New Reviews

Dathan Auerbach ‘Penpal’ Review


Written by: Matt Molgaard

During my quest for great fiction I’ve discovered some grand slams and some embarrassing strikeouts. I’ve discovered new novelists, and become familiarized with veterans who had long evaded my attention. The insanely popular social outlet has proven a fantastic tool with which to share my writing, but it’s also introduced me to a few aspiring authors, and one damn talented individual by the name of Dathan Auerbach.

After checking out a few of the reviews I’ve posted here on, Dathan reached out to me with a personal request: would I be willing to give his novel, Penpal a look and, possibly a review? I love the unknown: therefore my answer was an emphatic yes. My decision to examine Auerbach’s inaugural effort proved not only time worthy, but insanely fruitful. This is a hauntingly rewarding novel that I’ll read again in the future.

The story, which entangles readers and seizes complete attention early, functions on a multifarious level and is assembled in unorthodox but well calculated fashion. First off, our story isn’t told in what could be labeled proper chronological order. There’s a Quentin Tarantinoesque disjointedness exercised throughout the novel, as Dathan keeps readers leaping around a wide timeline. Chapter one may focus on a six year old boy’s life, while chapter two takes followers years into the future, before the third chapter pulls the wrinkles of time back once more, to a time somewhere in between chapter one and three. The entire narrative functions under this practice, and ordinarily, this method makes for murky details and character confusion, but in the case of Penpal, the structure works quite well.

You’ll likely guess, based upon the novel’s title alone, that this story focuses on a “penpal” who isn’t exactly… normal. In fact, this distance-writer is a twisted individual with an unexplained yet potentially fatal obsession. Our mysterious antagonist is quiet, nearly invisible to suspecting eyes, completely discreet and surprisingly savvy. His intentions aren’t clearly outlined until the latter portions of Auerbach’s story, but I’ll give you this much to chew on: this guy isn’t some simple pervert with mere sexual gratification on his mind; so forget about giving Chris Hansen a call, this is one perpetrator that isn’t showing up with booze and rubbers to meet an under-aged girl. No, there’s a far more sinister plan being birthed for our story’s young target (who, unless I somehow missed it goes unnamed throughout the tale), and lifelong longevity definitely doesn’t fit into the equation.

Told from a first person point of view, readers get a great chance to climb inside the mind of a boy, transitioning from toys to romance; bikes to automobiles… a boy becoming a young man, quite simply. Constantly seeking adventure, always teetering on the brink of defiance, but undeniably kind and attentive, it’s easy to attach yourself to the exploits of this character – that possesses traits that actually remind me a bit of myself as a boy – both as an innocent kindergartener as well as maturing teenager. But a novel needs more than a singular identity to create true connectivity, and Dathan, who obviously understands such facts, introduces readers to a few fantastic supporting players, including (most noteworthy) fellow thrill-seeker and best friend Josh as well as the faceless penpal (an unsettling menace who clings to the shadows and isn’t glimpsed until the final pages of the story) of our primary personality and unsuspecting victim-to-be.

The details are at times a tad vague, which admittedly leads to some quizzical conjecture (why is our antagonist so obsessed with photography, especially when he’s taken up residence in such close proximity of his desired target?), but while a bit of murk does seep into the page on occasion, Dathan does a fine job of ironing out the majority of the wrinkles. The loose strings are for the most part tied by the final pages, save for one detail that still has me scratching my head a bit: what is the relevance of Veronica’s (Josh’s sister) position (which isn’t bestowed any focus until the story has just about wrapped) and fate in context of the grand tale, and what’s the story behind the enigmatic automobile? There seems to be some form of symbolism at work here that I personally missed, and that does admittedly crawl under my skin.

In general, the faults of Penpal are minimal. This is an eerie tale that pits pure evil against genuine innocence. Anytime an author casts a child aside, thrown to the jowls of a man-eater, the fear takes on a tangible nature. Auerbach may not yet be a household name, but if he’s got more creativity of this level tucked away in his mental corridors, genre fans have a new name to memorize.

Purchase your copy of Penpal RIGHT NOW!

Rating: 3.5/5      

About Matt Molgaard (1356 Articles)
Writer for Dread Central, Best Horror Movies and Starburst Magazine. Owner, operator and contributor of Horror Novel Reviews and Addicted to Horror Movies. Obviously, hooked on all things horror, for a great number of years now!

27 Comments on Dathan Auerbach ‘Penpal’ Review

  1. I have a question about this book. I just finished it and I have some nagging questions that maybe another reader picked up on! When Miss Maggie said “Tom is home” and then died. Was there someone there who killed her or was she just in her final moments of life and her Alzheimer’s was creating hallucinations? I am pretty sure it said something to the effect of more than one body bag being removed from her home. It seemed like a pretty important part of the story since they talked so much about her there for a while. Any insight another reader may have would be greatly appreciated. As I sit awake at 1am trying to put the pieces together! LOL


    • BlueJellyfish // January 2, 2013 at 6:17 am // Reply

      I have the same question as Jade. I felt like the stalker might have ended up being Mrs. Maggie’s son, but it was never cleared up.

      Also, I noticed on the police report on the last page that it has the name “Joshua” in the top section. Perhaps that’s the narrator’s name? Joshua and his friend Josh? Wouldn’t be all that unusual.


      • Oh I didn’t think of the son…I thought Tom was her husband who passed away. But maybe she thought her son was her husband because of the age (due to her Alzheimer’s).
        As far as the police report I was curious about that too…and would be kind of ironic to have them look similar, have the same name — could be why Josh was used as the substitute.
        I’ve also been continuing thinking on this and does any one have any ideas as to why Josh’s sister was killed? Only thing I could come up with was to hurt the narrator. But didn’t know if there was something I may have missed.


      • I kind of had that feeling that Dathan wanted to leave it open to interpretation. That was how I perceived it… kind of a “which way do YOU want to go with this” type of idea. I think I’ll reach back out to Dathan and see if he wants to talk about this point specifically. Awesome guy.


      • Oh, well if that’s the reason it was left so open that makes sense. I just am an answers type person and am always looking for the reasoning and why things happened. LOL It’s not a bad thing though…definitely helped to get dialog about it started if that was the intent. After I finished the book at about 12:30am I was up for at least another hour thinking of it — a little freaked out but mostly trying to figure out all of the things I still had questions on. This has been the best place to be honest…No where else I asked questions/looked for questions and answers has proven helpful in the least! :)


      • Joshua isn’t the narrator’s name. They are referring to his friend because he was a witness. Josh was there when he got the “For Stamps” Dollar back, when they got their pictures taken in the woods, when he released the balloon and what he wrote on the dollar, etc.”


      • The police report states everything that Dathan(or whoever you think it would be) went through at the beggining of the “stalking” from the way it started to when he found the pictures with him in it. if you look at the police report carefully you can see that it says witness on it. it does not mean that Joshua was the victim. He would only show the name Joshua on there for the fact that joshua was talked about and a known character in the story.


      • bob seget // March 4, 2015 at 2:07 am //

        She was killed by the PenPal


    • When Miss Maggie said “Tom is Home” I took it as the killer had seen she was getting close to the narrator. Being… insane caused him to kill her. She had Alzheimers so she probably didn’t remember what Tom looked like. Just my two cents.


    • Really late response lol, but the “Penpal” killed Miss Maggie. He took refuge in her home and, since she had Alzheimer’s, she thought he was one of her sons. And he’d been keeping an eye on the narrator from there, while killing others.


  2. Yeah I got the feeling that the stalker was Mrs. Maggie’s son, although I don’t know who would be in the other bag unless it was her other son. I assumed that he killed Veronica to hurt both Josh (because he was in the passenger seat) and the narrator (because he cared for her). However, I think part of it was to get rid of the sister because the narrator didn’t have a sister. We know that the stalker tried to make Josh seem like the narrator by dyeing his hair and turning his attention to him when the narrator became unavailable. However, if Auerbach did want to take this route, he should’ve removed the Josh’s father (although I guess he needed him to bury and find his son) because the narrator didn’t have a present father. I wish Auerbach had made a clearer connection to Mrs. Maggie rather than just having her sons look like Josh and the narrator. Also, he should’ve explained why the stalker left the walkie-talkie (in a jacket, I believe) under the narrator’s bed. At the time, he was in his new home, so the stalker knew where he lived, right? Why didn’t he pursue him? The stalker had a car, his cat, and yet he preferred Josh. Overall, this book was definitely creepy and I really enjoyed it even though there were some leftover questions that could’ve been answered.


    • (SPOILERS)

      “Also, he should’ve explained why the stalker left the walkie-talkie (in a jacket, I believe) under the narrator’s bed.”

      The walkie-talkie under the bed belonged to the narrator. He had arrived to his room and dropped/thrown his various items to the floor and crawled into bed. The stalker used Josh’s walkie-talkie to relay the fact that he had Boxes.

      “Yeah I got the feeling that the stalker was Mrs. Maggie’s son,”

      Not me. I felt that the whole “Tom’s home!” thing was her confusing the stalker for Tom. He was inside her house (or nearby), then presumably was the one following the protagonist across the lawn as he walked toward home.

      “We know that the stalker tried to make Josh seem like the narrator by dyeing his hair and turning his attention to him when the narrator became unavailable”

      How was the narrator unavailable? I might’ve missed something, but I thought he was still around and in town throughout the length of the story. On a side note and only somewhat relevant, the ending hints that Josh was in the stalker’s car as he ran over Veronica, so the stalker was well aware that he didn’t have the narrator in his possession. Pointing this out in case anyone feels the stalker was duped/fooled into being placated.


  3. that’s it. I’m going to read this AGAIN! lol


  4. hey guys, asked Dathan about this specific detail, and here’s what he told me:

    “think that might spoil some of the fun, man! Kinda like when Ridley Scott stepped up and said that Deckard was a replicant. Not that I’m Ridley Scott or Penpal is Blade Runner, but you get the idea haha.”


    • LOL aw man!!
      So I guess this just means I’ll have to re-read it. HA
      On a less frustrated note, thank you Matt. At least this is from the mouth of the writer and I couldn’t have (we couldn’t have) gotten that kind of resolute answer without you asking for us! :)


      • not a problem at all Dathan is a REALLY good guy, and very warm with fans and critics alike. Just a cool cat. Have you looked into the interview I conducted with him? AWESOME read.


  5. Very mediocre. Prose is bland and first-person intensive. Plot feels contrived; somewhere between a genuinely scary story and its lampoon for entertainment’s sake. A good read for high-school students and below.


  6. I just finished the book and am glad I found this site to help answer some of my questions. I still don’t know how the Mrs Maggie stuff fits in to the larger picture (maybe her sons were killed by the same guy) but I was thinking Josh and the fat kid Alex (who had a crush on Veronica) would have had motive to at least run her over and destroy that relationship.

    Maybe the creepy stuff in the beginning was actually Josh (misspelled name on the note) and he brought Alex along afterwards.

    Loved the book though and I think I’ll be playing it over in my head for a while now.


  7. I will try to help you guys out a bit. Ms. Maggie has alzheimers and was getting close to the victim/lived near him, so the killer manipulated her fragile mind into thinking he was her late husband and took up home in her house so he could be close to the narrator. He eventually kills her, and she is chopped up hence the multiple bags. The point of the eerie car is the fact that it is omenous and befitting for the creepy penpal. The reason of Veronica is to show that the killer not only is obsessed with the narrator, but is also in love with him, hence why he killed the girl since the narrator was getting close to her. Also, when they find Josh’s body in clothes too tight, it is because it is the narrator’s old clothes from when the killer took up home in his old house. The killer is just some random psycho, not another character in the story. As for the police report with Joshua as the name, that is his friend Josh’s full given birth name. The narrator’s name is never given.


    • These were my exact thoughts. I’ve read the book and checked out MCP’s reading of it. Good interpretation and thanks for pointing it out to those who hadn’t worked it out yet. :D


  8. I spent a lot of time thinking about Ms. Maggie and her demise. The theory that I came up with is that the stalker had noticed how Ms. Maggie always invited the narrator and Josh into her house for some snacks; that the boys would dock near her house and would have to return to that house in order to get home. It seems like it took a while for the stalker to catch up to the raft, so I’m guessing that the stalker pretended to be Ms. Maggie’s husband, he told her to invite the boys in, and then set out to scare the boys so that they would run back to their docking spot (Ms. Maggie’s house). That’s why Ms. Maggie was out late at night, which the narrator said seemed weird and out of place.
    As for why she was murdered, well for the first time she refused to allow the boys into her house (probably sensing something wrong with ‘Tom’ or maybe even regaining some of her memory and realizing that the stalker was definitely not who he said he was.) This infuriated the stalker, whom proceeded to murder her by chopping her up into pieces. After all, he had plenty of practice with animals. Once she was out of the way, he remained at her house for weeks until the police finally investigated the stench emitting from the house and discovered the grisly scene; which more than likely included tons of mutilated animals.
    Also, about the two sons; the twisted part of me thinks that maybe Ms. Maggie’s sons never really ‘disappeared’. Better yet, Chris and John were never her sons, they were boys she had abducted before. An old lady inviting kids into her house for ‘snacks’? Seems kind of like the “I have free candy!” phrase doesn’t it? She could have been a sexual predator; a fact that the narrator’s mom felt was too complicated for the narrator to understand at his age. After all, it was made clear that the narrator could not enter that lady’s house. She may have abducted two boys for an extended period of time, naming them Chris and John once they were held captive. Adding onto the Ms. Maggie is a sexual predator theory, maybe she kept those boys trapped in her house. She could have had a split personality due to her age, which could explain why she seemed to act cold to the narrator that night until she entered her Alzheimer’s stage. The stalker loved the narrator, so maybe he noticed what she was up to and snapped. He could have taken it upon himself to end their suffering (as well as gain more experience) by chopping them up as well. If he mutilated them enough, the police wouldn’t bother sorting them out from any animal corpses that may have been in the house. (It reeked of death, so it must have been more than just one old lady.)This theory could also explain how the stalker got the idea to keep Josh contained for a very long period of time. Maybe he picked up a thing or two from Ms. Maggie.


    • I’m not sure I can fully get on board with the theory of Miss Maggie being a killer also back in the day but find your theory interesting. I do however like your idea of the night the narrator wanted to go in. Thanks for posting your ideas!! :)


  9. I don’t know about the book, but the Reddit version was awesome. However there is just one question I can’t get out of my mind- WHAT HAPPENED TO BOXES? Did I miss something? Because I just read that he heard Boxes through the Walky-talky, and that’s it. Can somebody help? Also, I think “Tom” was the stalker guy, and that he cut Ms. Maggie to pieces.


    • Marilee Garcia // November 7, 2014 at 10:16 am // Reply

      It’s implied that Boxes is killed by the stalker. A cat isn’t able to press the walkie-talkie button to “speak” to Dathan’s walkie-talkie. (Calling the narrator after the author)
      Dathan’s mom says to Dathan that if someone did move in with the old lady, that she was delusional enough to think that it is her dead husband; Tom.
      Implied that the stalker has infiltrated the house. I like the theory mentioned above that the stalker sent Mrs Maggie out to invite Dathan in to lure him in, but subconsciously something felt wrong so she told the boy to leave.
      Another theory suggests that the stalker was angry at Mrs Maggie for coming out and interrupting his kidnapping attempt.
      Both give reasons for the stalker to kill her.


  10. Michael Kirkby // April 15, 2015 at 3:36 am // Reply

    I just finished this book. Quite interesting from the point that the stalker was an organized psychopath who took pleasure in stressing Dathan by removing the very people that he loved. He took his best friend. He took the girl he adored and he took his best friend’s family. Can you imagine the stress of Dathan’s mother knowing what she knew and keeping it secret in order to keep her son safe? How many more did he take prior to his obsession with Dathan? Was he actually Maggie’s reference to Tom is home and what was in the bags that they took out of her home when they removed her? Perhaps it was her two sons that “had nothing to do with her all those years”? I love the fact that Auerbach keeps it nebulous. That’s part of the charm and mystique. It’s refreshing from the point of the lack of explicit slaughter and graphic violence that so many authors in the horror genre depend on today. Although the ending could be improved I did enjoy this first attempt.


  11. Just read the novel. Absolutely loved it! Had to google whether or not it was a true story haha. It was written in such a way that one can not easily tell whether or not it happened to the narrator. I have soo many questions that are nagging me. Firstly, i really don’t understand why the narrator wasn’t given a name! Then, why did the PenPal take Josh and keep him alive while stalking the narrator but eventually killing Josh. (Honestly it made me soo depressed, i loved Josh! And i thought it really happened to narrator’s bestfriend!!! :O) Also, the report at the end of the novel is obviously fake and is just for the sake of completing the “true story” feeling. But then why is some of the information hidden behind those thick black lines. -.- Oh and if the the Penpal was still having fun stalking the narrator with his text “See you again, Soon.” Why did he decide to die with Josh in the end?
    I feel in order to make it seem more realistic the holes have been left unfilled but that just makes the story feel like its incomplete. Love the story but the unanswered questions arw just tooo much to handle.


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