Penpal is a book by Dahan Auerbach – but it didn’t start as a book. It is a terrific story and it’s also a fascinating example of how new kinds of stories and budding authors can come out of nowhere in our new internet world. (note: this is a no spoiler review)
Penpal started as a couple of ‘creepypasta‘ short stories posted in the user-contributed, scary story ‘No Sleep’ area of Reddit. It’s since been turned into illustrations, audio recordings, and even short films made by fans. There’s even a rumor of a movie deal.
The book is a collection of several interconnected/overlapping short stories about a young boy trying to put together some strange events from his childhood. As he goes over his memories, a very strange and terrifying tale begins to emerge from the pieces.
The book itself isn’t terribly long, but really draws you in. I found myself reading at bedtime and next thing I know it’s 1am. By the time I’d finished I felt like I’d had gone on a hair-raising roller-coaster ride and twisted around like a towel getting wrung out – but in a good way. It left me thinking back on my own childhood and wondering about the things that I experienced as a kid and just how right/wrong I had understood them.
Told from the narrator (who is now an adult), the book is an adventure in watching what he as a kid experienced. He does a masterful job capturing what he was feeling and the confusion while describing an unfolding story that would even terrify most adults. You patch together what is going on via his own half-understood descriptions – and your own imagination patches together the rest – often much more terrifyingly than if you actually knew what was going on.
What makes Auerbach’s writing really unique is his ability to capture and communicate the feelings and experiences we had as kids. His simple descriptions bring back a flood of your own memories of hanging out with your childhood best friend(s). I found myself realizing I had the same feelings/fears such as staying back in the woods behind our house a little too late, going into a dark basement, or the little games we play with ourselves like trying to get back into our house before the street lights come on or not breathing while driving through a tunnel. Auerbach also really hits the head on how kids misunderstand adult interactions and the ways we seek out parental love. Indirectly, he also captures the gut-wrenching moral/ethical decisions that adults make to protect their children from the harsh realities of a sometimes frightening world. If you ever had to explain to a kid why grandpa at the nursing home doesn’t remember you between visits – you’ll get an idea of these types of decisions. Auerbach does a masterful job capturing these interactions with simple, approachable style.
Is it scary? I would say that it is. Not a jump-out-of-the-closet kind of scary – but the kind of scary you get because he’s nailing the emotions of childhood but telling them with the full knowledge of an adult. The fact his descriptions are so real makes it even doubly impactful.
Sure, there are a few small plot holes and problems. The biggest is the fact the individual chapters were actually separate clips that were written separately is a little apparent. The flow and overlap are a little messy. Part of the final resolution left me feeling a bit perplexed as well. But it doesn’t matter. All that is easily overlooked by the great experience it is of reading this story.
Overall, I give this a solid A-. It’s a great read. It’s also scary. It won’t win any literary awards or upset any kings of horror, but it describes the experience of kids growing up so well that it’s worth the read alone. It’s also a fascinating snapshot of how publishing is working now – much like how game development is working. People work on a snippet of something, publish it on a forum, and see if it sticks. If it does, they keep at it. If not, it dies.
Regardless of how it was written/found – it’s a great read. At the end, I found myself sitting there and re-visiting my own childhood, friends, and memories and feeling very thankful. That alone is worth the time spent for the read.