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Horror isn’t my jam. I like to sleep too much to intentionally read anything that interrupts that process. However, this year has been about extending myself and choosing to read outside my comfort zone.
I was intentionally searching for a horror novel that looked like if I read it I could still sleep at night. Through many positive reviews I found Penal by Dathan Auerbach. It looked mild. Like scary, but distant enough that I wouldn’t call a priest in to perform an exorcism on my dog.
The story begins as a six-year-old boy’s kindergarten class releases balloons with letters in them. The idea is the balloon would pop somewhere, somebody will find the letter and write back, and the student would gain a penal. The narrator (we don’t learn his name until the end) sends his balloon off but is disappointed as classmates receives letters back and he does not. Eventually he receives his reply and it is not what anyone expected.
What happens afterwards is a story of obsession, poor parenting and genuine disturbing horror.
Although it follows the same central character every chapter is stand alone story that has a feel of a creepy campfire tale. Each chapter also contains twist often involving a seemingly inoculate object (a balloon, a Polaroid, a can of cat food, a float etc).
This book is hard to describe the creepiness without giving spoilers, but the ending was unexpected and truly disturbing.
What makes the book scary is the stand alone chapters (it was originally a creepypasta thread on Reddit). The author has an ability to write suspenseful stories in short blurbs that kept you off-balance. It made me feel as confused as I imagine the main character felt. Additionally, anytime an everyday object is used to induce horror it sticks with you and reminds you of those scared feelings every time you read. This book had plenty of that.
However, it didn’t terrify me like, say, the exorcist did (after the exorcist I sleep with my light on and a Bible. There are still times I wake up at 3am and feel scared because it’s the witching hour). But, then again, the exorcist hits my own personal fears revolving around the church, evil and satan. I see a lot of terrifying, messed up things done to children in the hospital, so this felt a little like an unfortunate day at the office. Keeping that in mind I imagine it would be much scarier if I was a mother and it hit that particular fear button.
At least I felt it wasn’t all that terrifying when I finished the book. However, over the next couple weeks I found it had some staying power, haunting me a little bit and making me look over my shoulder. Major points to Auerbach for crafting a story that bites you days later.
Read it if:
- You like the creepypasta feel. This book is mainly short stories (about the same character) strung together. I’ll warn you though, many people preferred the Reddit posts because the author seems to have more talent as a short story writer than a novelist.
- You want to be more than mildly disturbed. I didn’t expect it, but this book stuck with me longer than I thought. It didn’t keep me awake at night, but I felt unsettled for a while.
Skip it if:
- You have a hard time follow disjointed plot lines. This book skips around a lot, each chapter goes forward and backward in time.
- You have children. Seriously, I think it would have really bothered me if I had a 5-8 year old at home. It terrifying because it’s written as a true story. It has a very “Blair Witch” feel about it.
What to Read Next if You Loved Penpal
If you loved the creepy forest Vibe try: Dweller by Jeff Strand
If you loved the short stories that are connected try: Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales by Yoko Ogawa
If you want another creepypasta author try: Cold, Thin Air: A Collection of Twisted Tales by C.K. Walker
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