Author: Ben H. Winters
Genre: Horror, Thriller
Publisher: Quirk Publishing
Publication Date: September 2011
Paperback: 256 pages
FOR RENT: Top two floors of beautifully renovated brownstone, 1300 sq. ft., 2BR 2BA, eat-in kitchen, one block to parks and playgrounds. No broker’s fee.
Susan and Alex Wendt have found their dream apartment.
Sure, the landlady is a little eccentric. And the elderly handyman drops some cryptic remarks about the basement. But the rent is so low, it’s too good to pass up.
Big mistake. Susan soon discovers that her new home is crawling with bedbugs . . . or is it? She awakens every morning with fresh bites, but neither Alex nor their daughter Emma has a single welt. An exterminator searches the property and turns up nothing. The landlady insists her building is clean. Susan fears she’s going mad—until a more sinister explanation presents itself: she may literally be confronting the bedbug problem from Hell.(
Stand alone or series: Stand alone novel
How did I get this book: Review Copy from the publisher
Why did I read this book: Honestly, like most people, bedbugs freak me the hell out. As a Williamsburg/Brooklyn dweller that has been through the apartment hunting nightmare, has heard the whispered rumors of bedbugs at work and in movie theaters, I’ve lived firsthand through The Terror. So when I heard about this book, I had a visceral, negative reaction. And, as such strong emotions are wont to do, I knew I simply had to read this book. It’s the perfect subject for a horror novel, isn’t it? A deadly infestation of bedbugs from hell? Despite my very real terror of the vermin, despite my ridiculous irrational fear that merely writing about bedbugs may be some kind of jinx, I knew I had to give this book a try.
For young couple Susan and Alex Wendt and their toddler daughter, a tiny one bedroom apartment in Union Square just isn’t going to cut it anymore. Though she’s quit her career as a lawyer to pursue her abandoned love of art, and the strain on their financial circumstances as a family, Susan is eager to move into a new home. When she discovers a craigslist posting about a two bed/two bath brownstone in Brooklyn Heights (for under $4000, if you can believe that), it seems too good to be true. When they check out the apartment though, everything looks – unbelievably – perfect. Susan is immediately drawn to the hip neighborhood, the quaint old duplex, and she’s especially fond of the apartment’s “bonus room” that would serve as a perfect studio for her art. Even the elderly, overly-friendly landlord Andrea seems to have her own quirky appeal. Making the decision to move in, things seem to be looking up for the Wendts.
Well, it all seems perfect except for the weird pinging noise that resonates throughout the apartment. And the rancid smell that starts to emanate from Susan’s new studio room.
And then, there are the bedbugs.
Susan knows there’s something wrong with her new house, that it has bedbugs (and she has the bites on her body to prove it), but no one will believe her. Even a licensed exterminator can’t find any trace of the tiny parasites. So Susan decides to take matters into her own hands, to stop the blight, and save what shreds remain of her tattered sanity…
It’s very clear that Ben H. Winters’ Bedbugs pays homage to a number of horror tropes and classics – there’s the nefarious elderly busybody neighbor reminiscent of Rosemary’s Baby, the blurred line between the supernatural and insanity a la The House on Haunted Hill or The Turn of the Screw. Of course, the unique twist for this novel is the terror that bedbugs inspire – the mere mention of the vermin is enough to send one into paroxysms of feverish itching. The rumor of someone having bedbugs is enough to turn that unfortunate soul into a social pariah – something that Susan experiences firsthand in the novel when others won’t let her stay with them. I loved that this very current fear of these hard to kill creatures is examined in the novel, and Mr. Winters does a fantastic job of expounding on the public paranoia (especially in New York). The setting, especially the borough of Brooklyn, is rendered perfectly in the book, too, from the hipster coffee shops to the trendy, yuppie young families so populous in Brooklyn Heights.
Of course, while relevant theme of bedbugs and authentic setting are timely and well-rendered, the heart of the book lies with the psychological horror that builds from the opening pages. Susan is what one might call high-strung. She frets, she worries, she’s freaking Natalie Portman in Black Swan. That isn’t to say that what’s happening to her isn’t real – part of the awesomeness of reading Bedbugs is this tension, this question of “is she or isn’t she” frakking balls insane. This tension is built beautifully over the course of the book’s slim 250-some pages, as Susan’s paintings become morphed and twisted and her paranoia and delusions grow increasingly violent. Though it’s a story that has been done many, many times before, when done well, the sane/insane, normal/paranormal dichotomy is a brilliant one, and Bedbugs *almost* pulls it off. Where the book lost me, though, was in its final act, where the scales are explicitly tipped waaaaay over to one side of the spectrum, leaving no room for personal interpretation or ambiguity. It’s kind of anticlimactic, really, that after such excellent exposition and so skillfully playing with this tension, readers are given a point-blank, unequivocal explanation for everything (and, I might add, the explanation is trite, utterly predictable, and disappointing in the extreme).
That criticism said, however, there is enough creepy-crawly goodness to Bedbugs to salvage the novel, and one also must keep in mind that horror novels often falter in their final, revelatory act. I don’t hold the lackluster ending too much against Bedbugs or Mr. Winters – because at the end of the novel, I was still thoroughly entertained. Bedbugs might not be the most original novel you’ll ever read, and though it stumbles in its resolution and denouement, it’s still a damn good read for a chilly autumn day. Just, you know, don’t read it before you try to go apartment hunting. And always remember: if a place looks too good to be true and is super underpriced, it’s probably haunted, home to satanic elderly neighbors, or the site of demonic bedbug infestation. You’ve been warned.
Notable Quotes/Parts: Check out the book trailer below:
Rating: 6 – Good
Reading Next: Z: Zombie Stories Anthology
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