The creepiness factor for Ben H. Winters’ Bedbugs starts to climb before his evocative prose even begins. Holding the book in one hand while turning pages with the other, I experienced a sudden involuntary pause at the sight of black speckling along the book’s spine and a slight frisson of disgust at the realisation that the ragged edges around a scattering of larger dots were legs. Knowing in the same moment that it was merely a clever effect accomplished with a bit of well-placed ink could not prevent the quick tightening of the gut they induced. Oh, well done, book designer, well done. That eerily invasive crawly feeling underscores the novel’s central psychological premise: humans and bugs don’t mix. There is something deeply offensive about being snacked on by creatures who hide until we are most vulnerable. Bedbugs’ seeming invulnerability has kept them in the news and so I began reading Winters’ new novel with an eye hyper-sensitive to hype. It turns out that bedbugs, uniquely suited to wreak havoc on both biological and psychological fronts, make an ideal weapon—especially if wielded by someone with one foot right up to the neck in the Twilight Zone.
Susan and Alex Wendt are the supremely normal protagonists of Bedbugs. They live in Brooklyn with their daughter, Emma, who has all the requisite trappings of inherited yuppiedom including a nanny and a Maclaren stroller. But their apartment could be better and Susan’s determined search eventually leads her to 56 Cranberry Street #2, an 1860s brownstone where she imagines that both Alex’s ambition for his business and her dream to resume painting will be realised. For the first few weeks in their new home, her instincts seem to be right. Then slowly, with one disconcerting event after another, Susan’s initial optimism begins to erode, taking pieces of her sanity with it. It’s not just the possibility of an infestation that consumes her with worry but the implication of an infestation that seems targeted at her alone. Winters’ writing shines as he describes the insidious, isolating psychology of her predicament. A burst of creativity becomes an obsessed drive and the result, her first painting in her new home, takes on a significance Dorian Gray would appreciate. Finally, she is on her own as the mystery takes a truly terrifying turn.
Clearly, Ben Winters, the best-selling author of the recent YA novel The Secret Life of Ms. Finkelman and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, enjoys a puzzle and the realm of the slightly Strange and Unusual. Bedbugs kicks it up several notches, tweaking the traditional urban fears of being singled out and of failing with the added stress of supernaturally driven pests—all the more enjoyable because it can never happen to you.
Visit Ben Winters at his blog where he talks about Bedbugs and his latest project, The Mystery Of The Missing Everything. For more information about Bedbugs and to see the new book trailer, a visit to the Quirk Books website is in order.