I found the novel version of Dathan Auerbach’s creepypasta-turned-cult-hit Penpal almost by chance online one day. It was sold as a puzzle of sorts, where the protagonist and the reader learn pieces to some great, terrible truth about their past. The information was scarce, but it had me sold. It’s cheap, and it doesn’t take long to read, so I bought it and proceeded to read it in about a day through the course of two sittings. It hit me with the weight of a train that’s gone off the rails, and I’ve read it again since then, and honestly, that second time, where I knew everything that was coming, did nothing to diminish the story’s terrifying impact. Today, I’d like to discuss exactly why that is.
Before we continue, I firmly believe that this is a horror novel that works best when you know as little as possible about it going in. It hits harder that way. I’m going to be discussing the full plot of Penpal and would encourage you to read it before reading this article. It doesn’t take long, and there’s a shorter, free version available on the creepypasta wiki.
It turns out that the broad premise is that the narrator, who is never named or given a gender (although fans have taken to referring to them as Dathan after the author), once participated in a penpal project in kindergarten where his whole class wrote a letter to a stranger and let it go while tied to a balloon. A lot of their classmates receive responses that eventually stop, but the narrator instead receives cryptic pictures in the mail of seemingly random landmarks from nowhere. These pictures arrive for much longer than anyone else’s penpals, and from there the story is broken into a series of five vignettes of terrifying incidents that happened throughout the narrator’s childhood, before ending on the full story of what actually happened.
Penpal’s creepypasta origins are readily apparent. From the stories I’ve read in that sub-sub-genre, the common theme in the best ones is ambiguity. They aren’t so much stories, per se, with clear resolutions, character motivations, or a strong plot. Instead, they tend to be stories of a person stumbling across something unexplainable and often horrifying.
Creepypastas are, for all intents and purposes, the modern-day equivalent of campfire ghost stories. Thinking back to when I was very young and reading through childrens’ horror stories in collections like Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, the very fact that so many of these horrific things have no explanation is what really captivated me about them. It lets your mind wander and fill in the blanks, and what my young mind conjured was more ethereal and scarier than anything that concrete words could create. These stories gave me a very specific feeling, one of dread. They’re so effective to me because they imply that, no matter how much we come to understand about the world, there is always some dark secret that no one should ever uncover just lurking on the fringes of what we call our society.
This very ambiguity is why Penpal worked so well for me. The brilliant part, though, is that it offers enough explanation to make it scarier than any supernaturally themed creepypasta about a haunted house with no end. No, Penpal instead merges the creepypasta with very real, very sad true crime stories to create something unforgettable, but it does so in a way that feels like any other campfire ghost story. The opening chapter, titled “Footsteps,” sets the eerie, surreal-within-reality tone. The narrator wakes up in his pajamas in the middle of the woods, where there’s a popped pool float sitting on a tree stump. He wanders around, trying to make sense of where he is in the darkness of midnight, and no matter where he goes, it seems that he always comes back to that pool float. Despite taking place in a very real location (the woods behind their house), it feels like we’re reading the narrator’s nightmare, with all that implies. The way the space of the woods is described becomes twisted as the chapter drags on, like the very woods around him are conspiring to keep them lost there forever. Then they hear footsteps, matching their pace, and while they do manage to make it back to their house, where their mom has already called the police, this waking nightmare is just the beginning.
The chapters unfold in a nonlinear order, which means that nailing down the specific timeline of events can be rather confusing. Ultimately, though, the actual order they happened in doesn’t really matter aside from a few details near the end. It’s more like when you’re sitting down with friends you’ve known all your lives and you reminisce on the funny stories from your childhood. The when of something doesn’t matter all that much, just the what of what happened. The difference with Penpal, of course, is that you’re not recalling fun times with the narrator. Instead, you’re learning about their haunted, tragic past.
After that opening, and the chapter where the narrator sends their balloon into the sky, the book introduces Josh, the narrator’s best friend. They go on all kinds of adventures together, with one particularly memorable chapter detailing them building a raft and attempting to map the lake and woods near where they live. They’re exploring and pretending they’re adventurers, but they both see something near the shoreline. They can hear it move, too, and they both brush it off as some wild animal. But eventually, just like in the first chapter, the movement begins keeping pace with them, and they both fear that someone is watching them. Because someone is.
There’s a similar chapter that is actually near the end of the book’s timeline where the narrator has moved out of the old neighborhood for reasons that are at first unclear where they are driven by their mom back to Josh’s place. And even though they live far apart, the distance has done nothing to weaken their friendship. They decide to hit up the narrator’s old house, which has curiously become something of a local haunt. No one has moved in since the narrator and their mom left, and the lawn is overgrown. The narrator’s cat, Boxes, has gone missing, and they think that he has somehow wandered across neighborhoods to go back to his old place.
It’s perhaps the book’s single strongest chapter. It feels evocative of having all the time in the world. Josh and the narrator have an easy rapport, and the way the scenery is described instantly brought me back to when I was a kid in my own neighborhood. But like everything else in Penpal, there’s real darkness hanging over everything—the weight of what actually happened that the reader and the narrator are unsure of. They know it’s there, but they don’t know what it is. Because, as it turns out, someone has been squatting in the narrator’s old house. They go to their old bedroom and find clothes, pictures of themselves at various points in their life. Them playing with Josh, them being lost in the woods. It’s clear that whatever it is that’s haunting the narrator is obsessed with them. And the chapter ends with a simple, gut-punch twist. Someone or something has come into the house. They have to dodge the interloper, and they do manage to get away, but they can’t find Boxes. Josh loses the walkie-talkie they were using to communicate, and when the narrator returns home, they hear Boxes. They think he’s come back. But then they find the source of the meowing, and it’s not Boxes at all. It’s the narrator’s walkie-talkie. Boxes is meowing to them through the device that Josh dropped in the house.
These kinds of twists are simple but used to great effect throughout the story. We find out in the second chapter that the narrator actually moved because they received a postcard in the mail of them playing with Josh, and there was no return address, meaning that whoever sent it is close. The not knowing what’s going on lends a palpable feeling of dread and suspense, and even though a later chapter stretches believability somewhat, this specter continues to dog the narrator even into their teenage years. Until one day, it all stops.
In the final chapter, the narrator recounts a birthday party they had when they were preteens. Josh and they have sort of fallen out, but when Josh comes to the party, it sort of feels like old times. Something is nagging Josh, though, and he promises to the narrator that his birthday gift will be finishing the map they had begun when they were younger. As it turns out, that’s the last time the two of them are together. The narrator moves on and doesn’t quite forget Josh, but their strong bonds of friendship become nothing more than a memory. The penultimate chapter deals with the narrator going on a date with Josh’s older sister, and like everything else, that ends in tragedy when someone runs her down and uses her phone to text them. She dies in the hospital, and Josh seemingly runs away from home soon after that.
Only, this being a horror story, that’s not what happens. Up to this point, the antagonist is entirely unknown. The reader and the narrator are given bits of information that form a rather horrific picture: whoever it was that got the narrator’s letter back when they were in kindergarten has been stalking them throughout their life. We don’t know the nature of this antagonist, just that they formed a fixation with the narrator a long time ago and they are willing to kill for the sake of that obsession. It is, in essence, a culmination of every emotional idea of the boogeyman. That word will mean different things to different people. For some, it might be something that lurks under the bed. For me, it was the shadow of a cape from a Halloween costume I wore when I was very young, whose shape, on restless nights, would take on a more sinister shape. My mind wandered, just as it did while reading Penpal for the first time, trying to figure out just what the hell was going on.
I think that this element, the way that Dathan Auerbach keeps the threat at arm’s length but still makes it scary, is a lot of what makes the book so affecting to me. The suburban setting, the vaguely nostalgic tone, it all resonated with me because, yeah, I’m a ‘burbs baby. When I moved to the house I would grow up in at the age of four, there was a pretty sparse woodland just around the corner from where I lived. As the years went on, that forest disappeared more and more, and today, it’s pretty much one big housing development. In my later high school years, I would wander around the areas that were still being built with friends, and, yes, we would trek into the woods behind those houses, too. The empty shells that would become homes in just another year or two felt special to us. Special to me. Like the narrator in Penpal, I didn’t realize that this place I grew up in was changing until I looked back on it. I didn’t fully grasp that I was making memories that have lasted up until now.
The ambiguity here means the story is relatable. Unnamed protagonists can be tricky to pull off, but here it allows the reader to project themselves onto everything that’s happened. Or, at least, I was able to because it echoed my own childhood. Of course, to the best of my knowledge, there wasn’t something sinister watching me every step of the way while I was growing up like the narrator in Penpal. I had a pretty good childhood, all things considered. No so for the narrator. Sure, there are lots of happy memories sprinkled throughout the book, but there’s also fearful ones, scary ones, ones of kids being confronted with the very real horrors of the world and not being able to process it because, well, they haven’t been around long enough to know just how badly the world can hurt you.
All of the best parts of the novel happen in the woods, and it’s a setting that I downright adore for a horror story. Movies like Pyewacket make outstanding use of their woodland, middle-of-nowhere setting, and I think the reason it’s always resonated so much with me is that some of my absolute favorite and worst memories of growing up happened at a summer camp in the Adirondacks. I went there summer after summer, and each year I’d meet new people and reconnect with familiar faces. At the time, spending a week in the structured setting of a summer camp, but sleeping in the middle of the woods was fun to me. I still enjoy camping to this day, but the wimpy, mile-away-from-civilization camping. The woods, to me, presents infinite possibilities, and that is probably because so much happened to me at that camp each first week of August for six years. I had a lot of laughs. Some tears. And, yes, there were some scary memories too. I didn’t cry while leaving it for the final time before going to college, but I felt sadness about leaving it. I could come back at some point in the future, but I don’t know if it would hold the same significance to me. And I’m scared of that to this day. It’s been nine years since I’ve gone back to that beautiful campground in the Adirondacks, and I’m still trying to figure out if I should go back. A lot has happened in those nine years, and I’m not the same person I once was.
It’s why the ending to Penpal has stuck with me and resonates so strongly with me. In the final chapter, the narrator’s mom finally reveals that, after that birthday party where Josh made a promise, something terrible happened in the woods behind their old house. Josh was out trying to finish that map when he was taken by the stalker that’s been dogging the narrator since kindergarten. Later, it’s revealed that Josh’s dad was paid to dig a hole in the woods, right next to a popped pool float. Josh’s dad and the narrator’s mom go into the woods when Josh goes missing, and they find Josh in that very hole with the thing that’s been haunting the narrator, his mother, and those he loves for such a long time.
And it turns out that this thing, this antagonist who takes on the form of the mythical boogeyman, who, in my mind, began to embody every bad thing I used to be scared of as a kid, is nothing but a man. The man is never given a name, never really described beyond being average looking. This monster that has killed out of jealousy toward others and their relationship with the narrator is just a man, and instead of taking the narrator, Josh gave himself to them instead. Josh sacrificed himself to save his best friend, the same friend with whom he’s fallen out of touch. The grave the stalker paid Josh’s dad to dig was his own, intended to be shared by the narrator.
I don’t know if some people found this ending disappointing, but to me, it just made everything even worse. It wasn’t some ghostly presence, a demon seeking to take the narrator’s soul. It was anybody. It was everybody. Just like how the narrator is never named, and that lets the reader project themselves onto their story, the fact that the villain, the ultimate evil of the narrator’s life is some nobody with no significance drives home the very fact of why this story is so terrifying. He was, to the narrator, what the bear in the woods was to a primitive human.
I’m no psychologist, I haven’t studied human behavior or how the brain works in any direct way, but I know enough from my own life to know that somewhere deep in our brains is the fear that there is, in fact, something lurking just on the corner of our vision, something that’s impossible to see until it’s too late. Primitive humans survived extreme conditions, and that means predators stalking them in the dead of night in forests. Penpal, in not giving us any information about its monster, taps into that part of our brains in the most direct way possible. To me, the best horror is something that reveals a dark truth about our species, and the truth in Penpal is that, regardless of how civilized we may think we are, there are those among us who would do us harm. Predators. And despite how much we might try and defend ourselves, sometimes the predators win.
Strengths and Weaknesses
To say that Penpal is a perfect book is inherently wrong. The quality of the writing fluctuates wildly. Sometimes, in the more action-heavy scenes, it’s supremely effective at putting you in the protagonist’s shoes, at making you feel just as nostalgic but closed in as they are during the memories they recount. Other times, it’s flat-out bad (there’s a line about how the world is a cruel place made crueler by man that really stands out to me), with drawn-out scenes of not much happening. And that’s ignoring the rather generic way the characters are drawn, too. The narrator is given little characterization beyond the fact that they love Josh and whatever else the reader might project onto them. Josh’s sister in the penultimate chapter is a bland love interest, there only to serve the plot. From a purely objective standpoint, the book is middling at best.
But it’s the strengths of those highs, and how it taps into the reader’s own memory, that makes it stand out to me. A story about a child murderer is already going to be dark, but when you weave it in with relatable experiences and a villain who could be anybody, it elevates the subject matter to a story that’s more than the sum of its parts. It taps into the basest fears of most humans (that there’s something you can’t see that intends to do you harm) but makes it feel like a campfire ghost story, told in hushed whispers at bars after a few drinks among the locals. It takes an inherently unbelievable genre, the creepypasta, and grounds it in a reality that is at once a harsh but almost universal feeling.
The idea of someone being able to stalk a kid from afar for years is inherently farfetched, but isn’t that kind of what stories are for? It feels plausible thanks to the way the book twists nostalgia into something more sinister. It’s a coming-of-age horror story that could have been about anyone. It makes me think back to that summer camp I went to when I was younger, and all the memories, both good and bad, that I made there. And it makes me think of those long nights in the woods where I couldn’t sleep and I’d lie awake hearing the noises of the wildlife that was closer than I ever could have guessed, and my mind began to wander and wonder if maybe something that I couldn’t see was getting ready to hurt me. That is, to me, what the most effective horror is all about.