“When I was younger, I took a job at a deli that had what the owner called an ‘ice cream buffet’.”

I’ve never been involved in Reddit, and to be honest, I still only have a vague idea of how the website functions, but one aspect that has become well known to me is the area of it dedicated to creepy stories. Some of the best are their “two sentence horror stories”. If you’ve never encountered these, then you can find a selection here, but be warned that they’re pretty good at sending a shiver up the spine. I mention this because it turns out that Penpal was inspired by a horror story on Reddit that Dathan Auerbach converted into a full-length novel. And boy does it retain it’s creepy beginnings. Read on with caution.

Our nameless hero is trying to piece together some memories from his childhood. It all began with a school project that went awry. Every five-year-old in the class had to release a helium balloon into the sky with their name and the address of the school attached to begin a “pen pal” relationship with someone in their community. But as the days go on and he gets no reply, our hero wonders if anyone got it at all. Until one day a response comes, but it’s just a single, blurry Polaroid. Then another one arrives. And another. And almost fifty more. So many, in fact, that he stops looking at them. But then one day he decides to take a look again and notices something shocking.

He’s in all of them.

Revealing all to his mother, she sets about protecting him from a potential threat, but there are more memories coming forward now. He remembers waking up in the woods by his house with no memory of how he got there. He remembers his best friend Josh, and the unfortunate distance that grew between them. He remembers the kitten that used to hide in the crawlspace of their house. And he remembers the terrible accident. Finally confronting his mother about it all now he’s an adult, he learns more and soon the memories begin to make sense, but perhaps it would simply have been better to forget…

This book is utterly chilling. The fact that someone is out there taking photos of a small child – and then sending them to him, no less – is terrifying enough, but all the other things that happen just make it so much worse. It’s more polished and much longer than the usual horror stories like this that gather in the cracks online – and, to be fair, some of those are excellently written already – and Auerbach laces with incredible precision a sense of unease throughout. At times you can see where it’s going, but it doesn’t soften the blow, merely makes it worse when the inevitable finally happens. I can’t even get enraged that the children don’t sound like children, because I was so involved that it didn’t matter. It just works.

For anyone who likes horror or a good thriller, this is definitely one to read, but I don’t recommend reading this one at night or in a forest – and if you decide to read it in a forest at night, then I’ve no option but to have you committed. A brilliantly executed piece of tension.

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