One of the most chilling and unforgettable moments of number one fanMeg Elison’s gender-swapped update to Stephen King’s horror classic Misery, happens in the front pages: Urban fantasy author Eli Gray has just joined a carpool with a male driver, only to receive a notification that his female driver has canceled her ride. Rather than noting that red flag, Eli automatically assumes she must have booked two rides – anything her fault for the confusion, and it’s not worth wondering why a strange man might have picked her up. at the airport. As the ride drags on uncomfortably, Eli writhes in mental knots justifying his mistake rather than seeking malicious intent. And then she gets covered in the roof and wakes up in the basement of – you guessed it – her number one fan.
Unfortunately, this is exactly how a woman might react in a dangerous situation, socialized as we are to disregard our own intuitions (double horror). Amplify that by being an author; as Elison said in a recent interview, “Artists are meant to be temperamental, but touring songwriters are creatures of absolute gratitude and discipline.” These insights come from Elison’s decade-long career as a published author; but before that, she was a fanfiction writer and cultural critic, so she too understands the personal investment that readers and other professionals on the fringes of the industry put into their favorite works. Eli in the Uber entrusts her safety to a stranger, but she doesn’t realize how much her fans have trusted her, despite not knowing her at all, to feel seen in her creations . These claims – to its worlds, to its characters, to his– can so easily slip sideways into a toxic right.
number one fan interrogates this push-and-pull dynamic in the context of social media and the past two decades of SFF publishing and fandom; it throws Misery, Harry Potter, Seanan McGuire, Brandon Sanderson, Wheel of Time, fanfic, the Hugo Awards (including the 2015 list), and more in a bag and shake it. The details and mashups that emerge provide texture for the horrific ordeal between Eli, chained to a bed in a basement with a camera tracking his every move; and Leonard, who uses torture tactics like sleep deprivation in an attempt to break the author. But the atrocity doesn’t end with Annie Wilkes forcing Paul Sheldon to burn his manuscript and write a new ending for Misery Chastain; Leonard not only wants to own the magical heroine Millicent Michaelson, he also wants to own Eli Gray herself.
Elison (winner of the 2015 Philip K. Dick Award for Book of the Nameless Midwife) is an astute and supremely intelligent writer whose SFF short fiction includes the gorgeous Locus Award-winning short story “The Pill” and the dark but hopeful story “Dresses Like White Elephants.” However, that intelligence is in limited supply here in a book whose plot relies less on inventive world-building in a limited space and more on baseball’s insider knowledge of the genre’s recent controversies. In this case, hitting SFF bingo feels more exhausting than festive.
Bouncing between Eli’s current imprisonment and flashbacks from both viewpoints, Elison traces how seemingly innocuous tweets and brief interactions at conventions are slowly eroding the barriers between creator and fan. Leonard is clearly disturbed, though it’s unclear if any blame can be attributed to a traumatic context (it’s only superficially hinted at), or if he was always going to treat women as imaginary objects rather than as real and imperfect people. (Content warning for rape and other violence against people with vaginas.) Although Leonard gives off low-level creepiness from the start, he gets just enough access to the world of SFF publishing to build his own narrative from both the writer and the victim, depending on the conditions. A belated reveal of key information even engenders a brief, curious sympathy for Leonard’s career stumbles, but it’s presented too late in the game to balance its torturing of Eli.
Speaking of – when it comes to sex and torture, Elison nails every gruesome point. She inverts the setting of the novel, replacing Miseryfrom icy Colorado to the brutal Californian desert, without losing the feeling of total remoteness and disconnection from the outside world. For a protagonist like Eli, who has few friends other than fellow author Nella and personal assistant Joe, it’s incredibly easy to get cut despite living with our phones almost surgically strapped to our hands. The meticulous consideration Elison gave to “The Pill” speculative thought experiment means that number one fan explains every uncomfortable detail of a cis woman’s confinement, including a lingering yeast infection and how her body responds to being alternately drugged and starved.
The multiple perspectives provide Elison with ample opportunity to really examine this storyline from every angle outside of Leonard’s prison, with supporting characters operating on their worst impulses: the FBI agent involved in the case. of missing persons suspects Joe just enough for her to juggle following her hunches. by doing his own background check on him – each delay further weakening Eli’s chances of getting outside help. Even those closest to Eli doubt she’s in what looks like melodramatic danger, in part because of the way she keeps everyone at bay. Maybe some of them even want to see her suffer a little. It’s the kind of unwavering honesty that Elison excels at.
number one fan is a disconcerting read from its unsettling first moments to its final, violent catharsis. Some of the pop culture touchstones and easter eggs in the middle could have been excised without changing the emotional core of the story, which is an in-depth examination of the greatest demands placed on female creators, even when gender-swapping a well-known straight fan story. At the end of Misery, Paul ends up writing the best book of his career in part because of Annie’s challenges. On the other hand, Eli doesn’t need to change for Leonard. She breaks, sure, but she breaks for herself, not for him or anyone else. From Elison, I expected no less.
number one fan is published by Mira.
Natalie Zutter’s favorite riff on Misery That’s when comedian Miel Bredouw narrated the film’s plot to the tune of Paramore’s “Misery Business” on Punch Up the Jam. Talk about pop culture stories with her on Twitter!