Keep a fresh pair of pants on standby.
Here are some of the many things that scare me:
- Being buried alive
- The terrestrial crab swarm of Christmas Island (Seriously, they’re armored spiders.)
- Actually, any kind of swarm
- Inexperienced phlebotomists
- Losing loved ones
- Car crashes
- Home invasion
In his delightfully terrifying horror novel Penpal, breakout author Dathan Auerbach plays on many, way too many, of these. (I won’t tell you which, but I promise it’s not the terrestrial crabs. Even horror writers have limits.)
Inspired by a cult following he developed on the Reddit /r/nosleep “true horror story” board, Auerbach expanded a short story into a multi-part thriller. He has since launched a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign and self-published an adapted version of his stories as a novel.
Part of the charm of the /r/nosleep subreddit is that readers are asked to “suspend disbelief,” and pretend as if each author’s story is a true experience.
In Auerbach’s case, very little imagination is necessary. Penpal is a captivating, deeply unsettling horror story. The narrator slowly unveils a series of seemingly disparate but disturbing events from his life, starting with a moment when he, as a young boy, inexplicably wakes up alone in the forest. The timeline jumps around as the young man begins to understand how the events of his life have orchestrated by a malicious figure outside of his control. Auerbach constructs a relentless crescendo of terror with a climax will shake you to your marrow.
Auerbach was recently so kind as to share his thoughts with me about his process and his story. Excerpts are below. Read the full Q&A after the jump. But first, grab a copy of his book here. And go ahead and get yourself one of these too. You’ll need it.
AGR: When starting to plan and write, what made you decide to choose stalking as the subgenre? Do you think there’s a greater fear for human-based horror than supernatural or paranormal?
DA: …I find natural horror (of which human-based horror is a part) much more unnerving, in general, than supernatural stories. There are at least two reasons for this.
The most obvious reason (and also the primary one, for me) is that natural horror is grounded in the world. These things can and do happen, because they are a part of our world, and that can drive the stories deeper into a person’s mind. This means that, if I’m reading natural horror, I only have to read the story in the context of what I know about the world – and the more one knows about the world (and the horrors already in it), the more believable and tangible any natural horror becomes.
The second reason involves the element of choice. This characteristic doesn’t really serve as a way to distinguish natural from supernatural horror, but I think it is often more prevalent in one than the other. In supernatural horror, the monsters, demons, etc., for the most part, are metaphysically constricted. What I mean is that demons and monsters are often evil by nature. They don’t choose to do the things that they do. To me, the element of choice is an important one. The idea that a person makes the decision to do something horrible, because he wants to do it, is a much more potent concept than something that is mechanically evil.
So as far as human-based horror goes, I find it to be the most frightening. It’s grounded in the world, and it involves a choice. The thought that a person deliberated on their actions and then decided that they wanted to do something cruel is truly frightening to me. The way we might normally convince someone not to do something – by showing them that it’s harmful – is totally impotent, because they know that it is. They just don’t care.
I chose the approach that I took in Penpal because I find the subject matter scary. People can be very good at getting what they want, but when what they want is another person we have good cause to be afraid, I think.
AGR: Had you planned the full series from the beginning? Or were you inspired by the reception of [first story] “Footsteps” to expand? If the latter, were there any parts that surprised you as you fleshed out the rest of the series?
DA: I was only ever going to post “Footsteps,” because that was as far as I had developed the story in my head. I had read quite a lot of /nosleep, and I grew to really appreciate the community. I thought that I had a story that people might like, so I wrote it and posted it in the same night, and then just waited/hoped that people would dig it. People started asking for more information, and they wanted some kind of epilogue to the story, so instead of giving them what they were asking for, I gave them “Balloons,” which is a prequel. That story seemed to strike such a chord with /nosleep that I just took it from there.
I wouldn’t say that there were any parts that surprised me as I developed the rest of the story, but the first time I mentioned Josh was in “Balloons,” and it was a really quick introduction – I didn’t know at that point that he’d take on such a prominent role in the rest of the series, but by the time I started writing “Boxes” I knew how substantial his role was going to be.
AGR: As a reader or viewer, what scares you? Do you have favorite horror stories, books, movies?
DA: This is a tough question. My favorites in horror aren’t necessarily things that I find scary. I’ve been watching and reading horror since I was a little kid. I think the first movie to really scare me was actually Child’s Play, because my grandmother had a room full of porcelain dolls, which is just such an unreasonable place to have a child sleep, haha. And I remember staying up late and watching this made for TV movie called Buried Alive where, well, some people get buried alive. While I was watching it, I was thinking, “I shouldn’t be watching this.” And I was right, because that movie stuck with me for a long time. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, both the stories and the illustrations, were things that got to me as a kid. It’s easier for fear to get into a child, and I guess whatever plants itself when you’re young informs what you find scary when you’re older.
Now when I read or watch something, sometimes it’s difficult to disentangle the emotions that are acting on me. It sounds weird, but sometimes I’ll think something is scary, but then I realize that it’s just gross or revolting in some way.
For example, in Zombi 2, which is this Italian zombie movie, there’s a scene where this girl (sorry about this) gets her eye impaled with a big splinter of wood. And that really stuck with me, but it’s not scary to me; it’s just brutal. I’m not really actively worried about that happening to me.
But you take a movie like [REC], which the American movie Quarantine was based on, and there are a couple scenes, particularly the whole end sequence with that…lady (people who have seen it will know what I’m talking about) that I found to be truly frightening, despite the fact that I shouldn’t be worried about that happening.
I find that I like watching foreign horror a lot because they have different tropes and culturally-informed phenomena that are unnerving just because they’re so different from what I’m used to with American horror. That’s probably the reason I like Cronenberg’s horror movies so much, as well; it’s all very different which helps it get past my defenses, and then it’s just good on its own so it’s really effective all the way through.
The horror authors that I like the most aren’t strictly horror, I think. Richard Matheson is one of my favorite authors. I Am Legend is such a phenomenal book; the first time I read it, I read it really slowly just to let the words wash over me. I have to mention Stephen King. IT was the first proper novel that I ever read. I was probably too young to appreciate most of what was going on in the story, but it gave me my first real appreciation for how engaging a book could be. As a matter of fact, I had to stop in the middle of the Dark Tower series to finish Penpal, so I’m looking forward to getting back into that. These two writers are excellent at horror, but it doesn’t seem fair to pigeonhole them. Lovecraft, though, is pretty consistently horror, and I love his work.
Full Q&A after the jump.