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Penpal Summary, Characters and Themes | Dathan Auerbach

“Penpal” is a chilling horror novel by Dathan Auerbach. It started as a popular series of creepypasta tales on Reddit. 

The story follows a man trying to piece together unsettling memories from his childhood. What starts as seemingly innocent childhood incidents unravels into a dark and twisted tale of obsession and kidnapping. The novel’s unique format – a mix of memories, letters, and fragmented storytelling – creates a deeply unsettling atmosphere of growing terror.


As a young boy, our unnamed narrator embarks on a seemingly innocent kindergarten project: sending a letter attached to a balloon, hoping for a penpal. While his classmates receive responses, he doesn’t. This, however, is only the beginning of his unsettling story.

Mysterious photographs depicting him and his mother surface, hinting at a stalker’s chilling presence. Ominous events intensify – an elderly neighbor is murdered, and he wakes up, disoriented, in the woods with a note falsely claiming he’d run away. His mother, fearing for their safety, moves them to a new house.

Though life resumes some normalcy for a while, darkness encroaches again. His beloved cat vanishes, and a desperate search of his old house leads him to a crawlspace. There, he uncovers his old clothes, more photos of himself, and cat food – the undeniable proof that his stalker has made their old home his own.

Things spiral further when his best friend, Josh, attends a birthday party and then disappears without a trace. 

Years fly by, and he begins dating Josh’s older sister, Veronica. Tragedy strikes yet again as Veronica becomes the victim of a hit-and-run accident. 

At the hospital, she reveals a horrifying truth – Josh never ran away. He left a note identical to the one found after the narrator’s night in the woods.

Haunted by their connection, the narrator learns of Veronica’s passing while desperately texting her missing phone. His horror reaches its peak when he attends a movie alone, only to have a man join him and send a chilling message: “See you again soon.”

All the threads of this bizarre puzzle click into place with a gruesome revelation. Josh’s father, a landscaper, had unearthed a coffin containing the body of Josh and a man. 

The man, pathologically obsessed with his “penpal,” had kidnapped Josh, dyeing his hair and dressing him in the narrator’s old clothes. In a grotesque bid for twisted companionship, the man had drugged and buried himself alive with Josh.

Consumed by guilt and a need to remember his friend, the narrator grapples with the psychological scars. 

He’s left with a terrifying realization: he was the unwitting catalyst for the death of his best friend, setting in motion a monstrous chain of events that echoed through his life.

penpal summary


The Narrator

Our unnamed protagonist is a deeply traumatized individual, a victim of both circumstance and a twisted obsession. His childhood experiences leave him grappling with guilt, confusion, and a sense of lost identity. 

The loss of Josh, his best friend, leaves a gaping void in his life, and the realization of his part in Josh’s death casts a long shadow of self-blame. 

The narrator’s fragmented memories and his mother’s protectiveness suggest underlying psychological damage and a deep fear of the truth.


Josh is the picture of childhood innocence and companionship. His boundless energy and friendship anchor the narrator, providing a sense of normalcy in an increasingly unstable world. 

Tragically, Josh becomes the ultimate victim of the stalker’s twisted desires. His disappearance and eventual death shatter the narrator’s world and represent the irrevocable loss of childhood.

The Stalker

While never directly seen, the stalker is a chilling and manipulative presence throughout the novel. 

His obsession with the narrator drives the narrative, creating a suffocating sense of dread and inevitability. The stalker is a master of disguise and psychological warfare, chipping away at the narrator’s sense of security and identity. 

His actions reveal a disturbing depth of depravity and the chilling lengths to which some will go to fulfill their darkest desires.

The Narrator’s Mother

The narrator’s mother is a complex figure, both fiercely protective and burdened by an immense secret. 

She recognizes the danger stalking her son, yet her actions seem fueled partly by a desire to maintain a façade of normalcy. 

Her secrecy ultimately hurts her son, leaving him isolated and vulnerable to the stalker’s manipulations.


Veronica, Josh’s sister, provides a brief glimmer of hope and love for the narrator amidst his guilt and trauma. 

However, her connection to Josh places her in danger as well. Her hit-and-run accident and subsequent death further isolate the narrator and highlight the relentless reach of the stalker’s obsession.


The Illusion of Childhood Safety

“Penpal” masterfully subverts the traditional notion that childhood is a time of innocence and safety. 

The story’s events shatter this illusion and make the reader question how well we know those around us and if we can truly protect our children. 

The stalker’s meticulous planning and ability to blend seamlessly into the background highlight the fragility of security, particularly for children. 

He manipulates a simple school assignment, something meant to be fun and harmless, into a tool for his sinister plot. 

Additionally, Josh’s tragic end buried alive in a coffin emphasizes that even the most innocent can fall victim to evil forces lurking just beneath the surface of normalcy.

The Destructive Power of Obsession

The stalker’s obsession with the protagonist drives the entire narrative in “Penpal.” 

This obsession isn’t merely creepy; it takes on a monstrous form that consumes both his life and the lives of those around him. The story shows how a warped desire can distort reality, fueling a willingness to commit unspeakable acts. 

The stalker’s meticulous collection of photographs, his meticulous recreation of the protagonist’s appearance in Josh, and the elaborate kidnapping plot all chillingly illustrate the terrible extremes obsession can reach. 

He becomes less a human and more a relentless force of destruction, leaving emotional wreckage in his wake.

The Unreliability of Memory

“Penpal” uses the blurred lines of memory to create a constant sense of disorientation. 

Since the story is told through the protagonist’s fragmented recollection, the reader is frequently questioning the accuracy of events. Gaps in his memory, moments of confusion, and the insidious influence of trauma cast doubt on his perceived reality. 

The novel suggests that our memories, shaped by time and experience, can be just as deceptive as any outside manipulator. 

This forces the reader to participate in the protagonist’s unraveling, making us complicit in parsing together what’s genuine and what might be distorted through a lens of fear.

The Persistence of Trauma

The psychological trauma inflicted upon the young protagonist permeates the entire story. From the initial violation of privacy to the realization of the full extent of Josh’s fate, he carries the weight of these experiences well into adulthood. 

Dathan Auerbach explores how trauma not only echoes through a person’s life but also has the power to shape it. The protagonist’s guilt, his lingering sense of unease, and his difficulty navigating healthy relationships all emerge from the deep wounds etched onto his psyche during childhood. 

“Penpal” serves as a sobering reminder that even if we survive a terrible ordeal, it doesn’t mean there’s an easy return to normalcy.

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