Columns > Published on February 9th, 2015

Crazy In Love: Five Authors And Their Stalkers

When you start talking stalkers, some famous songs spring to mind.

"Every Breath You Take" by The Police. The classic in which Sting gets detailed. He'll watch every breath AND every move. Buddy, if you're watching every breath, in and out, I'll assume you'll be watching when I actually do something. What kind of stalker watches me breathe all night, but when I go out to, I don't know, skate a half-pipe, he says, "Eh. Not interested"?

Blondie's "One Way Or Another" was pretty frank about not only finding a person, but also that Debbie Harry would "get" said person, a statement that was threatening in a way most people seemed cool with.

Of course, who could forget Tag Team. "Whoomp! (There It Is)" isn't so much a song about stalking, but it's really great and I like to slip it in wherever I can.

There's plenty of stalker music. Songs crooned by attractive stalkers who make the whole proposition seem not so bad. So when I started looking into actual stalkers, stalkers of authors, I was in for a bit of a surprise.

Let me tell you something. Doing the research for this column freaked me the hell out. I thought it would be a lark. We use the word "stalking" all the time. "I'm Facebook-stalking you", which just means "I'm looking through your second-cousin's wedding photos for no real reason other than my brain has decided this trumps sleep."

The incidents of author stalking I found were not fun. And, lucky you, now you can read about them.

Quick note, I tried to include a lesson learned from each of the stories below. Not because I'm trying to armchair quarterback, not to say anything that the stalked have done wrong. These are simply the things I'll be saying aloud to myself while I try to sleep for the next few weeks.

The Stalking of Peter James

Dear Peter I thought you looked nice in that black T-shirt and I liked the way you smiled at me.

You wanted a stalking case? You got it. Complete with an honest-to-goodness creepy shrine.

The law is almost powerless to help you. Unless your stalker is pretty explicit about harming you, there's not a lot police can do.

Fiction author Peter James' stalker started showing up at any and all of his public appearances in Britain. He noticed her once, then a week later he saw her again, and then, another week later, she showed up at a THIRD signing event. Shortly thereafter she started emailing him, and it wasn't long before the occasional email multiplied, and soon enough James was getting up to 20 emails per day.

One stand-out email began, "I  thought you would like to see my Peter James collection."

What followed was a photo of a floor-to-ceiling mish-mash of newspaper articles, book covers, and even real photos that were clearly taken from a distance. The photos were of both the author and his wife, pictures of them leaving bars and restaurants. 

The shrine was complete with burning candles.

Just a warning, a running theme in this column is that the law is almost powerless to help you. Unless your stalker is pretty explicit about harming you, there's not a lot police can do. Your stalker can build a shrine, email you over and over, and take pictures of you from a distance, but until she jabs an ice pick in your eye, the law, though often willing to help, is kind of powerless.

The emails James received got longer, hinted at deeper relationships, and even turned analog in the form of a scented love letter arriving at James' house.

Things came to a head (for about the fiftieth time) when, at a book signing, a blonde woman set a book on the table for James to sign. When he asked which name he should make it out to, the woman shouted, "Mine!" It was only when she shouted that James recognized the woman as his stalker. She stomped off and wrote James a 10,000 word email berating him for not recognizing one of his self-described "biggest fans".

After that, things were a bit quieter. James got an idea.

Not Dead Yet, the eighth novel in his detective novel series, focuses on a rebuffed, obsessed fan's attempt on a star's life.

It sounds like poking the bear. But on the other hand, we're talking about a guy who was once snubbed by Martin Amis and decided to strike back by including a new character, Amis Smallbone, in one of his books. Smallbone, as his name would indicate, is not a well-endowed gentleman.

The Lesson: Smell your mail. If it's scented, trash it. It's either a stalker letter or a terrible men's magazine. Either way, you're better off.

The Stalking of James Lasdun

I couldn’t write, read, play with my kids, listen to the news, do almost anything, without drifting off, for longer and longer intervals, into morbid speculations about what new mischief she might be getting up to.

James Lasdun, a writer and teacher, fell face-first into his stalker's clutches. And he wrote an entire book about it.

In a memoir he titled Give Me Everything You Have, Lasdun describes how it all went down. How he'd praised the work of a writing student he calls Nasreen. How they continued a friendly, though very chaste correspondence, which included Lasdun forwarding Nasreen's manuscript to his agent.

The correspondence went on for about three years before things started to take a turn.

Nasreen sent an email to James accusing him of sleeping with a student. A claim he rebuffed. He then started to be overrun with emails from his "friend", emails that became more and more problematic.

Lasdun eventually broke off communication when he felt things were headed a flirtatious direction he didn't care for. Which prompted even more messages in which Nasreen described suitors she met through a personal ad. Which is an interesting tactic I'd never considered. If an ex sent me her new boyfriend's profile from with qualities highlighted, qualities I didn't posses (has nice home, likes hamsters, doesn't giggle at the phrase "penal system"), that would hurt. 

Nasreen's messages got even darker. She told Lasdun that his children would grow up to be Nazis. That a story of his about an older man who sleeps with a servant must be based on Lasdun's real life. When Lasdun didn't respond, she called him out:

You fucking faggot coward, say something!

The next few years? A deluge. Voicemails and emails. She accused Lasdun of conducting affairs, of stealing other people's writing and selling it as his own work. Nasreen was thorough. Amazon, Goodreads, Facebook.

Perhaps her most diabolical method, Nasreen would email Lasdun's employer or other organizations, and then she would copy their email headers and cloak her own address so that it appeared as though messages to Lasdun were coming from his work or from literary outlets. She also played the same game from a different angle, writing messages and disguising them so that they appeared as though written by Lasdun.

Nasreen also became pretty adamant in accusing Lasdun of engineering her rape. A rape that indeed happened, but years before the two met.

The thing is, Lasdun's stalker wasn't stupid. She knew where the lines were. The police sent Nasreen cease and desist letters, which she tossed off. The FBI told Lasdun that they couldn't do much unless Nasreen threatened his life.

There is some question from a New Yorker review of Lasdun's memoir, a question of whether Lasdun may have been more attracted to this student than he's ready to admit to himself. Lasdun does, in fact, acknowledge that Nasreen had entered into his fantasy life, into that part of his imagination. He also talks about her beauty quite frankly in his book. And he's very careful to remind readers that he's happily married and that the entirety of his correspondence was chatty, but in no way flirtatious.   

The Lesson: When your stalker accuses you of something pretty damn serious, it's hard not to wonder, no matter how straight-up you are in your memoir. It's a lot easier when you're stalker is a little wacky. See below.

The Stalking of Stephen King

Contrary to all reports about a lone drifter named Mark David Chapman who allegedly shot John Lennon in the back December 8, 1980, you’ll find ample evidence in the back issues of Time, Newsweek, and US News and World Report magazines to suggest otherwise. Namely, that John Lennon was, not only politically assassinated, but that Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and, you’d better sit down, horror novelist Stephen King are the three people who can be proven guilty of the crime. King being the real murderer and Chapman but a look-alike, paid actor misleading you with an absolute hoax, the media in tow.

Of course, right? It wouldn't make sense if the master of horror went stalkerless.

Stephen King's had more than one issue with a crazed fan, if you can believe it. There was a guy who broke into King's home while making two big claims. One, that he wrote Misery. Two, that he had a bomb.

There was also this old lady across the street from my mom's house, and this old lady claimed Stephen King wrote The Shining in her basement. This is 100% true. I mean, it's 100% true that this lady SAID it and that she lived across from me. The rest is up for debate. I'm not saying it's impossible that King actually wrote in her basement. All I'm saying is that I hope, if it is true, that her basement had a good deal less cat vomit when he was there.

All that said, if we're talking about King's rogues' gallery, Steven Lightfoot takes the cake.

Lightfoot claims he received letters from King, and it was through these letters that he came to a very important conclusion: Stephen King was John Lennon's killer.

In order to stir up more believers, Lightfoot souped up a van with decals that explain his "evidence" of King's involvement in Lennon's death. Lightfoot then drove cross-country and parked the van in the town of Bangor, Maine, where King resides.

According to the Bangor Daily News:

[Lightfoot] drew curious spectators for a few weeks, but Bangor residents weren’t persuaded by his thesis.

Lightfoot was eventually served with a protection-from-harassment order.

I originally wrote a little more here about King's efforts to strengthen anti-stalking laws, however I think a better use of the space is to just list a few post titles from Lightfoot's blog:

Get rich; Buy my vans!!!
Stephen King Shot John Lennon
John Cougar Melonhead
I NEED SPONSORS; Quadruple your money offer;
Cover letter / Resume

Lesson 1: It helps you repel your stalker's accusations when your stalker is clearly a little...out there. Plus, John Cougar Mellencamp? Who attacks the 'Coug?

Lesson 2: Get your accusatory book up on Amazon. Sorry, Lightfoot. I want to read more about your compelling evidence. I just don't have a ton of faith when it comes to handing you my credit card info.

The Stalking of Melissa Anelli

Melissa Anelli is the author of Harry, A History: The True Story of a Boy Wizard, His Fans, and Life Inside the Harry Potter Phenomenon. She's also part of the driving force behind GeekyCon, formerly LeakyCon, a Harry Potter convention that has grown into an all-out geekfest.

Anelli was also deeply involved in a Harry Potter fan site. When some of her moderators made repeated and unsuccessful attempts to stop Jessica, a particularly abusive poster who was sleazing around the fan site, Annelli reached out, contacting Jessica and asking her to be cool. Which was when Anelli's stalker was revealed. HogWARTS and all. [insert Law & Order "duhn-duhn" here]

The very next day, Anelli received a death threat from Jessica.

Anelli went straight to the police, who would have been able to intervene (finally, right!? Finally a case where the cops can help!) except for the fact that Jessica lived in New Zealand (damn it!).

The FBI was more helpful. It turns Anelli talked to an FBI agent who just so happened to be a Harry Potter fan. Anelli thinks their mutual love of all things Potter may have opened some doors (see, Alohomora isn't the ONLY unlocking charm out there).

Jessica was jailed for a brief period. However, once she was clear of the law, she immediately got back in the game with renewed vigor.

Annelli on the messages she received:

The normal is 3 to 5 times a week. She'll go on a string so ... I'll get 20 messages you know, in a day. And they range from really, really, really graphic rape threats to really graphic death threats, to threats of both of them at once. And it goes in waves, you know? So it's very, very, very very frequent.

Jessica's family is trying to involve mental health professionals, however it's been slow going, and the harassment has continued for more than five years. Fellow author and friend Maureen Johnson wrote a Tumblr update on Anelli's situation that sums it up nicely:

While I have great sympathy for the fact that the stalker has mental health issues—and that her family are now trying to deal with it—it has been five years. One day of this is a long time. Five years is unthinkable, and the toll it has taken on Melissa is immeasurable. And *her* mental health is also to be considered.

All the while, Melissa has carried on. She has never given up, or given her stalker control. She runs LeakyCon, and writes, and is her normal, lovable self. She’s a great friend and a great aunt. In the background, this happens to her, all the time.

And it has to stop.

The Lesson: New Zealand contains more terrors than just Mt. Doom. Wait, crap. That's a Tolkien thing, not a Harry Potter thing. Shoot. Well, the point being, the internet has made stalking from afar a very real possibility. The internet can see you anywhere, like the Eye of Sauron! Damn it, that's LOTR too.

The Stalking of Helen DeWitt

I write this with a baseball bat by the bed. A weapon that will do more damage than you can bring yourself to inflict is useless; last time I made the wrong choice. (Could I hit someone with a baseball bat? Perhaps.)

There's something seriously messed up going on when a man with a gun can break into your house in the middle of the night, and after he spends a little time in jail, that's it. You're on your own.

DeWitt's first-person account of her stalker is nothing short of goddamn bone-chilling. The above quote is the ending. The END of her story finds her in a remote cabin with a baseball bat, waiting for the return of a man who has broken into her home with a gun once before.

The beginning of DeWitt's story was pretty great, actually. Okay, she was in a little bit of a jam, money-wise, but if she could do some serious writing in two months, everything would be fixed. She got her hands on a mortgage for a small cabin. No phone, no internet, just two months to crank out a word count. Not easy, but she's a pro.

Not long after DeWitt started working in the cabin, a middle-aged man living on the property next door began making frequent visits. DeWitt calls him E., and E. seemed like an alright guy at first. His visits start as an almost-comedy. Here's DeWitt, desperately trying to write under a tight deadline. She finds this perfect spot, and then E. shows up. He's chatty, he swings by all the time. The one place in the world where DeWitt had nothing but time, and this guy is ruining it. DeWitt tries to kindly, but firmly, ask E. to visit a little less. He always says he understands, and then later the same day she'll see him again

At some point, DeWitt makes a daring escape to a nearby hotel. Not so much because of a feeling of danger. It's the only way she can get any work done.

DeWitt gets in touch with the landlord of the nearby property where E. lives. The landlord is pretty much a jerk about the whole thing and doesn't help out at all.

The visits continued, and they started to take on a darker tone. E. let himself into DeWitt's cabin while she was on a walk. On another occasion, E. showed up at DeWitt's door bleeding, covered in snow, and dressed in slippers in the dead of winter.

The landlord's response to DeWitt's continued complaints:

You’re a very attractive woman. He can’t help himself. I’m sorry you can’t live on your property.

DeWitt managed the stalker to the best of her ability and eventually persuaded the law to become more involved. Local police discovered E. had a long criminal history. He was brought to court and released on conditions that included no contact with DeWitt. Which he violated shortly thereafter in epic fashion by breaking into her house with a gun.

DeWitt debated bludgeoning her stalker, but when the opportunity came she couldn't bring herself to do it. Instead, the two stayed up for hours, talking. E. tried to convince DeWitt not to file charges. They talked for some time before DeWitt managed to make a break for it, slipping out of the cabin and running through the woods to the nearest neighbor's house.

DeWitt's stalker was jailed. And he was subsequently released 5 months early. It is at this moment that DeWitt's column begins, with her huddled, holding a baseball bat. Waiting.

Lesson Learned: There's something seriously messed up going on when a man with a gun can break into your house in the middle of the night, and after he spends a little time in jail, that's it. You're on your own. Best to simply move. To sell the cabin to someone else, who, by the way, could very well be victimized too.

In a lot of ways, stalkers are taking a lot more than a person's privacy away. They are taking away their safety when they break into someone's home. They are taking away a person's money when the victim decides that moving is the only option. They take away a person's ability to simply be left alone, to not be harassed on a constant basis.

To circle it all back, final Lessons Learned:

Sting and the Police: I now find your song creepy, if infinitely hum-able. 

Blondie: I'm going to need a little more specificity on what you're going to do once you "get" me. 

Tag Team: I don't know where you are. Which I was okay with before. Now, now I'm just afraid that means you're right around the corner. 

About the author

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado. Buy him a drink and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public restroom.

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