Petrol-stein; or, The Modern Polybius: the strange world of Internet book-searching

There's a story about a boy who turns into a petrol pump, but no one remembers its name. A joke? A collective delusion? Elizabeth Meade explores.

Elizabeth Meade
18th May 2021
Photo: Olympic gas pumps, San Diego, California by John Margolies, via Wikimedia

Content warning: The book discussed has themes of depression/suicide and that phrasing is used in some links.

Have you ever remembered the plot of a book you read, but forgot the title?

So have many others, who go to web pages such as r/whatsthatbook on Reddit or the 'What's the Name of That Book???' discussion board on Goodreads in hope of finding answers. Whether looking to re-read a childhood favourite or seeking closure with regards to a snippet of information given by a deceased family member, these pages attract hundreds of readers, with near-daily question turnover.

Every so often, however, a true mystery will be dredged up. This tale begins on 3 October 2018, when Goodreads user Leyna posted a description of a book, planting the seeds of an intriguing mystery. In this book, a boy 'decides to turn into a petrol pump as he is unhappy with his life', which he does by 'stand[ing] still, stick[ing] 2 fingers in his ear [and swallowing] an abacus'. The story ends when 'his parents come along and pump gas from him without knowing it is their son'.

While users suggested multiple works in the comments - On Meeting Witches at Wells by Judith Gorog or something by Paul Jennings - a title was not confirmed. One commenter claimed to have read the book, but didn't remember the title and thought it could have been part of an anthology.

On a SomethingAwful page entitled 'The identify that story/book thread', user Dell_Zincht posted a similar request on 31 May 2020. On 31 July 2020, an r/whatsthatbook user (who has since deleted their account, but based on this post in r/Teachers may be u/Paint_Her), made yet another post looking for the book, with a similar description. More users claimed to have read it but didn't remember much. Someone even claimed to have seen a film trailer with a similar plot and a famous actor.

People wanted answers. Suggestions were made - contacting a 'book expert', the meaning of which was unclear. Getting Buzzfeed to pick it up. Contacting lost-media YouTuber Whang. Looking up Paul Jennings' work or looking through the satirical products of Obvious Plant.

However, these suggestions led to dead ends or never took place. A user emailed Whang, who replied with relative disinterest. Buzzfeed was never contacted and neither was a 'book expert' to anyone's knowledge. Theories about Paul Jennings or a film trailer didn't add up either. Paul Jennings is a beloved Australian author whose bibliography is both memorable and searchable by synopsis. Most of his works resemble the typical fare in children's scary story books - while they are unusual, this doesn't fit the genre. Additionally, wouldn't a film trailer - featuring a famous actor - result in a film that people would remember? Obvious Plant didn't start until 2015, and most readers remembered this book from the 80's or 90's.

On 9 January 2021, SomethingAwful user Sobatchja Morda posted a similar request as part of a larger post asking about multiple books. This entry added detail and descriptions that weren't included in other requests, to the point that it almost sounds like a different story. They also claimed the book was Dutch or Flemish, while previous posters believed it was Swedish, English or Australian.

By this time, intense searching on the part of multiple Reddit users had come up with nothing. Nobody who claimed to have read it remembered the title. Most claimed it belonged to a sibling, a child they babysat, their school or someone else's house - never them.

Looking through the posts, something doesn't add up. The vague descriptions, repeated verbiage and the fact that nobody remembers key details (title, author) are reminiscent of many fake Internet stories. Polybius, an experimental arcade game supposedly created by the CIA, comes to mind. Accounts were nebulous: geometric design, strange gameplay, strange impact on players and 'men in dark suits' inspecting the machines. According to a 2017 Polybius documentary, the story is untraceable past a magazine story on the 'rumor' in the late 90's or early 00's.

All the posts on the book were made within a four-year span, so it wouldn't be unfeasible for one or two people to make posts about it on different websites. Someone could also have read a joke post and made an earnest post on another site searching for the same thing. But why? Many fake Internet stories are based on a simple misunderstanding, stereotypes of other cultures or some sort of cautionary tale. This book description is simply bizarre, random and morbid. If it's imaginary, the backstory may be even more interesting.

If this book actually exists, someone ought to remember a title. Perhaps the only reason it hasn't been found yet is that only a few people are discussing it. However, the large degree of interaction for such a thing is proportional to a much larger audience than a few commenters - thousands have likely seen the posts. The question, then, is not if, but when, the book will be found.

All I can say is, if anyone knows the name of this work, please come forward!

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AUTHOR: Elizabeth Meade
Science sub-ed and Chemistry major. Avid reader. Chaos theorist. Amateur batrachologist and historian. Rock fan. Likes cybersecurity and cooking.

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