“Penpal” by Dathan Auerbach (2012)


“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.

“The Fourth Bear” by Jasper Fforde (2006)

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fourth bear“The little village of Obscurity is remarkable only for its unremarkableness.”

Last month I started my travels back through the books of Jasper Fforde with The Big Over Easy, and so here I am with the sequel, The Fourth Bear. Although the two are different enough and there shouldn’t be many – if any – spoilers here, you should still read them in order as most of the world-building and early character introductions have already taken place.

Last time, we were dealing with the fall of Humpty Dumpty, and this time there’s another well-known case to deal with – the breaking and entering of the Three Bears’ cottage. The tale opens with investigative reporter Henrietta “Goldilocks” Hatchett looking into a story about extreme cucumber growing. When she gets a strange call from Stanley Cripps, grower of one of Britain’s largest cucumbers, worried that his prize possession is about to be stolen, she finds herself drawn into something much bigger than herself, and a short time later, she’s dead too.

DCI Jack Spratt of the Nursery Crime Division is asked by Goldilocks’ brother, the vile journalist Josh Hatchett, to look into the case. Soon Spratt and his assistants – the contrary Mary Mary and the alien Ashley – find themselves deep in Anderson’s Wood, looking for the last place Golidlocks was seen.

But Spratt has got other things to worry about than just this. Not only has he technically been suspended from duty after a debacle involving Red Riding Hood and a wolf, he’s just bought a strange car off a man who has now disappeared, Punch and Judy have moved in next door, the antropomorphic bears of Reading are involved in the underground trade of porridge and honey, the World-War-I themed amusement park SommeWorld is readying itself for opening, the psychopathic biscuit the Gingerbreadman has escaped from his asylum, and Jack’s wife is dangerously close to finding out that he himself is a nursery rhyme character.

While The Big Over Easy is liberally sprinkled with nursery rhyme and fairy tale characters, here there are far fewer. It also does away entirely with the premise that the detectives are trying their best to be readable, and their adventures are written up in magazines and enjoyed by all. However, the book is clearly more influenced by the Thursday Next novels, Fforde’s best known series, which deal with storytelling. The fourth wall is shaky at best, with some of the characters apparently aware that they’re in a story. Jack’s therapist is dealt with when he realises she’s just a threshold guardian stopping him from getting on with his job. The reader is told to just accept a far-fetched theory late in the book without any question. And at one point, Jack and Mary break character to even insult Fforde himself.

While there are fewer characters from nursery rhymes here, we get other fictional characters, such as Dorian Grey, Caliban (from The Tempest) and Mrs Danvers, though the appearance of the latter will make more sense to those who’ve read the Thursday Next books. Again, this one makes a lot more sense if you’ve read those first, but is still enjoyable on its own level without. The jokes are nonetheless still funny, and while it takes the piss out of police procedural novels, it works as one just as well. Ashley is given more depth than in the first book, and he’s truly wonderful, and the addition of Punch and Judy who love each other but have beaten each other senseless every day for the last three hundred years is a masterpiece. And the Gingerbreadman remains one of the most terrifying villains in literature, with his taunts that he cannot be caught. Cautionary tales and nonsense poetry also come into their own here, and anyone with knowledge of Edward Lear’s poem “The Quangle Wangle’s Hat” may be quicker at picking up references.

There’s so much going on here and while it is a really good book, and very, very smart, it remains I think my least favourite of Fforde’s adult novels. That’s not to say I don’t like it, I do, and his books are all of a high standard and plotted to absolute perfection, but with the lack of many of the things set up in the first novel, it lacks something and feels more stand-alone.

The series, unfortunately, ends here. The back of the book declares that the characters will return in The Last Great Tortoise Race, but that was a decade ago now, and the book still shows no sign of appearing. Fforde originally stated that it would be a trilogy, but either his attention is focused on his other series’, or we were to take a joke midway through this book about the series never seeing its end as a foreshadow. Maybe one day we’ll return to Jack and Mary, because I for one am not done with them.

“Macbeth” and “As You Like It” by William Shakespeare (1599 – 1606)

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This post is an unusual one as it is for two books, both of which were too similar to really warrant pages of their own. Last year I reviewed (individually) manga versions of two of Shakespeare’s plays; Henry VIII and Much Ado About Nothing. I return here with two more.

macbeth“Macbeth” by William Shakespeare (1606)

“When shall we three meet again?”

Macbeth is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays, and one I studied at school more years ago than I care to think about. Along with Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet, it is probably his most famous play, and even if you’ve never read or seen it, you’ll know some of the quotes and characters from it.

While the text of the play remains the same here as in the original, the setting has been entirely changed, now taking place in a post-apocalyptic nuclear wasteland as the survivors, many of whom are mutants, fight for dominance over the landscape. So, not Denmark then.

Most people, I think, will know the story, but for those unfamiliar with it, Macbeth is spoken to by three witches who tell him that while he is already Thane of Glanis, he will soon become Thane of Cawdor and then later, he will be king. They also tell his friend Banquo that, while he won’t be a king, his descendants will be. After originally dismissing their prophecies as nonsense, Macbeth is soon made Thane of Cawdor, leading him to believe that what the witches said was true.

He begins to conspire to take the throne from Duncan and, egged on by his power-hungry wife, the infamous Lady Macbeth, sets plans in motion to kill anyone who may get in his way. Once Duncan is dead, he takes the crown. But in doing so, he has made many enemies, and the witches convince him that he is invincible with a smartly-worded prophecy. Meanwhile, he has started to see ghosts, and Lady Macbeth has started to go mad with the knowledge of what she and her husband have done.

It doesn’t end well.

Macbeth is rightly one of the best known plays, and I think it helps because it’s one of the shortest (2477 lines compared to Hamlet‘s 4024) and easiest to understand. It’s simply a story, I feel, of how knowing the future can drive one mad. The appearance in the story of prophecies and ghosts are taken as read, and they aren’t there to be questioned. While a lot of it is about men fighting and basically having a pissing contest regarding who is most powerful and who will have the best legacy, it’s arguably the few female characters who make the story what it is. The Weird Sisters put the whole plot in motion, and Lady Macbeth is perhaps the most interesting and recognisable woman (after Juliet, maybe) in the Shakespearean canon.

While I like the graphic novel format (plays are a visual medium, after all), and it made for an interesting take on the story to set it somewhere completely new, I think that the manga format works slightly better for the comedies. Which brings us to…

as you“As You Like It” by William Shakespeare (1599)

“As I remember, Adam, it was bequeathed me by a will a thousand crowns to breed me well.”

Before coming to As You Like It, I knew just three things about it. Firstly, that it was a comedy. Secondly, that it contains the “all the world’s a stage” speech. And thirdly, it involved a lot of trees. I always prefer the comedies over the tragedies and histories, and I’d chosen this one because it seems to be one, as I just demonstrated, that gets forgotten and people don’t necessarily know a lot about.

In this tale, we have all the usual tropes of a Shakespeare comedy – boys dressed as girls, love at first sight, sibling rivalry, a happy wedding-centric ending, and so on. Orlando and Rosalind fall in love and, while both of aristocratic circles, they meet once and then are split. Rosalind is banished from the lands of Duke Frederick, her tyrannical uncle and in an act of solidarity, his daughter and Rosalind’s best friend, Celia, leaves with her. Rosalind disguises herself as a man, Ganymede, and Celia becomes her sister. They also take with them the court fool, Touchstone, and head off into the Forest of Ar-Den.

Orlando, too, must leave his home or he will be killed by his brother Oliver, and he also powers into the Forest with his trusted servant Old Adam. In the forest, couples meet and part ways, Orlando writes poetry, Rosalind must not reveal herself to him, and Jaques, the most melancholic lord of the sixteenth century presides over everything, sharing his opinion and generally moaning about being melodramatic.

Though I actually sort of hate being the person who says this about Shakespeare, but it did genuinely make me laugh on a few occasions. It’s incredible skill that four hundred years later and in an old-fashioned form of language, Shakespeare has managed to write something that can still make us chuckle today. The biggest laughs come from Touchstone, the fool, and Jaques who was emo long before that was even a thing. I also adore the relationship between Rosalind and Celia, which borders on more than platonic from time to time, but is realised better than many female friendships in modern movies.

It comes to it that this might have just become a Shakespeare play that I really like, and the manga styling works really well for it. Again, the setting has been updated, this time to “an Oriental … post-modern city”, but like most of Shakespeare’s works, this could really be set anywhere.Well done, William, another cracking performance.