PenPal by Dathan Auerbach is a hell of a ride. I quite literally was not able to put it down and stayed up hours later than I planned because I had to keep reading.
The book starts with the unnamed protagonist telling the terrifying tale of how hearing foot steps in his house night after night led to a harrowing trip through the woods, barefoot, in the cold. At first you wonder, was this a case of somnambulism? Child hood fantasy gone awry? Turns out the truth is even stranger.
At the heart of this story lies an inability to trust enough to communicate. Almost everything that happens could have been prevented or minimized if everyone involved had not been so determined to protect everyone else from the terrifying reality of what was going on.
The story starts with the terrible night in the woods and goes through the narrator’s early childhood and then teens. He forms a close friendship with a boy in his class, Josh, and most of their adventures would seem like normal childhood activities, tromping through the woods, swimming in the lake, but everything is overshadowed by a sinister twist.
So much of the menacing is so subtle, and narrator so unreliable since everything is filtered through the lens of years and his young age that for long stretches of the book, I actually started to wonder how much was real and how much was fantasy. Josh seemed mostly oblivious to what was going on, most of the panic was from the narrator’s mother, and I began to believe that she may have been suffering from some form of paranoia that she was passing along to her son by over-reacting to mostly innocent things.
There were points that were so intense that I wanted to look away or cover my eyes until I remembered I was reading a book, not watching a movie.
By the time I read the final page, I wished my original theory had been right. There was so much more that she never even let her son know. The world was even darker and stranger than he had even imagined. I recommend this book highly.