PROS: Uneasy; disturbing; psychological; traumatic; paranoid-inducing.
CONS: Chronologically confusing; abrupt ending.
BOTTOM LINE: Auerbach took something with childish innocence and twisted into a haunting tale of obsession. I look forward watching Auerbach improve with future works that are bound to give me nightmares.
I love the horror film genre but I don’t have a high opinion of it. My generation’s horror films tend to be knock-offs of popular Asian movies or torture porn. I’ve never found slashers particularly scary, and as such I don’t view the previous generation’s iconic villains (Jason Vorhees, Michael Myers, or Freddy Krueger) with much respect. I find the best horror to be the low-key, the mundane, and the psychological. For this reason I’m a big fan of The Blair Witch Project and I only wish I could have seen it in theaters when it was believed to be a true story. What brilliant marketing that was. The point of all this is that despite my infatuation with the genre I tend to avoid novels fitting under this category. It’s one thing to spend an hour and a half laughing as college kids get hacked to pieces due to their own stupidity on the big screen. It’s another thing to dedicate several hours to reading about it.
Penpal was recommended to me by Amazon. Given the short nature of the story (252 pages) and the multitudes of praise (123 reviews at the moment and a five-star rating) I decided it was a risk I was willing to take. Apparently Penpal was written on Reddit as a series of short stories and then compiled into novel format after a super successful Kickstarter campaign. It took a week to finish Penpal, a large amount of time given the size of the book and my usual voracity for reading. The problem wasn’t that I couldn’t get into Penpal, in fact quite the opposite. The problem is that I had to force myself to stop reading before I went to bed every night for fear that this would infect my dreams. Auerbach’s words have a frightening tendency to linger on in your thoughts long after you have torn your eyes from the page.
Penpal starts off with an insightful discussion on the subject of memory. The whole structure of the novel revolves around this realistic portrayal of the narrator’s own memory and his investigation into the past, told from the first person perspective. From the beginning it is clear that the narrator has suffered some sort of trauma but the nature of said trauma remains murky. The majority of the novel takes place between the narrator’s kindergarten and 1st grade school years. This automatically heightens the suspense. As desensitized as our culture has become no one will bat an eye at the dismemberment of an adult but just the implication of a child in danger automatically sets one on edge. This recollection of the narrator’s childhood has strengths and weaknesses. The dialogue is limited and I have to applaud Auerbach for keeping it that way. How is someone ever going to remember every sentence they said as a child? What is spoken is short and to the point. The characterization is also limited because of the nature of the narration but for once this didn’t bother me. I didn’t feel like I was reading about someone else’s childhood so much as remembering my own. I developed a connection with the narrator’s friend Josh, largely through transference, and the same could be said about the narrator’s mother. On the downside the order of events can be confusing as times. I don’t think Auerbach messed up by telling the story in the order that he did but I had trouble remembering which event happened when.
The narration pieces the puzzle out of chronological order, keeping the suspense high throughout. The horrible chain of events begins with something as simple and playful as a balloon. The narrator is careful not to give too much away too soon. As a child he recognizes that some things are wrong but it isn’t until much later that the full scope of the horror is revealed. Readers will likely figure out what is going on long before the ending but that won’t lessen the intensity of each new revelation any. I will say that the conclusion is rather abrupt. I must have been completely absorbed in the story by this point because I didn’t even realize how near I was to finishing. When the ending came it left a little to be desired. It was at once conclusive and lacking in finality.
Penpal is twisted like an evil pretzel and proof positive that you don’t need excessive gore and violence to thrill and captivate. Auerbach turns seemingly innocent, mundane things into disturbing parodies. I will never be able to look the same way at balloons, or Polaroids, or woods, or movie theaters ever again. Penpal really ratcheted up my sense of paranoia. It’s the perfect candidate for a low-budget indie film. With the right director I would put money on it winning awards at film festivals, and given the growing cult following I could see it getting national attention. If something as stupendously boring as Paranormal Activity can freak people out and rake in millions from the box office then a movie adaption of Penpal would be solid gold. Despite some slight hiccups, Penpal is a fantastic horror novel. The thrills come from very real scenarios and I guarantee that you will be left considering the novel long after you finish reading it. I look forward to Auerbach’s next chilling foray into fiction.
And if anyone has good horror recommendations that fit my preferences please leave them below in the comments, thanks!