A man examines his childhood and the bizarre occurrences that seemed unrelated yet told of a bigger story, like the time he awoke in the middle of the woods, or when a first date didn’t go to plan. As he attempts to gain understanding from fragments of memory and hindsight, he has to confront the secrets, loss, and grief that influenced his life as well as those around him.
(WARNING: This review contains minor spoilers.)
Knowing that Penpal was originally posted on a Reddit forum (r/nosleep) piqued my curiosity a lot, as even though I wasn’t familiar with the short, interconnected stories that had gained a large following, I had to wonder how it all came together in the form of a novel. Creepypasta has its appeal, but usually the point is to expand on an idea through the use of a devoted community, so confining it to a novel would in turn sacrifice much of that evolution, essentially relying on the bare bones experience. I’d say the execution worked fairly well in an imperfect kind of way, at least from my perspective of it, but then I’ve always enjoyed the formula of childhood retellings where innocence is shattered by something the protagonist isn’t equipped to deal with; it’s that struggle I ultimately look for. The individual stories here definitely fit the bill, it had its wholesome adventures of friendship while offering morsels of something more sinister, and it even took some effort on my part in trying to piece together the unfolding mystery as it was told by the anonymous narrator. Instead of a linear path that led from point A to B as would typically be expected in any book, Auerbach went back and forth in the timeline of his protagonist’s youth, detailing weird incidents that he didn’t understand at the time. There was a great sense of foreboding throughout, and moments that legitimately creeped me out, especially one particular segment that involved his best friend’s sister. I won’t go into specifics, but it made my skin crawl.
This isn’t to say it didn’t have issues for me personally, as there’s no denying the format was disjointed and confusing, with several aspects you could consider plot holes or just altogether irrelevant. I closed its cover with questions I didn’t have answers for, despite how much I speculated and pondered, but in the end I suppose the puzzle became clearer… when I read its Wikipedia page. Now, I don’t believe it should be required to look outside a book for it to make sense – everything should be included in the work itself for a cohesive read – but then it’s just another problem in translating forum-based fiction. Still, I rated it highly due to how it made me feel, both unnerved and invested, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it for a while. I’ve read so many books where the woods have played a significant role, and even if it’s a common theme, it still delivers a certain type of atmosphere that I like. There was also a point I wanted to shed a tear or two, and I find it a special occasion when something affects me emotionally.
In conclusion: Flawed yet absorbing, Penpal mixed things up with interlinked short stories that acted as pieces of a larger puzzle, depicting an unnamed protagonist’s childhood and the disturbing events that seemed to revolve around him, most notably the presence of an obsessed stalker. As it turns out, things weren’t so straight-forward, and I often had to take the time to orientate myself with the back and forth of the unpredictable chronology, but overall it was worth it, as I felt compelled to discover not only the fate of the narrator, but the outcome of his friendship as well. Some scenes downright unsettled me with its subtle eeriness, but I’d say that a lot of the scares could be found from reading in between the lines. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, that much is apparent when skimming reviews, but Auerbach definitely made an impression on me.
Sometimes forgetting is the gift that we give ourselves.
© Red Lace 2021