Plausibility is the root of any good scary story, and Dathan Auerbach’s Penpal feels so plausible that it may have you wondering if the novel is technically non-fiction.
The book is an expansion of short stories Auerbach posted on Reddit’s r/nosleep, a forum where “readers are to act as though everything is true and treat it as such in the comments.” (You can read the first chapter here.) The success of a posted story hinges on its realism, and the feedback Auerbach received was so positive that he launched a successful Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to publish the novel.
The narrator in Penpal begins by recounting seemingly innocuous events from his childhood. His language is simple and unembellished which lends to the story’s credibility. As he describes strange things that happened to him, the details are so subtle that they seem entirely possible. He could be describing your own childhood.
And that’s when the novel starts to get creepy. The unusual events increase in frequency, eventually connecting until a bigger picture develops and the horror of what’s actually happening emerges. You come to the realization at the same time as the narrator, and it’s shocking. It’s like finding out that every wrong number, every stranger that spoke to you as a kid, your missing pet, an elementary school project gone awry, were all part of the same terrible plan.
Auerbach does a fantastic job of getting into the mindset of a child. The fear of getting into trouble prevents the narrator from sharing things with his mother, and the unexplainable goes largely unquestioned because when you’re a kid, much of the adult world is a mystery anyway. Yet the feeling of something being off permeates the novel, staining even happy moments, keeping you on edge.
Read Penpal at night. You won’t be able to put it down, you won’t sleep well and you’ll likely experience what the narrator does at the end of the novel - a childhood stained, an innocence lost. What follows is a recipe in that same vein - Orange Julius is a childhood mall classic, but this version is stained by blood oranges. It tastes almost the same, but it’s just slightly off. There’s something not quite right about it.
BLOOD ORANGE JULIUS
- 1 cup blood orange juice (4-5 oranges)
- 1/2 cup milk or soy milk
- 1 tbsp sugar
- 1 tbsp instant vanilla pudding mix
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- crushed ice
Place all ingredients in a blender except for the ice and blend until smooth. Pour over crushed ice. Feel uneasy.