Literature / Pen Pal
How much do you remember about your childhood?
started as a series of short stories by Dathan Auerbach about the childhood of one young man (unnamed in the stories, called "Dathan" out-of-universe) that were posted as an online horror story on Reddit
. It quickly drew popularity from its readers and soon there were illustrations, audio recordings, and short films made of it. Then it was revised and expanded to be turned into a full length book.
The story of Pen Pal
is a young man, in an attempt to understand his childhood, investigates seemingly unrelated, strange, horrifying, and soul-crushingly tragic events that occurred over the course of his life. Beginning from his early days in kindergarten and persisting well into his teen years, he discovers that these incidents are actually connected as a single frightening tale that have molded his entire life and affected everyone around him. Ever played in the woods a little too long after dark? Ever had the feeling that you being watched, and by someone with less than noble intentions? Do you remember the first friend you ever made and how strong that bond was? Well, then Pen Pal
has something for you, and it is a journey you won't soon forget. Though, you might just try, anyway.
Also, make sure to bring a box of tissues
The book is divided into six chapters, Footsteps
, and Friends
The book is available here
You can listen to an online dramatic reading here
, by Mr. Creepypasta of The Midnight Society
Pen Pal has examples of:
- Adaptation Expansion: The book adds some information on to the original version. A lot of it is just lengthening of parts already in the story, but some information is added and/or changed, too. For example:
- Dathan's friend Chris (the one whose house he stays at on the night of his ill-fated trip to the movies to see Veronica) is given a bit of backstory.
- The part where Dathan and Josh find the pool float while looking for Boxes plays out differently. Instead of Dathan kicking the float which startles a rat that scares Josh, Josh is scared when a group of spiders who've made their home on the float begin crawling on him.
- A part is added where Dathan details his first time meeting Mrs. Maggie, and also gives a lot of new information about her and her late husband Tom. The actual significance of the pool float is explained too. In the original, there's no reason given for it being present in the woods; the book reveals that it was a present from Mrs. Maggie to Josh and Dathan that was later stolen by the stalker. This actually creates a minor Plot Hole, because it is never explained why Dathan doesn't seem to recognize it when he ends up in the woods, even though that happened around the same time, or why he and Josh still don't recognize it when they go into the woods later to look for Boxes.
- It is explained why Josh's family has a different phone number by the time Dathan meets Veronica: after Josh goes missing, his family receives prank calls from people pretending to know where he is. They have the number transferred to a friend to act as a buffer, because they don't want to deal with that but also don't want to just change it.
- Adult Fear: This isn't a supernatural horror story. It's much, much worse.
- Anachronic Order: The chapters aren't organized by sequential date, but rather come as revelations as the narrator remembers more, or asks his mother for information.
- And I Must Scream: Josh. Poor, poor Josh. His relationship with the narrator causes the stalker to turn his focus towards him. The stalker kidnaps Josh, leaving a note on his pillow that states he has "run away" so there won't be an investigation. For two years, the stalker detains Josh doing God knows what to him (the narrator himself states he doesn't allow himself to think about what must have happened), all the while pretending Josh is the narrator; he dyes his hair and forces him to wear the narrator's old clothes. Ultimately, the stalker decides he wants to go out with a bang and ends up paying Josh's own father to unknowingly fill up the hole he is going to place himself and Josh in. When their bodies are found, it's clear that Josh was still alive when he was buried and was being embraced by his kidnapper and torturer. It's no wonder Josh's father basically has a mental breakdown when he finds the scene and realizes that what he thought was some ordinary construction work led to his son's death.
- Antagonist Title: The titular "penpal" in the story is an insane pedophile who stalks the narrator.
- Artistic Licence: Paedophiles have very narrow tastes in victims, especially when it comes to age. A paedophile who became obsessed with Dathan when he was five would be really unlikely to still have any interest in him by the time he turned seven, let alone remain fixated on him all the way to fourteen. But 'and then the guy just lost interest and went away' would make for a much less scary story.
- The Bad Guy Wins: The stalker terrorizes the narrator for years, killing several of his loved ones, and at the end, he dies blissfully with Josh-dressed-as-the-narrator.
- Bad People Abuse Animals: The stalker kills Dathan's pet cat.
- Bond Breaker: The stalker's actions cause Dathan and Josh's friendship to suffer greatly, and puts a lot of strain on his relationship with his mother.
- Camera Fiend: The stalker is a villainous (and frightening) example. He takes countless candid photos of Dathan while stalking him (at least fifty), and also takes Josh and Veronica's pictures before kidnapping and killing them respectively.
- Character Blog: The story started as a series of posts written in-character on Reddit. The author would even respond to comments in character, sometimes offering up new information.
- Chekhov's Gun: Josh and Dathan are said to be strikingly similar, to the point where Dathan's mother says that the only way she can tell the two of them apart is by their hair. So when the stalker can't have Dathan, he settles for Josh, dying his hair to match Dathan's and dressing him in Dathan's old clothes.
- Children Are Innocent: Josh and Dathan are honestly just two sweet little kids. Josh may be a bit of a trouble maker, but he's honestly a nice kid. He even tell Dathan he has a surprise for him for his next birthday, only to learn that the present he had planned was the completed map from the "Maps" chapter.
- Crazy Jealous Guy: The stalker. He goes after several of Dathan's loved ones, including his potential girlfriend, for no other reason than that they are close to him. He even kills his cat.
- Dead Person Impersonation: The stalker steals Veronica's phone when she dies in the hospital and begins a brief text message relationship with Dathan while claiming to be her. He doesn't find out who he's really talking to until his mother tells him that the real Veronica died weeks ago.
- Diary: The story is told in the first person by the main character writing down the results of his investigation into his past.
- Disappeared Dad: Dathan's dad is not in the picture, and is never mentioned in either the original story, or the expanded novel version. A lot of people believed that the stalker would turn out to be him. It doesn't. Also, Dathan responded to a comment in-character on Reddit stating that his parents never got married, but he still kept in contact with his dad regularly. So he's mostly just "disappeared" in the sense that he never shows up in the story.
- Don't Go in the Woods: The first story has our protagonist wake up in the woods, not knowing how he got there. Future sojourns into the woods spell danger for anyone involved.
- Double Meaning Title: A couple. "Boxes" is the name of the narrator's cat and also what they find in the abandoned house, full of his clothes. "Screens" refers to movie screens as well as the screen separating the narrator from Veronica in the hospital.
- Downer Ending: Dathan learns about how his childhood basically ruined the lives of the people around him, specifically his friend Josh, who was taken by the stalker because of their similar appearance and was buried alive with him by his own father, as well as the stalker killing his pet cat, his kind old neighbor from his old neighborhood, and Josh's sister. The story also implies that Josh's family will never recover from the loss of their children and Dathan's relationship with his mother becomes strained by the fact she kept the events from him for so many years.
- Foreshadowing: When Dathan and Josh end up at the spot with the pool float, Dathan notes a deep hole that wasn't there the last time he found himself there. Years later, the stalker would have Josh and himself buried alive.
- Idiosyncratic Episode Naming: Each chapter is named after a single plural noun that is relevant to its respective story.
- Karma Houdini: The stalker gets almost exactly what he wanted in the end, and explicitly died smiling. Dathan reflects on the injustice and cruelty of the world.
- Nice Job Breaking It, Hero!: Nice job not telling Dathan about the stalker or getting more involved with the police, Dathan's mom!
- No Name Given: The protagonist and the stalker's names are never given in-story, although the protagonist is called "Dathan" (after the author) by fans.
- Nothing Is Scarier
- See Present Absence below. It makes the stalker a whole lot more frightening.
- The death of Miss Maggie. We don't get any graphic detail, but her body came out in garbage bags.
- Present Absence: Dathan's stalker is never seen, described, or even identified, and only has one real line in the story.
- Reality Ensues: Arguably the most horrifying aspect of the story is how realistic it is.
- Red Herring: At the beginning of Screens, Dathan brings up a kid named Alex who had a crush on Josh's sister Veronica and wants Josh to tell her for him. Aside from asking Veronica if Josh ever actually told her about him, Alex is never mentioned again and served only to segue into the subject of Veronica.
- It was almost implied that Mrs. Maggie might have been the stalker based on her senility and confusing Dathan and Josh for her sons. The boys also point out how despite her friendliness, she always gave a creepy vibe and Dathan's mom always told him to never go into her house whenever she invites him in. Her innocence is made clear when the stalker murders her to get closer to Dathan.
- Replacement Goldfish: The stalker kidnaps Josh and pretends that Josh is the narrator for an unknown amount of time. He even makes Josh dye his hair and wear the narrator's clothes.
- Sanity Slippage: Josh's mom goes through this after Veronica dies. It forces her to quit her job and causes her to wander around the neighborhood at night looking for her missing/dead kids.
- Stalker Shrine: At the end of "Boxes", Dathan and Josh find out the stalker has broken into his old abandoned house after they moved and took his childhood clothes (that he left behind packed in boxes) and hung them back up in the closet and pasted numerous photos he took of Dathan on the walls.
- Stalker with a Crush: Of the most horrifying variety. The unseen main antagonist of the story is an obsessed pedophile that began stalking Dathan when the boy was five. It started with a kindergarten project to release balloons with a letter and picture of the child who sent it. The purpose was for whoever received the balloons to take pictures of the area they live in and mail them back. Dathan's came to him. Instead of following the instructions in the letter, the stalker instead tracked it to the source and began stalking Dathan for about ten years and killed anyone who got too close to the boy. The victims included a sweet old woman who always watched over Dathan, the family cat, his best friend, and later, Dathan's potential girlfriend.
- While the reason for his actions may seem to be For the Evulz, Dathan's mother states that, upon looking at his dead body, he looked like an ordinary man in love. This arguably makes him even more terrifying, since he must have thought that he was truly being romantic while stalking Dathan and killing anyone whom he thought got in the way of their love. There's sick, and then there's FUBAR.
- They Look Just Like Everyone Else!: The stalker. It is specifically stated that he looks like a normal guy rather than some kind of psychopathic lunatic as one might expect him to. The only description we get of him is that he's larger than Josh's dad, who is stated to be pretty big himself.