Dathan Auerbach’s PENPAL is a remarkable horror novel packing an emotional wallop. Originally developed as a series of short interconnected stories for an online horror forum, Auerbach revised and expanded it into this creepy novel.
In PENPAL, a man looks back on a series of strange events in his childhood in an effort to understand them. They started in kindergarten when his class wrote letters about themselves and attached them to balloons that were set free. For a time, many of the kids got pen pals, who wrote to the kids c/o the school. Only the boy didn’t get a letter. Instead, he received a blurry photo. Then more.
As the man looks back, these disturbing and increasingly tragic events take on a terrifying single narrative.
In my mind, PENPAL achieves two big accomplishments, the first in recreating the wonder of childhood in a realistic way without saccharine nostalgia, the second in subtly introducing unease, menace and darkness at the margins of this childhood until they permanently alter a boy’s life. In doing so, Auerbach managed to create something familiar but entirely new in the horror genre.
My only criticism is the story is somewhat disjointed, the product of it being a series of interconnected short stories that jump around in time. For example, the first story happens after the second, which I didn’t realize until much later. The result for me was I got confused about the timeline and what was happening at a few points. So if you pick up PENPAL, my advice is make sure you pay attention to the time the story is set in.