person you used to be. The person who it turns out might have been the one who saved you all along. It feels as if Wild asks you to look at your trauma and see it not just as something that you’ve learned to cope with but to forgive yourself for needing to cope with it in the first place. It’s often easy to blame yourself for the things you didn’t know, but in these pages Wild seems to ask you not only not to blame yourself but outright forgive yourself. How could you have gotten here without the you that you used to be? How could you have become who you are without that person that you tried to leave behind?
“Good Boy” is a story that gives Marley & Me a twist into the horror genre. You’re given the lens of an innocent dog who wants nothing more than to be a good boy for his human, but in doing so he learns he is complicit in something sinister and must make the decision of what being a good boy means to himself.
Through the lens of a puppy rescued from the pound, you’re able to see how easy it is to make a mistake. Likewise, you see that making a mistake when you didn’t understand the consequences doesn’t clear you of the harm you caused, and your awareness means that you must make a difficult choice moving forward, even if that choice means that you might lose your comfort.
Stories For Imaginary Friends never shies away from taking you down a dark path. I was struck by “City Mural,” a story of a man that takes to the streets at night to walk when he can’t sleep. In stumbling upon a mural being painted by a local artist, he notices that the people he passes on his late-night walks begin to disappear as they’re incorporated into the mural.
The story struck me mostly because, as an artist, I’m always a little terrified that someone else’s work will end up disappearing mine.
“I have a strange relationship with the city I live in. I moved here about 15 years ago and still don’t feel as though I’m a part of it. I honestly don’t feel like I’m a part of anything. That probably means that I’m the problem.”
That opening paragraph echoes similar thoughts I’ve had many times myself, feeling distant and alone in any space I’m in. Wild is capable of writing a story that doesn’t take more than a few sentences to resonate. He sees you – there you are! – and you’re getting to see him, too.
Wild takes to the pages of these stories to reach out directly and share what he’s felt, and how he’s overcome. In “Afterward: What The Hell Did I Just Write? What The Hell Did You Just Read?” Wild is not just vulnerable, he’s open about his trauma and the losses he’s experienced in his life. Trauma has put its hand on all of us in one way or another, and the ability to not only look at your trauma in the eyes but to begin to heal from it is something that all of us need to be able to believe in. Wild gives you that hope, that you can begin to heal no matter how hard the journey has been, or how long it’s taken for you to get here.
Stories For Imaginary Friends guides you into the dark, but it also brings you out the other side realizing that you didn’t just read a collection of stories. You’re asked—quite literally begged—not to give up on yourself, or on the things in your life that maybe you stopped working on because it was too hard to see any light.
The tunnel might be dark, but there’s another side with light and air and blue skies and it’s just waiting for you to take a few more steps. Wild shows you how dark his tunnel got, and he shows you what it felt like to see the light for the first time after the darkness. He holds your hand, and he shows you so that you’re not alone either.