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Book review: 'Bedbugs'

Ben H. Winters' itch-inducing psychological thriller builds the tension so exquisitely that readers won't mind the rather pedestrian denouement.

October 31, 2011|By Jessica Gelt, Los Angeles Times

If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. That's the moral of the story in "Bedbugs," a disturbing new novel by Ben H. Winters. The book chronicles the horrific events surrounding the Wendt family's move to a brownstone that is renting for an unbelievably low price in a trendy Brooklyn neighborhood. What appears idyllic soon turns into a creepy-crawly nightmare.

The brownstone at 56 Cranberry St. is rented to the Wendts by a daffy old widow named Andrea Scharfstein, who lives on the ground floor. Scharfstein says a young couple mysteriously vacated and she is looking for stable tenants to take over the lease. Susan, Alex and their young daughter, Emma, are ideal candidates and move in right away. Susan falls in love with the two-story apartment, with its eat-in kitchen, two bedrooms and two bathrooms. Plus there is a "bonus room" just off the living room that she can use to revive her passion for painting, which she put on hold when Emma was born.

It isn't long, however, before Susan wakes up with a trio of red welts that she feels sure are the work of bedbugs. In the book, New York is amid a bedbug epidemic. Soon more bites appear, and Susan begins to experience blackouts during which she adds nasty red marks to the face of the woman in her most recent painting.

Strangely, neither Alex or Emma are being bitten. Nor has anyone besides Susan seen the bugs. Still, the tiny creatures plague Susan, eventually covering her with bites. In a particularly harrowing scene she sleeps in the living room, cocooned in long underwear, gloves and a shower cap, and a bedbug crawls into her mouth and bites the back of her tongue.

Winters writes about Susan's rising panic with itch-inducing precision. At its best, "Bedbugs" is a psychological thriller with Hitchcockian suspense. The action builds slowly, and the reader is led to suspect that Susan is actually going insane — that there are, in fact, no bugs. She begins to deteriorate physically, scratching at her bites until she has deep, bloody wounds, and chewing her nails to ragged shreds. She can't sleep, acts irrationally and eventually with extreme violence.

The action kicks into high gear when Susan discovers a mysterious book called "The Shadow Species," which asserts that the bugs that have targeted her are demonic underworld creatures called "badbugs."

"Bedbugs hide under mattresses and in the corners of door frames; badbugs hide in the crevices of human history, in the instants between seconds, in the synapses between thoughts," reads Susan in the book. "When bedbugs latch on, they feast on blood for ten minutes and fall away; badbugs feast not only on blood, but on body and soul. And when they latch on, they feast forever."

The idea of supernatural bedbugs is a stroke of horror genius. Regular bedbugs are enough to inspire shuddering revulsion in most people, and stories abound about how hard they are to purge and how a bad case of them can cause enough strain to break up a stable relationship. Badbugs are bedbugs on steroids, and the death of the person who brought them into being is the only way they can be destroyed.

The book sings when it sinks into the scary muck of this mythology. Badbugs emerge from every nook and cranny of the apartment, they stream en masse under doors and cover their victims with painful sores. These writhing armies of tiny black specks are psychosis incarnate, and Winters would have done well to leave the narrative in that realm. Because when he tries to pin the story on a more pedestrian villain — namely, a murderous, deranged human — the horror loses its bite.

It is notoriously hard to end a tale of horror satisfactorily, because the explanation is usually far less fantastic than the journey of getting to it. That's certainly the case with "Bedbugs," but fortunately for the reader, the narrative arc of "Bedbugs" is so harrowing that it's well worth the end-of-book fumble. It's a story that will stick with you too: It'll be a while before you'll stop checking under your covers before sinking into bed.

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