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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 The Overseer (1669 Articles)
Author of Say No to Drugs, writer for Blumhouse, Dread Central, Horror Novel Reviews and Addicted to Horror Movies.

34 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.

        Liked by 1 person

      • 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! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • 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.


      • But Alzheimer’s (like just about all dementias) is progressive….When you have it, you don’t level off at a certain degree of confusion, and continue living alone years later, still able to dress and feed yourself, let alone make cookies or shop for a shark float. But with any kind of dementia or psychosis, she might be fooled into thinking it was “Tom” who was home.

        Still, why would she hesitate to let the narrator into her house to meet him? If she sometimes mistakes him for Chris or John, why wouldn’t she want either of them to visit him?

        In keeping with my comments above, Let me further ask: How does what happened to Veronica’John’s Mom resemble what happened to Ms. Maggie? What’s in all those foul-smelling garbage bags that the police in haz-mat suits carry out of her house after she dies?

        All of this is pretty solvable by book’s end, though we’re not given much satisfaction of certainty about many of the answers, and a few–not just 2, actually, as I mistakenly said above–but form answers about the roles of Alex, Chris and hos family, Claire, and Samantha (who, actually, was a THIRD nurse).

        There are clues about each, loud hints, and in Samantha’s case, logical threads, but no satisfactory “aha!” moments. I also think Auerbach tries so hard to lead us astray in the end scene that he really is cheating. If it’s purposeful, it’s annoying, not thrilling. It makes combing through the book tiring and irritating, not a juicy, edge -of-your-seat hunt to pin down the last clue.

        “The ending takes care of itself…” suggest that, just as in real life, many things add up only a long time later, especially regarding adult undercurrents when we were too young to notice or understand their interactions. But the promise isn’t kept. Did he know himeself?

        It seems like he ran out of answers himself and decided that, yeah, we’d have to write the end ourselves, for real. If not, maybe he was trying to be so clever the book would be discussed endlessly, and in that he was right that it would be analyzed more.

        But I’m guessing it doesn’t make his books more popular.

        P.S. Ether, for those too young to recognize it, is a liquid anesthetic used in the days before modern gases. It was phased out in the late 60’s, well before the Internet and cell phones. It might still be purchased for chemists or hobbyists, or in a specialized medical environment. It acts quickly, like chloroform does, and I believe was originally dripped onto a cloth over the patient’s face. Later it was a gas introduced by a mask put over the nose. I don’t think it burns the skin the way chloroform does, but maybe with long or repeat exposure…?



    • goldrust1337 // April 7, 2015 at 8:57 pm // Reply

      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.


      • Hmmm, might be onto something there… 🙂

        I meant to ask (dang that auto spelling correction!) how what happened to Ms. Maggie’s mind may have been like what happened to Veronica and Josh’s mother.

        And in my earlier post, I ask what was the significance of the shark float and the hole (where the spiders were) the boys saw when both got lost in the woods together? Why were they briefly separated?


  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.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • 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! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  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. 😀


    • Ummm, does he have any reason to chop her up? Could there be anything else in those bags? Remember the crawlspace. Also consider John Wayne Gacy (Gacey?).


  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.

    Liked by 1 person

  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.


  12. I know I’m coming late to the party, but this past summer was the first chance I’ve had to read PenPal before Grad school started back into full swing. Let me start by saying that I am a huge fan of the horror/thriller genre. PenPal came as a suggestion to me via Amazon, I didn’t know anything about it’s creepypasta origins when I purchased it. In fact, I assumed that the book would be a series of unrelated, short stories and started to read it as such. It wasn’t until I reached the third story that I realized it was a similar setting! (I’m a ditz, sue me.)

    Anyways, now that I’ve finished the book, curled up into a fetal position,cried in the shower, and spoken to a therapist- I think I’m ready to talk about it now.

    Because the book is first person narrated, I think it’s best to interact with the key characters the narrator relates to us, their significance to him, and their subsequent demises. Each story introduces a related element that is important to the next. As characters enter the story and leave, it’s important to note how they “interrupt” or “block” the narrators’ encounters with the PenPal (PP)

    Maggie- Maggie’s story was one of the more confusing in the series. Reading the comments on it, I’m glad I wasn’t the only one who didn’t immediately “get it”. There was a theory floating around that she was somehow related- or otherwise connected to- the PP, but I highly doubt it. The entirety of “Maps” sets us up to acknowledge that Maggie is helpless, that her mind is rapidly deteriorating, and that (like most older people) she loves to interact with children. I don’t find the absence of her own two children odd at all. Most adult children move away from their hometown. Most have their own lives and find it hard to visit their elderly parents. This makes Maggie’s loneliness and memory issues more realistic (I thought). Anyways, despite her illness, Maggie seems to protect and care for the boys the best she can in her condition. That she confuses them for her (now grown) children is telling. When the narrator playfully alters the snow-cones signs in “Balloons” Maggie chuckles and scolds him before buying a snow-cone. She frequently offers to feed the boys after their lake swims. And she often sits on the porch while the boys are in the lake (something I thought was a very watchful and maternal gesture, possibly something she did with her own children). When the boys get too far out in the water, she calls for them to swim back. When it becomes apparent that they won’t listen to her, she buys them the shark float (which- Bonus- makes a reappearance in the woods in “Footsteps”). While Maggie may not be “all there”, her presence does seem to protect the narrator and Josh. When the boys sneak out onto the lake in “Maps”, I suspect Maggie appears on the porch when she hears the commotion out on the lake. That would mean that she would probably see the PP leaving the woods, taking the narrators shirt and putting the drawing into the narrators pants-pocket. She now knows what the PP looks like, and this is significant to what happens next. Since Maggie frequently refers to the boys by her sons’ names, it makes sense that she’d refer to any grown man who approached her by her late husbands name. Since her husband died during a night run, it’s possible she is confused by the PP coming out of the woods at night and possibly believes that he really is “Tom” at first. When the narrator asks to come inside, I imagine her protectiveness of him takes over and she says no. Even though people with Alzheimer’s frequently confuse names, faces and time lapse, it’s possible she sensed that the man now in her home was a danger to the narrator. When she runs through the home to walk along the front lawn as the narrator goes home, I think it’s a protective gesture. Some have speculated that it wasn’t Maggie but the PP following the narrator, but I don’t think so. The narrator doesn’t state that he noticed a difference in stride of footfall of the person walking behind him- Something that he would have given that the PP is a large man (possibly wearing shoes) and Maggie is a small, frail, barefoot woman. For Maggie to follow the narrator down the lawn fits her character’s actions throughout the stories. Her presence protects the narrator from the PP, and it is something she pays for with her life. The PP, who is likely enraged by a foiled attempt to engage with the narrator, and probably not wanting any witnesses, kills Maggie and leaves her body in the house to be discovered by the stench.

    Boxes- I’m a cat lover (and cat mom), so the story of Boxes the cat really got under my skin. I thought it was significant that the narrators notes that his mom brought home boxes before he started kindergarten. If you can piece together the significance of the events, you’ll know that the PP starts stalking the narrator after the balloon project which happens sometime in the narrators kindergarten year. The cat, I think, plays a much more important role in diverting the PP then we’re lead to believe. It’s interesting that the narrator has a cat for a pet. Most “boyhood” sort of stories usually feature a dog (since dogs are “man’s best friend”…or whatever). That the family has a cat instead says a lot about the events in “Footsteps”. A dog would bark at an intruder coming into the house and with a dog barking, the mother would have woken up to catch PP removing her son from his bed. How such an altercation would have ended, it’s hard to say. But I don’t imagine the mother would have come out alive. A lot of fans wonder why the PP kept not going through with his kidnapping attempts until this point. Fear of going through with his obsession was possibly a motivator (also, he probably didn’t have such a strong conviction to kidnap by this point. Obsession- particularly pedophiliac sexual obsession, is something that builds over time. I’m sure the PP was sneaking into the narrators room to hold/touch him, until he worked up the nerve to full out kidnap him). But I think Boxes the cat may have played somewhat a heroic role. Thinking about the cats I’ve had in my life, while not as forcefully protective as a dogs size allows them to be, I do believe that cats are protective of “their” homes and people. I’m sure a stranger in the house would have alerted the cat and lead to some growling/hissing fits (the narrator himself states that Boxes is a “talker”). The PP, nervous about being caught, would have likely allowed this to deter him for a time. As he grew bolder such antics from the cat wouldn’t do much (the cat being declawed), he probably went ahead with kidnapping the narrator. Boxes darting out the door is also heroic in it’s own way. He frequently heads straight under the house, which is what eventually alerts the narrator’s mother to the fact that the PP has been camping out under there. Because of the narrator’s use of the can-opener to coax Boxes out from under the house (as opposed to going under there himself), one has to wonder how long the cat had been trying to warn the narrator’s mother about the PP’s presence. In that capacity, Boxes, like Maggie, “witnesses” the PP. I think that Boxes is a character in his own right. He seems found of the narrator (in his own…cat-ly way), he alerts the family to danger, and like the others who love and protect the narrator by foiling the PP’s plans, he pays with his life.

    Josh is (of course) the most significant character in the whole of these stories. Even though it is implied that the narrator is the target of the PP, Josh is present in every interaction. When the PP takes the picture of the narrator in the ditch, Josh appears in the photo delivered to the boy’s home. In “Balloons” when an unnamed man returns to the snow-cone stand three times (I’m assuming the mysterious man is the PP), it is Josh who receives the “FOR STAMPS” dollar and gives it to the narrator. Because of how close the narrator and Josh are, we can assume that the PP knows Josh just as well as he does the narrator. Because of their close friendship, Josh’s life and story are interwoven with that of the narrator. And like Boxes and Maggie (but on a much larger scale) his presence in the narrator’s life is a protective one. When the boys go out on the lake at night in “Maps”, Josh’s presence keeps the narrator from being alone in the woods with the PP. When the narrator leaves the presence of Maggie’s house, it is Josh who lets him into the house (almost as if the two are “changing guard” over the narrator). In fact, throughout the stories, at times that the narrator would have been the sole person interacting with the PP, Josh is always around, keeping the narrator from being alone with the PP. In “Boxes” when the boys go to the narrator’s old home, it is Josh who safely secures the narrator under the house while he goes inside the abandoned home. Josh then sees the PP (a death sentence throughout the stories) and is photographed by him. Without consciously meaning to, Josh constantly stands in the way of his best friend and the PP. I think it’s worth noting that the author spends a good amount of time conveying Josh’s character to the reader. Josh is bold, loyal, easy-going and loving. His every appearance brings out the best in the narrator. He proves himself time and time again to be a sacrificial and loyal friend. The two are inseparable throughout the bulk of the book. This story is as much Josh’s as it is the narrators. There is a lot of confusion as to why the PP suddenly switches focus from the narrator to Josh (presumably at the end of “Boxes”). When Josh attends the narrators birthday party, he seems only vaguely aware of what has been happening to him. When the narrator confronts him for being a “bad friend” (something that is even more painful when it’s revealed what happens to Josh later) Josh responds quietly “You left” – implying that the PP has sense refocused his attention onto Josh. It’s hard to say how much of the PP Josh had been able to piece together. He was disturbed enough by their experience in the narrator’s abandoned house that the friendship atrophied. It’s heavily implied at the end of “Boxes” that the PP followed the boys all the way to Josh’s house. It’s also implied that Josh had decided to finish the boys “Map” from their childhood as a gift to the narrator. Without the narrator present, Josh is kidnapped and held for years. This horrifying act leads to Josh’s murder and the destruction of his family. There is never any indication that the PP’s possession of Josh lessens his obsession with the narrator, but Josh seems to die in the narrator’s “place”. When the PP takes Veronica’s phone and carries out a series of text conversations with the narrator, it’s implied that Josh is killed soon after. The text message that reads “I love you” in which the narrator (thinking he is responding to Veronica) replies “I love you too” is significant. Josh is present when the narrator gets the phantom birthday card with those same words scrawled on it. I can only imagine he is also present when the PP receives the narrator’s response.
    The key phrase here is this: Josh is present. His constant “being around” is declarative to his love of the narrator. To love the narrator is to love Josh. The two are one in the same. Maggie confuses the boys for her two sons (who are, obviously, brothers). This is telling. When Boxes goes missing, Josh and the narrator BOTH reminisce over his loss.
    It’s significant that while Josh’s presence often protects the narrator, the narrators ABSENCE conversely endangers Josh. Josh is alone inside the abandoned house when he first sees the PP and begins to comprehend the danger there. Josh is alone in the woods when he is kidnapped. Throughout the story the message is clear: the boys are always safe when they are together (notice that neither experiences sleeping problems when they spend the night together).
    When the narrator signs his text “I love you too”, I’m afraid he sealed Josh’s death sentence. Since the PP signed “See you soon”, I wonder what part Josh played in keeping his friend alive and if his death in the narrators place was intentional.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Yeah, OK.. I am also late to this party and generally agree with and am thankful for most of the explanations above. I’ve only read the online version, but it sounds like the author did a lot of cleanup and hole patching for the book version. If I say something that sounds wrong or incorrect, that is probably why.

    Here is a thought: Do we think the PP is Alex? He “was bigger than most of the other kids in any grade,” was briefly close the the narrator but failed to make a connection, was obsessed with Veronica, and had good reasons for hating Josh. I think there are a lot of holes in that theory, but there is a lot of merit to it as well…

    Also, how did PP know the narrator was going to the movies? Ah ha! My guess is PP was the girl the narrator’s friend, Chris, was talking to online. She got info from him about what the narrator was doing and why. Otherwise, it would be odd for PP, who up until this point has not been shown as having any significant means of transport, would show up in a car on the correct road. Food for thought.

    My biggest remaining question is the ending. While I believe I understand what happened, why is still an open question to me. I buy that PP had taken Josh as a substitute for whatever reason (though one could argue that Josh was more valuable as bait, but these things are seldom rational) but I don’t understand the manner of the death. Maybe if the police were getting close to discovering PP? Possible the land clearing had some effect on wherever he was hiding Josh? Just, to me, choosing to be buried alive with Josh for no apparent reason seems… pointless. Horrifying, but pointless.

    Additionally, I don’t really get the “You Left” comment by Josh. Up until then I had assumed they grew apart because the events in the narrator’s old house were super f-ed up and he just wanted to not think about it. I also buy that they managed to lead the PP to Josh’s house at the end of ‘Boxes’ and therefore re-focus him on Josh, assuming he no longer knew where the narrator lived.


    • Also: This story has me installing (pet immune) motion sensors in my basement and crawlspace! Makes you think “how often do I actually check down there?”


  14. What a delight to see all the discussion here and have it be as recent as the end of 2015, I loved this story and am very happy to know people are still picking it up and reading it.


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