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One of the great things about crime fiction is that because it is so abundant but often rather neglected by literary critics, there tends to be plenty of near-forgotten pulp masterpieces that a lucky reader can rediscover. Case in point: the brilliant epistolary thriller, The Fan (1977), by Bob Randall, a once fairly celebrated playwright who, sadly, died of AIDS in the 1990s.

When The Fan came out, it was a best-seller billed as “the most terrifying book of the year" and the movie rights were bought by Hollywood. But a Google search for information about the book threw up surprisingly few mentions.

Interestingly, The Fan explores the phenomenon of celebrity stalking before it emerged as a social problem, diagnosing the first stages of a serious Western illness. Three years after the book’s publication, in December 1980, a Beatles fan killed pop icon John Lennon in New York. A few months later, in March 1981, a stalker of actor Jodie Foster tried to re-enact a scene from Martin Scorsese’s movie Taxi Driver (in which Foster starred) by shooting American president Ronald Reagan in Washington, D.C. Reagan miraculously survived having a bullet pierce his chest 25mm from the heart.

These days we’ve gotten used to news of stalkers—another ex-Beatle, George Harrison, was almost killed by one, singer Björk had an obsessive fan who sent her a book booby-trapped with an acid bomb, and actors Uma Thurman, Gwyneth Paltrow, Mel Gibson and Michael Douglas have all had stalker problems so threatening that they had to take legal action. This mental disorder has a name nowadays—Celebrity Worship Syndrome. The weird thing is that celebrities depend on their fan following, yet need to be cautious in their dealings with them.

Coming back to the The Fan, it is an early in-depth study of the mind of a celebrity stalker. Devilishly simple, The Fan is basically the correspondence between a cast of characters—with a special focus on letters from a delusional man, Douglas “Your Greatest Fan" Breen, who thinks he has built up a rapport with Broadway star Sally Ross (played in the movie version by Lauren Bacall). Douglas (played by Michael Biehn, who is more famous as a supporting actor in films like The Terminator and Aliens) leads a humdrum life and works in a music shop, but dreams of intimacy with Sally.

What he doesn’t know is that the stock replies he gets are mostly penned by the star’s secretary, as the diva herself doesn’t read fan mail. Gradually, Douglas comes to the conclusion that the secretary has to be eliminated so that he and Sally can consummate their long-distance romance. This is where the book starts to get perversely bone-chilling as Douglas inches his way closer and closer to the star—in one chapter he’s sitting on a park bench opposite her apartment stroking the knife in his pocket, feeling superior to everyone going about their normal lives: “Poor simple little people, frightened and timid. Which of them had the bravura to do what I would do before the day was over?"

Although you can download the movie, I would recommend you track down the book through second-hand bookshops. Here, the suspense is created through the letters themselves, including elaborate letterheads that lend a degree of authenticity and keep the suspense going.

Incidentally, the movie was shot in New York just before Lennon, eerily enough, was killed right in front of the very same building where Bacall was living. When it was released (in May 1981), it was highly topical, considering the shootings of Lennon and Reagan in the preceding months, but that fact may also have contributed to it flopping, with reviewers describing it as “an exploitation cheapie".

The Fan was, nevertheless, a prophetic debut novel and the author was set to become the next Stephen King. The year the movie was released, he published a sequel, The Calling, in which the telephone is used as a medium of horrors. But subsequently he has, by history, been reduced to the status of an also-ran.

Meanwhile, a few years later, Stephen King himself started a debate on celebrity stalking through his thriller Misery (trivia: Bacall again appeared in its movie version), in which a crazed fan decides to see to it that her favourite novelist keeps writing the books she wants to read, hindering him from moving on in his career by literally chopping off his feet with an axe. Interestingly, in his latest novel, Finders Keepers, which has just come out, King revisits the same traumatic theme again—a fan shooting a famous novelist.

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