It was inevitable that someone with an imagination would channel the “zeitgeist” of 21st Century New York City — with its frustrated artists, anxious parents, elusive hipsters, iPhones, trendy bakeries in gentrified neighborhoods, the Trader Joe’s on Atlantic and bed bugs, yes, bed bugs — into a thriller novel.
Bedbugs, by Ben H. Winters (Quirk Books, 2011) does just that.
Susan, Alex and little Emma Wendt live in the proverbial cramped Manhattan apartment, with its attendant anxieties. Alex is a frustrated photographer. Susan, stay-at-home mother of Emma, would paint, if only she had the space. The Wendts are drawn to a big, bright apartment in a Brooklyn Heights brownstone that seems like a godsend, and maybe a bit too good to be true.
Susan is head over heels, Alex is a good sport, and Emma seems like a natural in the new environment. They make the big move and settle in, making the acquaintance of Andrea, the quirky landlady, and Louis, her ever-present assistant. They discover the delights of the neighborhood, new friends, as well as a growing list of nagging “issues” about the apartment: Why does the crack in the floor keep growing? What’s that pinging sound followed by moaning? Why does the studio smell so awful?
And finds blood on her pillow.
Susan has the panic and anxiety reactions familiar to those who’ve dealt with bed bugs or are regulars of this site. Intense internet research follows, the results of which sound kind of familiar, including a bed bug forum: BedbugDemolition.com. A tough-but-compassionate pest control professional inspects and clears the Wendt home, but the bites increase and so does Susan’s anxiety. Friends become unavailable. Play dates get canceled. Scapegoats are sacrificed. Susan’s marriage and life goes into a tailspin.
Yet, for all this, no one but Susan can see the bugs and bites. And bites are appearing in places where ordinary bed bugs do not feed. Does Susan have bed bugs? Is she suffering from a psychological illness? Or, has she opened the door to a far greater evil? Will Susan’s relationship with Alex and Emma survive? Will Susan?
The basis of every horror story, no matter how fantastic, is truth.
Although Winters takes a few liberties with the science (more on that below), the experience he records represents an all-too typical story: unsuspecting family moves into infested home, someone reacts, someone else doesn’t react, and questions arise as to whether bed bugs are present at all.
The fears about children being affected, the immediate urge (at least from the bite-affected party) to move, the fear of going to sleep, the depression and anxiety of living with bed bugs, the way differing experiences of bed bugs (reacting/not reacting, believing/not believing) can fracture a relationship — these are all experiences many of us Bedbuggers can relate to.
Utilizing minor incidents and details, Winters masterfully paints an atmosphere of increasing dread, which begins to build long before bed bugs are suspected.
There were a few places where the science was not 100% accurate. For example, a pest management professional in the story says that,
Half the time when someone’s got bedbug bites but no bedbugs, what they’ve really got is spider beetles.
Some people have bite-like reactions to the shed hairs of carpet beetle larvae. However, spider beetles, American Museum of Natural History entomologist Lou Sorkin has assured us, do not bite humans. (Unfortunately, Nobugs has actually heard a real-life PCO claim they did — and heard him report that they treated clients who had only evidence of spider beetles, on the basis that they might have caused the clients’ suspected “bites.”)
Also, bed bugs also do not normally harbor on people. And while they do tend to hide well, and while some people do not react to their bites, the bugs themselves can be viewed with the naked eye. It’s also worth noting that while Susan tosses diatomaceous earth around her home by the handful, it should not be applied in this manner. (Our DE FAQ gives some suggestions.)
As fantastic as the events portrayed are, if you’ve experienced bed bugs, however, the novel will ring true. It may also make you itch.
Author Ben H. Winters also wrote the popular “mash-up” books Android Karenina and Sense, Sensibility and Sea Monsters, as well as children’s books, such as The Secret Life of Ms. Finkelman.
The “Special Thanks” page at the end of Bedbugs includes the following note,
A tip of the hat to the habitués of Bedbugger.com, where I have lurked, bedbuglike, for many hours, gathering insights and then disappearing, sated, into the darkness. What a great and terrifying website.
Thanks, Mr. Winters!
Warning: If you are currently struggling with bed bugs or get anxious thinking about them, do not read this book right now. In fact, thanks to the masterfully diabolical design of the book’s interior, do not even flip the pages.
And seriously, don’t watch this promotional video:
If, however, you have “gone through the wall” and can deal with bed bugs without flinching, or better, can even laugh at yourself (and you know who you are), or if you haven’t personally suffered from bed bugs, Bedbugs offers an engaging and enjoyable perspective on the things that keep us up at night.
Click here to enter a Bedbugger.com contest to win one of two copies of Bedbugs, signed by the author.
You can find Bedbugs at any good bookstore, including online from Amazon.com, where it’s available in paperback, Kindle and unabridged audio editions.
And check out this CBC radio interview with the author.
CiLecto & Nobugsonme
Disclosure: Ci Lecto received a review copy of the novel as a gift through a “friend of a friend” unconnected to the author or distributors of the book. Nobugsonme received an advance copy of the novel from the author. The Amazon links and banners in this post are affiliate ads and purchasing this book (or anything else) through these will help support the site at no additional cost to you. Please read the site’s Disclosure Policy to learn more.