“Hello there, have you read Penpal? No? Well let me tell you a little bit about it so that you too can accept Dathan Auerbach’s 2012 novel into the horror literature cannon”
Penpal, began as a story called “Footsteps” posted on the nosleep subreddit under Auerbach’s username 1000Vultures. Online, it grew into a collection of 6 interconnected stories that, with the help of a Kickstarter campaign, Auerbach gathered and expanded into the novel he published under his own imprint (appropriately named 1000 Vultures).
I discovered Penpal when it was published as a collection and was not familiar with the original subreddit material but have since gone back and read those versions as well as listened to Penpal being performed on The NoSleep podcast- that’s how much I love this book!
Arranged in nonlinear order, the chapters are memories recounted by an unnamed narrator in an attempt piece together strange and mysterious events in his childhood most centered on his friendship with a classmate named Josh. Auerbach writes, “Memories extend our lives backwards through time, making them feel longer. And that’s what we want. So we try to remember. But sometimes, when we do, we wish that we could just forget again. But I remember.”
The title Penpal is drawn from the second chapter in the collection, “Balloons”. When the narrator was in kindergarten, he and Josh’s class participated in “The Balloon Project”. As part of the project, each student would let go a balloon with a greeting attached telling the finder about themselves and the project and in turn asking them to send a picture of where they lived and write back to the student so they could become pen pals. The narrator was one of the last children to get a response to his balloon letter, and it was a blurry photo with no return address so he could not respond to his pen pal. Throughout the school year the other student’s letters dwindled down to nothing, while the narrator continued to receive nearly 50 blurry and unrecognizable photos …unrecognizable until he saw “I was in every photo…Some of the pictures had only the tiniest part of my face captured at the very edge of the photo, but nevertheless, I was there. I was always there.”
While the drawn out and confusing chapter “Maps” slows the momentum down for a moment, Auerbach is able to hold your attention by punctuating each individual story with hair-raising final lines that really turn the creepiness up to 11! Trust me, I would love to tell you more but no spoilers, that would ruin the fun.
The nonlinear structure of the book may turn some readers off (and seems to be a big factor in the “love it” or “hate it” attitude of its readers, but I obviously love it), but as the narrator pieces together each memory, the dread and paranoia build, crushing your chest, until the final chapter, “Friends” and Penpal’s horrific climax.
Engrossing, suspenseful, majorly creepy and immensely creative, Penpal is destined to become part of the horror literature cannon. Read this book in the woods with your childhood best friend.
Dathan Auerbach’s new novel Bad Man was published by Doubleday in August, 2018 and is next on my “to be read” list and after you read Penpal should also be added to yours!