Where do imaginary friends go when we no longer need them? That’s the question at the heart of Tyler Hayes quirky, poignant, and thoroughly original debut novel The Imaginary Corpse. The premise—a make-believe stuffed animal detective investigates a series of murders—suggests a whimsical fantasy adventure, and though the book delivers on that promise, it goes far beyond the gimmick and into areas that are more serious, darker, and deeply compelling.
The Stillreal is a place ideas go when they’re no longer wanted or needed. Its residents (known as “Friends”) can be personifications of abstract concepts, but most often they’re the concrete visions of people in our own world: imaginary friends, superheroes and villains, and even nightmares live on after they’ve been discarded by the human that generated them, often bringing with them their own “Idea” in the form of the environment in which their imagined adventures took place. Friends’ lives are circumscribed by their pasts: an infant’s imagined character might still have no language in the Stillreal. (Spiderhand, roommate of our lead character, is pretty much just a talking hand.) They’re also frequently avatars of past trauma, representing the numerous ways in which our own real-world imaginations try to shield us from life’s harms. There’s an incredible amount of worldbuilding at play here—the Stillreal may be a formed by imagination, but there are rules to the place, and Hayes sticks with them.
Our guide to these weird environs is Detective Tippy, an old-school P.I. who just happens to be a stuffed triceratops (the Stillreal doesn’t get hung up on such things). One of Tippy’s jobs is to help recently arrived Friends acclimate to their new world, a job grows many times more complicated when he rescues a newly arrived nightmare (monsters being welcomed in the Stillreal) who soon turns up murdered. In the Stillreal, death is generally a temporary inconvenience—but this new Friends stays dead, and it’s soon clear that there’s something else new in their world, and it has murder on its mind. Tippy’s proximity to the first few killings means he’s not only the only one who might be able to solve the case, but also a prime suspect.
A a character, Tippy is something like a revelation. He’s introduced as a private detective in a very traditional vein—think Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, or any of his many descendants. The embittered gumshoe is a character type that has been played for parody as often as it has been played, but Tippy is a bit of both. Being that he’s a stuffed triceratops, it’s hard to avoid that feeling that we’re meant to have a bit of fun with him—yet he’s also world-weary, too smart for his own good, and hard-drinking (the drink of choice being root beer).
What seems at first like a whimsical fantasy in the style of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? eventually reveals itself to be a timely parable about emotional damage. Some of the Friends we encounter are relatively well-adjusted, though many of them were born to either provide an imaginative barrier against childhood pain or to give that pain a face. Though we’re meant to empathize with the Friends of the Stillreal, ultimately The Imaginary Corpse is about the stubborn persistence of trauma, and about the ripples that it creates in the lives of people in our world, spreading beyond a single individual to impact families and communities. The Stillreal is built from that kind of pain, but also represents an imperfect means of coping with it via a sense of community and the willingness on the part of the locals to accept others with compassion, and on their own terms.
Our leading dinosaur is, in many respects, the paragon of the often (but not always) hyper-masculine PI-type, but he’s tuned all of the associated character traits toward helping anyone he can, whenever he can. Though he’s at times frustrated by his very childlike roommate Spiderhand (who is a terminal people-pleaser and obsessed with tea parties), Tippy works hard to be honest yet tempers his words with compassion, understanding that a singe cross word might be devastating if taken in the wrong way. Though he’s sacrificed a bit of his own peace of mind to face the darker parts of the Stillreal, he remains entirely in touch with his own emotions and considerate toward those of others. He’s even scrupulous in requesting appropriate pronouns from each new Friend he encounters. It’s refreshing to meet a damaged and troubled character who still works very hard at being nice, and at least as interesting as dealing with one who doesn’t bother. Given that the narrative concerns a series of traumatic murders, there’s plenty of darkness to be found already.
It’s a delicate balancing act, weighing the amusingly oddball premise and the richer emotional subtext. But that’s why The Imaginary Corpse feels so special: it’s both a thrilling journey into an imaginatively crafted fantasy world, and a textured, character-based drama with real emotional stakes. Certainly I can think of a few human characters in literature who could take a lesson from the engaging and complex stuffed dinosaur at its heart.