Penpal (novel)

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Penpal cover Auerbach.jpg
AuthorDathan Auerbach
CountryUnited States
GenreFiction, horror
Media typePrint, e-book
Pages252 pages

Penpal is a 2012 self-published horror/thriller novel and the debut novel of the American author Dathan Auerbach. The work was first published in paperback on July 11, 2012 through 1000Vultures and is based on a series of popular creepypasta stories that Auerbach posted to Reddit.[1] The book follows the narrator as he finds himself the focus of an obsessed stalker who tracks him throughout his childhood.

Film rights to Penpal were optioned by producer Rich Middlemas in 2012.[2]


Penpal is told via a series of non-linear recollections by an anonymous narrator trying to make sense of mysterious events that happened to him during his childhood, the truth of which was kept from him by his mother all his life.

As a boy in kindergarten, the narrator becomes best friends with another student named Josh. One day, their class conducts a penpal experiment, in which the children tie a letter to a balloon and send it off. Most of the children receive a letter back, but the narrator does not until the very end of the year when polaroids are mailed to him. He realizes all of the photos feature him and his mother calls the police. In the weeks that follow, the narrator receives an old dollar note when selling snow cones with Josh, the same one he’d sent to the Penpal ages ago; and when rafting with Josh one day, he hears the sound of pictures being taken and a drawing of him (with his initials) and the Penpal is left by the side for him to find afterwards.

A few weeks later, an elderly lady with Alzheimer’s in the neighbourhood is murdered, and it is speculated that the Penpal tricked her by pretending he was her dead husband from the war and that he lived with her to get close to the narrator. Later, the narrator awakes in the woods late at night, he can't understand how he got there since his feet are clean. He makes his way home to find that his mom and the police found a note on his bed saying that he wanted to run away. However, the narrator points out that he didn't write it, as his name was misspelled. Alarmed, his mother puts the house on the market and when she discovers the Penpal has made a new home underneath their house, she hides this information from her son but forces them to leave sooner than expected to their new neighbourhood.

Some years later, the narrator's cat named Boxes disappears, prompting him and Josh to sneak out to his old house to see if Boxes is hiding there. In the crawlspace beneath the house, the narrator finds cat food; Josh discovers a room filled with the narrator's clothes and Polaroids of the narrator. Someone begins to chase Josh, who escapes and drops his walkie-talkie. At home, the narrator hears meowing coming from his walkie-talkie, realizing the person in the house abducted Boxes.

Josh attends the narrator's 12th birthday party but seems troubled and says he thinks he's been sleepwalking. Before leaving, he apologizes for not bringing a gift and says he will bring one for next year. The narrator notes that this was the last time he ever saw Josh.

More years pass and the narrator is now a teenager. He runs into Veronica, Josh's older sister, who is initially reluctant to answer any questions about Josh. He goes on a date with her and briefly leaves her alone in the parking lot while he goes to relieve himself. He hears the screeching of tires and returns to the parking lot to discover Veronica has been run over. At the hospital, she reveals that Josh had run away from home years ago with a note on his pillow in the same fashion as the narrator when he was younger. The narrator begins texting with Veronica and she says "I love you." They agree to meet after she's out of the hospital but she doesn't show. At the theater, a man takes the seat the narrator had saved for her. Afterward, he receives a text saying, "See you again, soon." The narrator's mother then reveals that Veronica died weeks ago, and her phone was missing.

One day, a man approaches Josh's dad and offers him money to fill in some holes in his yard. A month later, as he is landscaping the same property, Josh's dad unearths a coffin and hysterically contacts the narrator's mother. Inside the coffin is Josh's dead body, along with the body of a large man holding him tightly. The narrator's mom is horrified to see that they had been alive and Josh had bitten the man's neck in an attempt to get free. Although the man died from bleeding out, Josh couldn't move and eventually died too. Josh's dad realizes it's the same man who paid him to fill in the holes. He had unknowingly buried his son.

The story is then understood: When Josh and the narrator were in kindergarten, a stalker picked up the narrator's balloon and became obsessed with the young boy. One night, he carried the narrator out to the woods and left him there. Still in the old house after the narrator moved away, the stalker saw Josh when the boys were searching for Boxes and became obsessed with him due to his physical similarities to the narrator. He kidnapped Josh the same way he had attempted to kidnap the narrator and left a false note. He held Josh captive for two years and dyed his hair to be the color of the narrator's. He also made Josh wear the narrator's childhood clothes, and stalked the narrator at the movie theater, running over Veronica when he became violently jealous of the narrator's romance. After her death, he stole her phone and texted with the narrator, sitting next to him during their movie "date". He then sedated Josh and had Josh's dad unwittingly bury them alive with Josh dressed as the narrator so the man would be with him forever.

In present day, the now-adult narrator thanks his mother for finally revealing this to him. He confesses he'll never know why the man kidnapped Josh instead of him, but guesses the man simply didn't have the courage. He reflects on Josh and how he almost wishes that he and Josh never became friends if it meant Josh would still be alive. He expresses his guilt, as Josh's family knew nothing of his involvement in this, and ends with saying he loves Josh and cherishes all of the memories he had of them when they were young.


The story line for Penpal is based on a series of stories that Auerbach posted to the subreddit "No Sleep" under the username 1000Vultures.[3][4] Auerbach posted the first story, "Footsteps", to r/nosleep in March 2010, where it received a large positive response.[5] He had initially meant for "Footsteps" to be a standalone story, but Auerbach chose to continue writing more stories following the same protagonist due to reader demand.[5] Each story was narrated by the same protagonist and each one opened with the same format, where the protagonist responded to a question posted by one of the readers.[2] During this time Auerbach also responded to user posts while in character as the protagonist.[2] Auerbach continued to post more stories and eventually chose to expand the Reddit stories into a full length novel.[1]

To finance the book's publication Auerbach chose to raise funds via a Kickstarter campaign, which raised $15,946.[4] He then published the book under his own imprint, 1000Vultures, after his Reddit username.[1][4]

In an interview with Auerbach, he explained how he came up with the original idea for the short story "Footsteps", which would later be tuned into the full novel "Penpal". He stated that it came from a childhood memory: "My mom denies that this ever happened, but as a kid I distinctly remember waking up on my porch outside, cold and in my underwear. My mom insists that it couldn't have possibly happened, so I guess I'll never know. But I've carried that memory around for years." He also explained how the fear of someone scooping him up in broad daylight and taking him away from his parents was always a prominent worry he had growing up, and one that would constantly manifest itself into his nightmares. He described how these experiences, mixed with the idea that "people can't perfectly remember everything from their childhood," served as "the impetus for 'Footsteps'." From here, his stories were woven together, creating a main character thrust into the very situations that the author feared himself.[6]


SF Signal rated Penpal at four stars and wrote "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."[7]

The novel was greatly received by critics as well as fans. Because so many people had followed the individually released stories that Penpal contains for so long on, Auerbach was able to open a Kickstarter to raise money to get the book independently published. Auerbach explains in an interview held by that the reason he believes his novel was so well-received from horror fans was because the idea of a stalker hunting you down is such a raw and human fear. Because there is nothing supernatural or fantastical about the situation, it becomes very real and readers are able to sympathize with the main character that much more. He states that "If the initial success of Footsteps had gone unoticed, I probably would not have continued writing the rest of the stories to continue it." [8]


  1. ^ a b c Barone, Matt. ""Penpal" Author Dathan Auerbach: From Anonymous Reddit Poster to Published Novelist". Complex. Retrieved 1 April 2015.
  2. ^ a b c Shaw-Williams, Hannah. "Redditor's Creepy Story Series Optioned For Film By Oscar-Winning Producer". Bleeding Cool. Retrieved 1 April 2015.
  3. ^ Beggs, Scott. "Another Reddit Writer Gets a Movie Development Deal". Film School Rejects. Retrieved 1 April 2015.
  4. ^ a b c "Penpal Kickstarter". Kickstarter. Retrieved 1 April 2015.
  5. ^ a b Fenn, Mike. "How a Reddit horror story hit Hollywood". Daily Dot. Retrieved 1 April 2015.
  6. ^ -
  7. ^ Sharps, Nick. "Book Review: Penpal by Dathan Auerbach". SF Signal. Retrieved 1 April 2015.
  8. ^

External links[edit]

Original Reddit stories[edit]

  1. Footsteps
  2. Balloons
  3. Boxes
  4. Maps
  5. Screens
  6. Friends