Penpal is a series of interconnected stories that detail the creepy and mysterious circumstances surrounding a young boy’s childhood. As an adult, the narrator is beginning to understand that what seemed like random events from when he was a kid was actually a terrifying pattern centered around a madman.
Penpal has a rather interesting origin story. It began as an installment on reddit.com’s Nosleep forum. It was then picked up and recorded in audio form by the award-winning Nosleep podcast. The initial chapter became incredibly popular, and author Dathan Auerbach expanded his narrative to include additional chapters, eventually gathering enough to form a short novel. After a successful Kickstarter campaign, Auerbach was able to self-publish this novel under his reddit name 1000Vultures in 2012.
I stumbled upon this book last autumn while I was scouring the internet for scary novels in anticipation of Halloween, and was immediately intrigued by the creepy-ass cover art. As an avid horror reader, I am well-acquainted with short-form scary stories on websites such as creepypasta. I love them because you can generally finish one installment in about ten minutes. You’re in, you’re scared, you’re out.
Unfortunately, this becomes the main problem with Penpal. The short-form horror format has limitations that make the transition to long-form narrative a difficult one. Penpal often comes off as disjointed. There is next to no character arc. There are major discrepancies between some of the different chapters. The primary meat of the story is preceded by a strange, obviously tacked-on introduction where the narrator explains why there might be discrepancies. And while individually the chapters are creepy and unsettling, the novel as a whole falls a little flat.
My favorite sections were “Footprints”, “Balloons,” and “Boxes”. Auerbach does an excellent job of setting his reader ill at ease using a minimum of words. He takes ordinary things, such as receiving letters from a penpal, and manages to make them exceedingly disturbing. The fact that the narrator is only around six years old for the majority of the novel is compelling. Children this age are largely innocent, and will generally accept any explanation from an adult. So the fact that a six-year old boy is more puzzled than terrified by the events of Penpal is believable.
However, a six-year old boy also has limitations, which Auerbach occasionally forgets. In one chapter, the narrator and his classmate build a functional raft which is capable of floating down a river. Now, I’ve taught kindergarten. Most of my students were incapable of tying their shoes on a regular basis, and became frustrated trying follow Lego instructions. Not to disparage small children, they are brilliant in their own way, but it is utterly improbable that two unsupervised six-year old boys could build a full-sized raft. Speaking of unsupervised, the time period is obviously meant to reflect those glory days of “free-range” childhood, but I’m pretty sure no child of that age would be allowed the freedom of this kid. Mothers may have been less hyper-vigilant in the ’80’s but they weren’t that nonchalant.
Overall, your enjoyment of Penpal will be closely linked to your enjoyment of short-form horror. In individual, unconnected installments, it is effectively creepy and unsettling. However, when viewed as a whole it becomes limited in its ability to scare. The fact that the last chapter is a muddled mess that seeks to “solve” the mystery did not end things on a high note for me.
My rating: 3/5
Happy reading everyone!