Penpal by Dathan Auerbach

Book:  Penpal

Author:  Dathan Auerbach

Type of Book:  Fiction, short story collection, horror

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd:  Because it is both excellent and terrible.

Availability:  Published by 1000Vultures, you can get a copy here:

Comments: If you are a Redditor and subscribe to “nosleep” then chances are you are already aware of Penpal and Dathan Auerbach.  Dathan posted a series of stories to “nosleep” that became so popular that he expanded them, eventually self-publishing the stories as Penpal, using his Reddit name, 1000Vultures, as the name of his publishing company.  The book has had moderate success and has even been optioned for a film.

Nosleep and the phenomenon of “creepypasta” have expanded into YouTube serials wherein voice actors read the stories, but it has to be said that most of the stories that get posted and then turned into audio-videos are mediocre.  Some are so bad they are of the “then who was phone” variety.  But sometimes some excellent gems are posted to the subreddit.  For example during the summer of 2014, Reddit user natesw posted an account of how his dead girlfriend was talking to him via Facebook chat.  It was a creepy and well-executed story, and it went viral.  Unfortunately going viral was probably the story’s undoing because it caused an influx of people into nosleep who had no idea how the community worked and didn’t read the sidebar rules.  You see, nosleep operates as if all the stories posted there are true.  Even if they aren’t true, they are true.  The readers interact with the author of the story as if the author is the protagonist or in some manner part of the story, and the author responds in character when replying in comments.  Natesw’s story got so barraged by people unclear on the concept of nosleep that he more or less abandoned it.  Newcomers were analyzing exif data trying to disprove his story, doing their best to track him down on other social media sites and doxx him to prove it was a hoax and it all got quite ruined for those who understood what was going on.  Luckily, Dathan’s stories didn’t fall victim to people unclear on the concept until the stories had enough traction that such nonsense didn’t affect them, but if you Google any element of this book, one of the autofill menu items will always be “is penpal based on a true story” or some variant.

But such is the risk of engaging in writing and theater online – if you do it well it will be indistinguishable from real life to those who never read the community guidelines.

Penpal is the story of a young man’s very disturbing childhood, and his attempts to make sense of what happened to him and his friends.  The first two chapters are golden, truly creepy and leaving the reader with the task of deciding the reality of the situations the author presents, especially in the first chapter, “Footsteps.”  The first two chapters are not in chronological order – “Footsteps” takes place when the narrator is six, “Balloons” takes place when he is five – so I am going to discuss “Balloons” first because it will make this discussion easier to follow. 

The narrator begins kindergarten at age five, and his teacher, in an attempt to teach her students about the geography of their town as well as foster nascent writing skills, created a pen pal project for her students.  The children, with her help, would write a letter about themselves, including pictures, and would place these items inside a balloon that would be filled with helium and then released.  They even included money for postage, because the teacher wanted the person who eventually found the balloons to write to the child at the school’s address, explaining where they found the balloon so the class could track on a bulletin board with pushpins the locations where their balloons were found.  The narrator writes “for stamps” on the dollar he includes with his letter.

The narrator is the last to get a response and his is puzzling – whoever found his balloon simply sent a picture back in response.  The narrator eventually gets so many pictures of vague various locations in town – none of which really tell him much about the person who found his balloon – that it ceases to mean anything to him, though he takes them home and keeps them in a box.  During the summer, he and his friend Josh set up a snow cone stand and the narrator realizes someone paid for a cone with the dollar bill he had included in his balloon.  He rushes home and looks at his pictures he received from whomever found his balloon and pores over them closely, realizing he is in every picture.  He is being stalked by someone.  He eventually receives another picture in the mail, but it was directly delivered to his home.  His stalker knows where he lives.

In “Footsteps,” the now six year old narrator leaves his home in the middle of the night, waking up in the woods near his house.  Auerbach imbues this chapter with enough strangeness that it leaves the reader unable to determine exactly what happened – did the stalker break into the house and remove the boy, leaving him in the woods?  Did the child sleepwalk?  Was something supernatural at work?  The boy, barefoot and afraid, makes his way back home but just as he gets his bearings and thinks he may be nearing safety, he finds that he has gone in a circle.  He spends a lot of time in the woods playing, so it seems like he should know the area well enough to know if he is walking in circles, and again it is unclear if the boy is lost and simply felt he was getting close to home and wasn’t, or if somehow time skipped and he returned back to the place where he initially woke up.

When he eventually gets home, exhausted and with bloody feet, he finds out that his mother has called the police.  She had found a note on his bed, saying that the boy had run away.  The boy looks at the note and realizes his first name is misspelled (and one wonders why his mother never noticed that her own son misspelled his name).  I was never able to determine what happened because in a later chapter the protagonist experiences another time shift in the woods, where he seems to be going in circles even though it’s clear he should be making forward progress. But the presence of the note makes me think that the stalker tried to abduct him and that something went wrong in the attempt and the little boy just got confused in the woods.  But there is a slight paranormal element that keeps the reader on her toes, and it makes the story all the creepier.  It also brings into focus the blurriness of memory, so to speak.  The adult, trying to remember what happened to him as a child, can easily remember events differently than they actually occurred.  The trauma could have caused his memory to become skewed.  This series of stories isn’t particularly paranormal but there is something going on with the terrain around the house the boy grew up in that doesn’t match the more visceral story of a boy being stalked by a deranged man.

Unfortunately, the first two chapters are the best parts of this collection and the book slowly fell apart with each subsequent chapter.  The story is compelling – the narrator and his friend Josh become close friends, grow apart, and the man stalking the narrator does extreme damage to people close to the narrator – but I believe Auerbach writes best when he has certain constraints placed on him.  I am the last person to criticize any style that goes on at length –  I am a woman who understands the need to engage in seemingly pointless asides.  I see a certain virtue in dithering.  But Auerbach’s storytelling is best served by a sparer style than the one used in this book.

I first read “Footsteps” and “Balloons” on nosleep and the need to condense the stories into manageable sections that could be easily read and understood online kept Auerbach in check.  He wrote short but extremely strong stories that roped readers in, causing some of them to literally beg for more.  And Auerbach delivered online.  But when he raised funds to publish his stories, he expanded them so much that the stories got lost in the details.

For example, I still have no idea what was going on with the Mrs Maggie sections.  I can’t really even explain why I don’t get it because I don’t get it enough to be able to explain why I don’t get it.  Does that make sense?  I hope so, because there are large sections of this book that wore me out mentally as I tried to make sense of what it was that Auerbach wanted us to take away from all the meandering plot lines that ultimately went nowhere.

Auerbach also ruined his stories with excessive extraneous details.  For example, in “Balloons” he spends seventeen paragraphs over the course of four pages discussing in depth the wheres and whys of the snow cone stand the narrator and his friend Josh set up.  This snow cone stand is simply a way for the narrator to receive back the dollar he sent in his balloon and to show that the little boy is being stalked.  The section about the snow cone stand was longer than the original story on nosleep.  The collection, even the relatively good first two chapters, is dogged by extreme detail to unimportant topics that don’t advance the story and, in fact, ensure that the very interesting plot gets lost.  I was appalled by how often my mind wandered completely away as I read, forcing me to go back and reread paragraphs, sometimes several times in a row, before I absorbed the content.

I love to quote liberally from books I enjoy.  I always want to explain why I love something and show examples.  But in this case, even as I praise the concept and initial execution of the plot, there’s little that I want to quote.  This is a collection that is very earnest – very little humor or wit, the story filtered through an unreliable and vulnerable narrator remembering through the haze of time.  Additionally the plot can be seen as intricate and somewhat unbelievable if not handled in a precise manner.  By expanding his works to traditional short story lengths, Auerbach robbed them of the intensity and brevity that made them work.

Don’t get me wrong – this is interesting enough and is certainly creepy, but I also think Auerbach should look into creating graphic novels, marrying his content with an illustrator, because these are stories that would work so well visually and such a format would ensure the brevity that Auerbach’s stories need.  I can’t really recommend the book but have a look at some of the links to nosleep I provided above.   The two stories I liked the best were also recorded for YouTube – you can listen to “Footsteps” here and “Balloons” here.    The entirety of Penpal is read aloud here.

If you have any inclination to order this book after reading my synopsis of the first two chapters, check out the audio/video links first.  It’s not a wholly bad collection but there isn’t a strong enough element for me to say there is a “price of admission” part of this book.  Hopefully Auerbach will find a way to play to his strengths in future works – strong plots, interesting characters and spare writing.  He’s got good instincts when he’s got an external constraint but his strengths don’t show in his collection as well as they should.

7 thoughts on “Penpal by Dathan Auerbach

  1. What the what! Sadly, I lost track of your blog, since you had moved domains but I was still subscribed to your ireadoddbooks RSS feed. 🙁 It’s good to see you’re still active though!

    I read Penpal a while back, and unfortunately it does falter considerably after a very strong start. I’ve forgotten many of the details, but there was a scene, I think it was with the two friends snooping around the bad dude’s house, that was one of the most tense, suspenseful passages I’ve read in a horror story in a long time.

    But yeah, it seems like all the extra room afforded him by the novel format took something away from his storytelling instincts. What it felt like to me was that the expanded space of the novel lured him into a regrettable self-indulgence — for example, all that angsty teen romance stuff, which I did enjoy to some extent, but it went a little far into Stephen King territory.

    And for the life of me, I can’t remember how it all turned out. I do recall that it was rather anticlimactic. Still, Auerbach is obviously a talent. Since reading Penpal, I’ve trudged through a lot of horror stories, and much of Auerbach’s imagery still looms in my memories when all those other stories have faded away.

    Auerbach I guess does remind me of King in more than one way — King is also much stronger, in my opinion, in shorter works, where space constraints force him to exercise some discipline. For me, the novella is King’s sweet spot, perhaps because in that form he can let his characters breathe, without having to pad out their stories.

    1. Yeah, all the IROB content is over here now, as well as content from my older site I Read Everything and the ill-fated Houdini’s Revenge. I just decided to put everything in one place and write about everything I think is strange rather than just books, but the site will still be book-heavy.

      I’m glad to know you had a similar reaction to Penpal because so many people seem to love this book unreservedly. I don’t know if the reverence stems from the initial love for it from Reddit or if there is something about Auerbach’s style that appeals to people who never knew a time when books could not be read on screens. Not a slam to younger readers but it is undeniable that fiction read on message boards or using an iPad is experienced differently than fiction read on old-fashioned paper. Attention is easily diverted (or at least it is for me) when I am reading using an e-Reader of some sort, and I wonder if the holes I found in the book are not as important to readers who have always known the distractions inherent in reading electronically. It’s hard to see holes when attention can so easily be diverted, and when the words have a cinematic quality – the whole scene where the protagonist meets his friend’s sister for the date and the aftermath – we can fall into a horror movie-logic state wherein we know what we are reading is not making sense but we cut it slack because of the conventions surrounding such cinema.

      I still can’t remember the ending of this book. I went online and read a couple of synopses and still don’t remember reading what others summarized. It’s unsettling but perhaps we are witnessing works constructed in a manner that makes sense more to minds shaped by little memes of information making it to them here and there rather than in one large packet. I also realize I may be totally reaching here.

      I stopped reading Stephen King about six years ago and I don’t know why, and the last book of his I read was a short story/novella collection. I’ve got several of his more recent efforts on my shelves and just haven’t had the desire to pick them up. I should read him again and see what it is that is making me reluctant to try his work these days.

      1. I had to laugh @ your forgetting the ending of Penpal, because I can’t remember it either! I seem to recall that it just sort of…ended. Bad guy was dealt with, and there was some rather maudlin eulogizing of the narrator’s friend. Oh, and a very drawn-out…is there a term for when a story at the very end launches into an explanation of everything that just happened? Retro-exposition? I guess that’s why I kind of tuned out at the end. The mystery at the heart of the story wasn’t ultimately that compelling, so I wasn’t that interested in the details.

        I have to admit that I’m doing most of my reading on my iPad lately, and it really is not the same. I don’t know if it’s something inherent to the medium, or just the fact that I’m old and grew up reading on paper, but it simply isn’t as immersive. I am very easily distracted, and you’re right, I tend to gloss over details more easily than when I’m reading a print book. I suspect that, for me at least, it’s because I’m conditioned when reading things on screens to flip around between things and not focus very much on one thing at a time. The glowing screen repels my eye where print on paper doesn’t! I have never owned a proper Kindle with e-ink so I don’t know if that device has the same effect.

        Re: Stephen King, I have had nearly the identical experience. The last proper novel of his that I finished was Cell in 2006, and like Penpal I can’t remember how that ended! Since then I’ve read most of that novella collection Full Dark, No Stars (2010) — and I just remembered that I did read Joyland (2013) and liked it quite a bit, though I forget that it’s considered a novel since it reads to me more like one of his novellas.

        I can’t know what King’s near-death experience in 1999 did to his psyche, but it obviously has affected his work, and I haven’t been able to get into most of his output since then. I’ve tried reading every novel he’s put out in the 2000s/2010s, but with the exception of Joyland and the Dark Tower books (though I haven’t even read the most recent one) I haven’t made it past the first couple of chapters. I can’t quite articulate it, but I feel like his books have lost their pulp urgency, and he’s self-consciously Writing instead of just writing. I suppose that’s why I enjoyed Joyland — it’s just King cranking out a tightly written little pulp quickie, and it’s captivating in a way I haven’t seen from him since the 80s.

  2. Your review took the words right out of my mouth, expect you were much more coherent and eloquent than I would have been. I too enjoyed this book (for the most part) but was a bit dismayed by the messy storyline, unnecessary filler, and confusing plot points. I’m also glad I wasn’t the only one that didn’t understand the point of Mrs. Maggie and Tom. When the one chapter ended with the phrase, “Tom’s home,” I thought it would be revealed that Tom was the one stalking the narrator. But then I remembered that the narrator’s mother saw him dead on their lawn years before. So that was dashed. I was able to piece together everything else about the book, but that was something I just couldn’t understand. Auerbach seemed to hint at something sinister but nothing was explicitly revealed. Any theories out there as to what Mrs. Maggie represented?

  3. I picked up Penpal after reading the comments under the story of Borracsa on Reddit, causing me to become intrigued by a genre I have never enjoyed. Many people seemed to love this book. I was disappointed in this book. Yes, I, too, had spun an ending in my head while I read. None of which came to fruition. I figured Mrs. Maggie was the grandmother, and some falling out had caused the mother (or his father’s mother)to not want anything to do with her, while still having a soft spot (telling the boys not to go inside but to still be kind to her). I figured the stalker was some mentally disabled relative as well…a brother or his father or something (Chris? John? Both names Mrs. Maggie called them.) And what was with the black bags being carried out of her house? And why was it mentioned a few times that Josh and the unnamed narrator looked so much alike? What the heck happened to Josh? Why does he say “you left” in response to why he doesn’t seem to want to be friends anymore. Why did the stalker take Josh but never harm the narrator when he obviously had lots of opportunities? I’m left with too many questions to have truly enjoyed this story.

  4. I think Mrs. Maggie was another character introduced for the stalker to harm. The night the boys were chased on their raft, and the main character got soaked when he escaped, he asked Mrs. Maggie if he could come inside. He wondered why she said no, after all the times she invited him inside, but he thinks she said “Tom’s home.” I think the stalker was in her house, and she didn’t quite understand but she knew on some level that it wasn’t really her husband and she wanted to keep the boy away from him. I think the stalker stayed there for some time and killed her, and all the black bags were the animals he killed (like the ones piling up under the old house).
    I have also wondered why he killed Josh and not the main character. I think maybe he wanted to keep the object of his obsession alive, so he killed the next best thing- that way he could have his cake and eat it too. If people kept saying they looked alike, maybe the only major difference was the hair color? Maybe the boys were half brothers? The book makes it sound like the boy’s mom only ever communicates with Josh’s dad, not Josh’s mom. Josh’s dad seemed unusually close to her after he discovered the grave… And I have no idea what was up with the other guy in the grave- kinda ruined that whole part of the story for me.

  5. After listening to the dramatic reading of pen pal on YouTube, I thought the outcome was actually quite obvious if you allowed yourself to analyse it for a few seconds. The black bin bags being carted out of the house were Maggie’s body parts presumably, as many people believe she was dismembered. As for Josh being murdered, it was the kidnappers attempt to be with the boy forever, hence why they were buried alive together. The reason Josh is wearing small clothes and has coloured hair is because the stalker stole that shirt from the protagonist while they were out boating, and put it on Josh so he resembled the protagonist to help fulfill his sick fantasy. The same can be said about the dark hair, as it is mentioned that the protagonist does have brown hair, so it would make sense for Josh’s to be dyed in order to match him. There is also a picture of the protagonist stapled to Josh’s shirt. It is clear by the end of this story that a man was stalking the protagonist, gave up, and moved onto the next best thing, this time succeeding.

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