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Book Review: Dathan Auerbach's 'Penpal'


The tale of horror is a tale that has left us somewhat desensitised. A genre that can arguably be considered as old as literature itself; it is unsurprising that many find this well to have all but completely dried up. For this reason, those that undertake the challenge of reinventing this emotive genre and keeping the fear alive deserve recognition.

To stray from complacency and recycled tropes, into the realms of complicated creativity that goes far beyond personal expression, is a feat that requires as much patience and care as it does spontaneity. To balance this time consuming craft with the fleeting freshness of initial imagination is a literary “knife's edge”. Too much of either, and the aspect of fear will rapidly dissipate. The novel 'Penpal' by Dathan Auerbach is a shining example of contemporary horror literature, in which titillation is a laughable concept, replaced by far more unnerving thoughts.

The flow of language boasts an impressive knowledge of story structure; carefully laying out clues, patterns and imagery to convey both a connection with the characters, and a sense of impending dread. There's a very real notion of vulnerability within this story; it reaches beyond childish unease and to the panic and well placed anxiety of adulthood. Not only this, but it shatters the young world of fantasy and safety; as children it's hard for us to imagine scary situations on a real level, instead we find ourselves spooked by concepts of the supernatural. However, in Auerbach's novel, he provides us with a fear that lands itself in a very real and very threatening setting. Whether you're young and impressionable to paranoia, or older and wiser to spooky fantasies, where logic would normally be a realm of comfort and safety, it becomes the element that brings horror to life. Suddenly, nobody is safe.

It is easy enough to create a terrifying scenario with a crazed psychotic sadist on a murdering rampage, or an immaterial demon that cannot be killed, yet rarely do we consider the real dangers that unfortunately thousands of us are at risk from every day; 'Penpal' brings our attention to these real, consistently occurring dangers. It is this proximity of fear that brings the spark of adrenaline and shaking dread from the pages and into our worlds. This novel will have the reader looking over their shoulders, double checking the locks at night and avoiding forests at all costs.

Based on the conclusion, the reader can gather one thing: that the fear we feel is not the fear of danger, pain or loss, but the fear of what might happen after. The real pain that can be felt throughout this story is the aftermath, and what is wrought from the circumstances. There is a highly intelligent and expressive structure, and the author clearly understands the deepest parts of human emotion.

What is unique to the narrative is not only the ending, but the kind of fright it panders to. As stated before, it lies in the realms of reality, a very grounded shade of dread. This is not only apparent in the situation and events, but in the reaction of the characters; in the strained relationships, the breakdowns and the self-doubt. The concise presentation of how this fear unfolds, from blissful ignorance, to traumatic suspicion and finally, the purgatory one is left with, is very carefully designed to bore into our deepest anxieties. The author shows us that the real horror is not about becoming a victim, but about creating one, and realising that the nightmare will never end.

Written by Jennifer Richards

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