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Book: “Number One Fan” by Meg Elison
Publishing Info: MIRA, August 2022
Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.
Book Description: She created a beautiful world. Now he wants it all.
On her way to a speaking engagement, bestselling novelist Eli Grey gets into a cab and accepts a drink from the driver, trusting that everything is fine. She wakes up chained in the stranger’s basement. With no close family or friends expecting her to check in, Eli knows she needs to save herself. She soon realizes that her abduction wasn’t random, and though she thinks she might recognize her captor, she can’t figure out what he wants. Her only clues are that he’s very familiar with her books and deeply invested in the fantastical world she creates. What follows is a test of wills as Eli pits herself against a man who believes she owes him everything—and is determined to take it from her.
Terrifying and timely, set against the backdrop of convention culture and the MeToo reckoning, Number One Fan unflinchingly examines the tension between creator and work, fandom and source material, and the rage of fans who feel they own fiction.
Review: Back during my Stephen King Binge of 8th Grade, I read his stalker fan horror story “Misery” and was absolutely unglued by it. I found a copy on a family trip to California, purchasing it at Bookshop Santa Cruz in Santa Cruz, and have vivid memories of reading it on the airplane home and feeling abject dread as Annie Wilkes tortured author Paul Sheldon as she held him hostage in her isolated farm house. It’s still Top 5 King for me. This year I kept hearing buzz for the book “Number One Fan” by Meg Elison, which was being touted as a gender swapped reimagining of “Misery”, but through a more modern and feminist lens. Sign me up regardless, honestly, and I was expecting it to be a critique of fandom culture and the debate of ownership of a work between creators and fans. And it’s that, to be sure. But throw some Sad and Rabid Puppies in for good measure, and that is what makes “Number One Fan” so utterly disturbing.
“Number One Fan” has a pretty straight forward, multi third person perspective narrative. Our main focus is on Eli, an author whose adult fantasy series has made waves across fandom and has thrust her into the spotlight, whether she is really able to cope with it or not. While traveling for a convention, she hops into an Uber, but then passes out and finds herself trapped in an unknown basement. Her captor is somewhat familiar to her, though she can’t figure out why, but he is hellbent on usurping her fantasy world and turning her into her main character for his own obsessions. We jump from perspective to perspective, either seeing Eli’s present or her backstory that builds up to her present, or Leonard, her captor, as he plots and schemes and hopes to possess her story and his image of her. As we slowly get to know both Eli and Leonard, we get a twisted commentary on fandom, the writing world, nerds and convention culture, and the toxic brew that can come with all of it. It’s a very suspenseful story as Leonard becomes more deranged and Eli becomes more desperate, and as a few players on the outside, namely Eli’s assistant and an FBI agent he contacts when Eli goes off the grid, try to figure out what all is happening. I loved watching all of the pieces fall into place as captive and captor entangle.
But it’s the abject realism of the horrific circumstances Eli is in that really hit home “Number One Fan” for me. I’ll start with the most obvious: the fact that she is a woman who has been kidnapped and is being held against her will. Elison doesn’t hold back on the horror elements of this that make it feel all the more real and effective as a woman reader; be it the one moment she lets her guard down getting into a ride share, or the way she is gaslit by Leonard in an effort to mold her to his twisted sexual fantasy, or even just the gross realities of how disgusting and unsanitary surroundings would wreak havoc on a woman’s body (UTIs, yeast infections, what have you), the kidnapping itself is scary as hell. But there are also other elements that are scary and super real, like the way that Eli has been harassed and picked apart by others because of her existence as a woman in nerd culture, or the way that even when it is clear that something terrible has happened, that it’s dismissed by some. Or the fact that numerous other women have been targets and victims of Leonard is other ways, and it has always gone under the radar. “Misery” is scary to be sure, but its focus is more on an author whose work has been fixated on by one unhinged fan because of the work itself. In “Number One Fan”, you get the sense that the fixation is based on gender, entitlement, and misogyny. And given that things like GamerGate and, yes, the Hugo Awards Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies Slates are still causing ripples in recent so called ‘culture wars’, it makes this feel all the more timely, and all the more unnerving. Also, content warnings are probably needed for this one. With violent misogyny comes sexual violence, and while it isn’t super explicit, the spectre of it is on the pages.
“Number One Fan” is a disturbing and well done horror novel with a feminist battle cry bent. I will be on the look out for more horror from Meg Elison.
Rating 8: A modern and deeply disturbing reimagining of “Misery” that hits misogyny and fan culture themes, “Number One Fan” is scary and timely.
“Number One Fan” is included on the Goodreads list “Horror to Look Forward To in 2022”.