PUBLISHED: 22:21, 25 April 2012
By Peter James
At first, I didn’t really notice her. I was doing a book signing in Edinburgh and there was nothing remarkable about the woman who quietly approached my desk carrying a copy to be signed.
Somewhere in her mid-30s, she was nondescript — medium height and with fair rather than blonde hair.
But she was smiling and had bought a book, so I was grateful. I signed the fly-leaf, thanked her for coming and thought no more about it.
Until a week later, when I was doing a library event in Norwich and I was in the middle of my usual speech. I saw a woman in the audience smiling at me as if she knew me. There was something vaguely familiar about her, but I was flattered to have such an attentive member of the audience and didn’t give her another thought.
Until one more week later, when I arrived in Cardiff for another signing session and there she was again. There was no getting away from it: I officially had my own stalker. Before I became a writer of thrillers, I’d been a film producer and worked with some big names — Al Pacino, Sharon Stone, Robert De Niro — so I knew about celebrity stalkers. In Beverly Hills, the Los Angeles Police Department has the specialist Threat Management Unit to deal with the problem.
This explains why Hollywood stars live behind high gates and have specialist security firms on speed dial. But it didn’t explain why I, a 63-year-writer — well preserved, but by no means an obvious heart-throb — suddenly had my own stalker, too. For a while, I just pretended it wasn’t happening. She wasn’t doing anything alarming, indeed, she barely said anything at all , so if I just smiled and carried on as normal, I thought, perhaps she’d go away. And then the emails started.
At first, she told me how much she liked my books, always flattering for any writer. Then she moved on to my appearance: how much she’d liked a black T-shirt I’d worn to one signing. It wasn’t so much the content of the emails that was worrying — at least not initially — as the length and the frequency with which they arrived. Soon, emails were arriving several times a day, sometimes 3,000 words long. And it quickly became clear that she expected them to be answered.
What had seemed a bit of a joke — the question my male friends asked about her was ‘is she good-looking?’ — now didn’t seem funny at all. I found myself checking the street outside, especially when I left an event after dark. And I took far more care to see who was in my audience or signing queue. Now, I’m certainly not the first writer or performer to discover how much of a double-edged sword are the new relationships that email, Facebook and Twitter have given us with those who admire and buy our work.
I’ve always put my email address in my books and use Facebook and Twitter. For the most part it’s worked tremendously well and helped enormously with research, but, like many, I tend to forget just how much information we unwittingly share with millions online. Time and again, this woman would appear at an event, and time and again, I’d think: ‘How does she know about this one?’ And then I’d realise it was because I’d mentioned it on Facebook or in a blog, or unthinkingly tweeted.
Most people understand that while social media gives you contact with someone on the internet, it doesn’t mean you’re suddenly bosom pals. My stalker, however, clearly felt otherwise. It’s here, I suspect, that I made a mistake. I did reply to her first email — just simple ‘thank you for your interest’ kind of stuff. And within five minutes came a reply.
When I didn’t answer this, there was a two-hour delay before my new email icon flashed up. ‘Are you OK?’ I told her I was, but when I didn’t reply to a subsequent email for five days, she went frantic: ‘Peter, I’m so worried about you. I keep imagining you’re lying there unconscious,’ she wrote. I wasn’t unconscious, of course, I was just trying to get on with my work and normal life; I didn’t have the time or the inclination to keep up with her apparently insatiable appetite for emails.
And, besides, the awful memory of Stephen King’s Misery and particularly the film version, in which Kathy Bates plays an obsessed fan who breaks a novelist’s legs with a sledgehammer (the book is even nastier) just wouldn’t go away. My own stalker grew bolder, buying every book from my backlist, and for seven or eight years she was at just about every event I went to. On the rare occasions she missed one, she would email to apologise: ‘I do hope you’ll be OK without me in the audience.’
Of course, I’d be OK; in fact, I was relieved. Then came the photographs. This was the pivotal point at which my stalker stopped feeling like a irritant and more like a serious worry. She sent me photographs of her ‘Peter James collection’. A whole wall, filled with my books — even publications I’d contributed to years ago — flanked by candlesticks like a shrine, and framed photographs of me, from various public appearances. But even more worryingly were photographs of me in the street, climbing into a taxi, or simply going about my private life.
I scanned them, looking for clues as to where they could have been taken, and was more than slightly relieved to note they weren’t near my house. But she had been watching me, obviously. It was only a matter of time, I thought, before she turned up on my doorstep, like bunny-boiling Glenn Close in the film Fatal Attraction. Only there was — and never had been — anything going on between us. It was all in her mind. It was at this point I decided to share my concerns with Helen, my partner of 14 years. I’d never hidden anything from her, and she knew I had a following of female fans, which she was more than comfortable with. But this . . . well, this was something different. She told me to get some advice and so, three years after the campaign began, I talked to a friend and contact at Sussex police. I knew there was little they could do, as this woman had never actually threatened to harm me, and the police told me that, apart from some mild mental illness, she was probably harmless.
Only it didn’t feel like it. The psychological profilers I know told me she either had low self-esteem, perhaps after being bullied at school, and was looking for someone she could hero-worship, or she was a fantasist who genuinely believed we were having a relationship. Either way, the emails grew longer and more frequent again; their tone more obsessive and possessive. One day, to Helen’s consternation, an anonymous, scented love letter arrived. It was full of declarations of undying love and rather terrifying assumptions that this love was reciprocated by me. And it didn’t take detective powers to work out who it was from. I stepped up the security at home, employing a security guard and investing more than £20,000 in a monitoring and alarm system. Even then, it wasn’t enough, with Helen feeling increasingly vulnerable when she was at home alone in what had always been a very lonely and isolated house, half a mile from our nearest neighbour, surrounded by empty fields and patches of woodland where anyone could have hidden.
An attempted break-in one night, when I was in New York, proved the last straw. Unfortunately, the point of attempted entry wasn’t covered by the security cameras, so we never found out whether it was her. It didn’t matter: Helen simply refused to spend another night in that house. As soon as we could, we moved. Then came the first real flash-point: a book-signing session in Leicester two-and-a-half years ago. There’d been a queue up to 100 people long and I was tired, so I really didn’t notice the now blonde-haired woman who had reached the front. ‘What name would you like in it?’ I asked, automatically. ‘Mine!’ she snapped, before storming off. The next day, a 10,000-word email arrived, complaining bitterly about my failure to recognise someone who, in her own words, had been ‘my number one fan for the past ten years’. And that, suddenly, was that — no more emails, no more sudden appearances and definitely no more scented love letters. It was bliss.
As I slowly came to terms with the fact that she really had gone away, I realised that my experience had given me a real insight into the creepy world of celebrity stalkers. Write what you know, they say, and that is still good advice. The result is my new Roy Grace thriller, Not Dead Yet, the story of an obsessed fan who finally gets to meet the celebrity she loves but who goes murderously to pieces when she’s rebuffed. It’s out in June and I’m really looking forward to all the book-signings and public appearances that go with it. Or rather I was until a few months ago, when at a library event in Bristol for my last book, a novel was suddenly slammed down in front of me. Looking up, I saw an all-too-familiar face break into a sinister-looking smile. ‘I’ve decided to forgive you . . . ’
Not Dead Yet by Peter James will be published on June 7 by Macmillan, at £18.99.