Title – Bedbugs
Author – Ben Winters
Genre – Horror
With the monsoon season set upon us in full swing, the weekend was spent cooped up with books and coffee, nestled within a blanket, away from the downpour outside. And nothing like a creepy book to create some atmosphere.
Ben Winters’ “Bedbugs” gets straight to the point from the title itself. Susan Wendt is a former lawyer who quit her full-time job to return to her old passion of painting. Her photographer husband Alex co-owns a firm that associates with jewellery companies and clicks photographs for their catalogues. The couple have a three and a half year old daughter Emma. Susan desperately wants to move out of their current accommodation, to a larger space where Emma can have her own room, and Susan can paint in her own studio. Miraculously, they chance upon an ad by Andrea, an old widow renting out two floors of her apartment. Andrea lives on the ground floor, and the first and second floors are available for rent. The rent is extremely low for the space available, and there’s no broker’s fee since the point of contact is directly with the owner. The opportunity is too huge to pass on.
A few days later, the young family moves into their new neighbourhood. And then the problems start creeping up. (Literally!) Every morning, Susan wakes up with bedbug bites. Fearing an infestation in their new home, an exterminator is called in, who doesn’t find any trace of bugs. The landlady insists her apartment has never been plagued by bedbugs. Moreover, Susan is the only one being bitten – her husband and daughter have never been bitten, and neither has anyone even seen any bedbugs or traces of cast skins or droppings or larvae around. With the biting and itching reaching unbearable levels, Alex fixes an appointment with the doctor. An evaluation leads to the diagnosis of Ekbom’s Syndrome (delusional parasitosis) – a belief that insects invisible to the naked eye are persecuting you. No one else from the family has seen or been bitten by bedbugs, and Susan’s constant scratching has torn open the welts so badly that her wounds appear self-inflicted. Anti-anxiety medication is prescribed along with soothing lotions and she is sent on her way.
Are there really bedbugs in the apartment or is Susan imagining them? But she has indeed been bitten. She has seen and felt the welts before scratching them. Why does everyone insist the apartment is bug-free? Who/what are these sinister bugs that are tormenting only her? According to Susan, the bugs are not just hiding in the corners of door-frames but in the synapses between thoughts; they are not feasting on her blood but her body and soul. And they seem to be latched on forever. Why doesn’t anyone else see? An eccentric landlady, a cryptic handyman, missing ex tenants, murdered pets, skeptical neighbours – the humans appear creepier than the bugs.
“Bedbugs” certainly builds an atmosphere around it, with the reader feeling something is actually out there, watching you through the walls and floorboards, waiting for the chance to strike and then disappear without a trace. As I read this curled up in a blanket, I couldn’t help imagining a tickle or an itch – the writing leaves that impression on you. One grouse with regards to the writing would be, like the bedbugs, it literally crawls until two-thirds of the book, and suddenly picks up towards the end that you feel too much is happening too soon, and many parts are left unexplained. The cover is simplistic in design and color – a sharp contrast to what’s within the pages. A particular mention needs to be made of the art work – there are bugs drawn throughout the book, starting with a small number at various corners of a page, and leading to a full-blown infestation as you near the end of the book. It really keeps you hooked onto the theme of the book.
Those interested in reading this book, proceed with caution. The points below might give out spoilers. Some parts I couldn’t help questioning that weren’t explained in the story:
~Why was the babysitter blamed in the new apartment, when she was already working for the family in the old house as well?
~How did the landlady know where the husband was when he was working late? There is an allusion to this knowledge in the set-up to the climax, but no explanation to how that conversation was brought about.
~The handyman’s absence is not clarified. According to the sequence of events, he appears in Susan’s dreams. So, his subsequent scenes in reality are not justified.
~The happenings in the bonus room are not explained – If the cat didn’t exist, where did the claw marks and urine stench come from? How did the portrait change from the neighbour Susan was painting to a self-portrait? What was the story behind the folded photograph wedged in the windowsill?
~The presence of the compost bins for the bedbugs doesn’t make much sense, because as the name implies, they would hide in furniture/clothes and feed on humans. A compost pit might harbour other kinds of bugs but certainly not bedbugs; more so when humans are around.
Horror is my favorite genre in fiction, and I couldn’t help wondering how Stephen King or Adam Nevill could have taken this to another level altogether. But that’s just me nitpicking since I read a lot of books of this kind. For those who don’t read much of horror, or don’t have the stomach for hardcore scary books, this works well enough. The fear factor and creepy quotient is very much present if you have nothing to compare with. You could call this a lightweight horror novel. There’s also the psychological aspect to consider – if you’re frightened of bugs, you might find the novel more unnerving. I don’t get squeamish that easily. If you read it on rainy or snowy days, when you’re stuck indoors, it has quite the effect. By itself, I might have rated this a 4/5. But being a horror aficionado, my rating for this one lies somewhere mid-way.
Rating – 2.5/5 (3/5 on Goodreads since there’s no decimal rating option there.)