Fantasy Novel Review: The Imaginary Corpse by Tyler Hayes

Tyler Hayes’ debut has run under the radar, but the few reviews I’ve seen have been glowing, and the concept of The Imaginary Corpse was eye-catching enough to immediately put this one on my list. 

The Imaginary Corpse takes place in the Stillreal, where figments of imagination go when they are too real to disappear entirely but too traumatic for their creator to hold onto. It stars Tippy, a stuffed triceratops who served as a detective, helping a young girl make sense of the mysteries of her world. But after a senseless car crash claims the life of her father, she has no room for an imaginary friend that makes things make sense. And so Tippy is relegated to the Stillreal, where he uses his detective background to help make the imaginary afterlife better for other Friends. But when a new concept arrives in the Stillreal, a serial killer who can eliminate Friends even from this afterlife of imagination, Tippy faces his most difficult case yet. 

The concept of a story that takes place in the imagination isn’t entirely new, with an animated exploration in Inside Out and some parallels in movies about fictions like Wreck-It Ralph. The noir-style detective story is different, but the really unique aspect of The Imaginary Corpse is that it isn’t a children’s story. Many of the main characters are creations of children, but the novel is written for an adult audience, with curse words here and there and an exploration of trauma at least as prominent as the detective story. 

And it’s the explorations of trauma and friendship where The Imaginary Corpse really shines. Tippy and the other friends are haunted by the events that separated them from their Persons and relegated them to the Stillreal. And the prospect of dying a second death brings all of these to the fore, intensifying personal trauma and exacerbating interpersonal tensions that strain earnest relationships between Friends. 

And these relationships—between a stuffed triceratops detective, and a giant hand, and a superhero, and a talking eagle with eyes that flash red, white, and blue, etc.—are so carefully and touchingly drawn as to make The Imaginary Corpse well worth reading. The Friends have real struggles and make real mistakes, but the heartfelt persistence in seeking reconciliation weaves a wholesome thread through the most difficult of circumstances. 

The mystery plot, on the other hand, doesn’t come off quite as well. The identity of the serial killer is known early on, but no one knows how he got to the Stillreal, how he is able to break so many established rules, and how he can be defeated. And The Imaginary Corpse tries to answer these questions, but the answers don’t quite come together. We ultimately see the killer’s weaknesses and some of the ways in which he breaks the rules of the Stillreal, but his relationship with his Person and how he came to terrorize the Stillreal in the first place is never adequately explained. 

It’s the strength of the rest of The Imaginary Corpse that makes it worthwhile even with the weakness of the mystery, but an unsatisfying resolution of one of the central conflicts hold Hayes’ debut back from true greatness.

Recommended if you like: using kids tropes to tell adult stories, exploration of trauma and the meaning of friendship. 

Can I use it for Bingo? It certainly fits hard mode for Mystery Plot, as well as being a Genre Mashup and a Debut. 

Overall rating: 15 of Tar Vol’s 20. Four stars on Goodreads. 

3 thoughts on “Fantasy Novel Review: The Imaginary Corpse by Tyler Hayes

  1. You’re getting two comments here, one based on when I thought right after reading this, and one after I went looked at my own review from 2019..

    My reaction was I definitely agree on the mystery not really working and that I found the characters a bit too wholesome to really love. I love the idea to death but the elements didn’t come together.

    Looking at my review, I liked it a lot more then, and was really taken with all the big heartwarming moments. However, I didn’t quite connect to the characters then either – but there, I kinda put it on so much of the mystery plot being about *how* it all worked, and not *why* – as you say above – meaning a lot of chances to deepen our knowledge of the characters didn’t work. I loved finding out about the Stillreal, I didn’t love the adventure on which we did so.

    One final thought – I’ve read a few ‘take tough guy noir and make it light hearted’ books and the ones I’ve liked tend to be deliberately funny. I think, on reflection, that might be needed to draw the disparate elements together. I can’t say I found the Imaginary Corpse particularly funny – notice you don’t particularly mention humour here. Is that an oversight, or just not finding it that comedic?

    1. I think I found it more clever than funny. I feel like I’ve read a disproportionate number of SFF murder mysteries lately (this, And Then There Were N-One, the latest Judge Dee novelette, the first Wayward Children), and I haven’t really been wowed by any of them, and I’m trying to sort out whether it’s something about the concept, the execution, or whether I just have diminished enjoyment capacity with a newborn at home (this one being the very first book I read after getting home from the hospital, so I was definitely tired).

      So it’s hard to pin down why I didn’t totally fall in love with the first 80-90% (even though I did like it). But I definitely feel comfortable pointing to the mystery resolution as a flaw that wasn’t just on me being tired.

      1. Congrats on the wee one!
        I’d agree on it being more clever than funny for sure.
        I love SFF mixed with murder mystery but it gives the author a huge amount of exposition to do and I’ve seen a lot of good authors struggle with that. Possibly another reason why I think humour’s a very good ingredient for these sort of things.

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