Penpal, by Dathan Auerbach, caught my attention as soon as I found out that it started out as a series of stories on the NoSleep forum on Reddit. As many of you may know, Reddit is one of the most popular destinations on the Internet for “true” horror stories, as well as CreepyPastas, but it’s not often they get transformed into novels.
Penpal, however, is an exception.
Wait, time out.
Are you new to the Internet? Have you been living on an island with Wilson the volleyball as your only companion for the past few years?
Are you not sure what CreepyPasta and NoSleep are??
It has recently come to my attention that some people have never heard of CreepyPasta. Hell, some people have never even heard of Reddit, which is totally wild to a corner hermit like myself, who spends a lot of time lurking around this fancy schmancy interwebs thing the kids are all so obsessed with.
Even my own husband didn’t know what CreepyPasta was until recently, and after explaining it to him, he now insists on referring to it as “Scary Spaghetti” for the sole purpose of driving me insane.
Not that he has far to drive.
So here’s some brief background information for those of you who are not familiar:
Creepypastas are short horror/paranormal/scary stories (fictional) which are posted online, often in designated CreepyPasta forums, which are sometimes circulated by users and readers of the forums, allowing some CreepyPastas to reach more of an “urban legend” type status. Popular CreepyPastas include Jeff the Killer, The Smile Dog, The Russian Sleep Experiment, and, arguably the most popular, Slenderman.
Popular CreepyPasta outlets include creepypasta.com, creepypasta.org, and of course r/creepypasta on Reddit. (There are also a lot of horror and CreepyPasta narrators on YouTube, such as CreepsMcPasta, CreepyPastaJr, and ClancyPasta, to name a few.)
NoSleep, or r/nosleep on Reddit is…a little different.
The whole idea on the NoSleep forums, in Reddit’s own words, is to treat every horror story posted there like true, real life experiences. You post as if the stories are real, you comment as if the stories are real, you immerse yourself in them as if they are real—even if they’re not. When you’re on NoSleep, whether it’s true or not…it’s true. So while they are both horror story communities, they differ from each other a bit.
Okay, now that you’re all caught up on what the Internet is (just kidding, just kidding. If you didn’t know all this, I’m not hating on you—just messing around), let’s move onto this particular novel, which started out as a series of posts on r/nosleep.
After receiving a lot of attention on the forum, Auerbach expanded his posts and revised them into novel form, which he then self-published through his own publishing company, 1000vultures (which, incidentally, was his Reddit username when he first posted the stories).
What I want to talk about here is less a traditional, straightforward review of the novel itself (though I will include some of my thoughts on it), and more a discussion of its origins (hence all the backstory).
I think it really says something about writing and publishing in general that someone took a series a posts on a popular horror thread on Reddit and transformed it into a novel, which he published himself and now sells on Amazon, Nook, iTunes, and Google Play. In a world where more and more people seem to be making the move toward self-publishing, I think it’s interesting not just to see someone make the decision to take that route, but also to have started out in such a casual, kind of “just for fun” type forum where horror lovers gather. I often find it interesting to learn writers’ origin stories, and I think seeing a novel start out as a series of scary Internet posts says a lot about how society and specifically, our writing society, is changing. As books like Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell serve to illustrate, we seem to be slowly coming off of an overall point of view that certain things posted online—fanfiction, NoSleep stories, Creepypastas, even blog posts, et cetera—don’t qualify as “real” writing. And yet that’s where more and more writers are getting their start.
I probably don’t have to tell you that the Internet, social media, and technology in general are constantly growing, evolving, and, more or less, taking over the world, with online communities are becoming more and more commonplace. More and more often, online communities are the place where writers develop their craft, initially share their work, and explore their options for distributing their finished product to a larger audience. Whether we like it or not, we can’t deny that we are definitely seeing a major shift. As Bob Dylan said, the times, they are a-changin’.
If you’re a fan of r/nosleep, CreepyPastas, or just horror stories in general, I would recommend giving Penpal a read. It’s got some pretty creepy moments, there’s enough suspense to keep you turning pages, and the plot is downright unnerving.
Something I found noteworthy is that despite being transformed into a full-length novel, I can’t help but feel that at times it still reads like a series of forum posts. This could be a positive or a negative. If you really that dig that forum vibe and prefer to see the book pay homage to its origins, then you might enjoy that feel. But, it can become a bit disjointed at some parts. I think if I personally were telling this story, and I were going to revise it from posts into a novel, I would have put it in chronological order. I think it would have read easier and much more smoothly in that way, because at times, when chapters transitioned, I wasn’t sure what age the narrator was, whether we were in his new house or the house he lived in as a child, or what part of the story we were in. Sometimes even when the transition was noted, I would read on a little further and, because we had jumped back and forth in age a few times, I would forget a little later in the chapter what age the narrator was at this time, and would have to go back and check. Again, this disjointed feel might appeal to some readers as it sort of maintains the forum vibe, but it wasn’t to my personal liking. I think it would have made a better novelization if we had progressed forward more organically and been able to experience things, timewise, more similarly to how the narrator did.
Despite this disjointed feel and my own personal preferences about the chronology of the novel, I liked Penpal and had a good time reading it. It definitely appealed to my forum-trawling side, and the part of me that loves listening to a good CreepyPasta being narrated on YouTube (which I only do, ya know, all the time).
But of course, the most fascinating thing to me is the progression from Reddit to novel, and the potential influence the Internet and online communities are having on the world of writing and publishing.
What are your thoughts? Have you read Penpal? Do you read CreepyPastas or NoSleep stories? And what do you think about turning them into novels? Let me know in the comments below! You know I’d love to talk. <3