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.