What does a person do when the perfect marriage, perfect home, and perfect life are turned upside-down by the tiniest of problems? What if that problem isn’t even apparent to anyone but you? How does a woman look her husband in the eye, a man who has given up nearly everything for her, and tell him it’s not enough? Welcome to first round of Susan Wendt’s trials; and they’re only beginning.
BEDBUGS is the latest release from Quirk Books and author Ben H. Winters. In the novel, Susan is confronted with the physical and psychological implications of dealing with thousands of tiny parasitic insects and the impious circumstances of their arrival.
From the press release:
Meet Alex and Susan Wendt. They are the perfect couple in search of the perfect brownstone—and they find their dream house in the heart of Brooklyn Heights. Sure, the landlady is a little eccentric, and the handyman drops some cryptic remarks about the previous tenants. But the rent is so low; it’s too good to pass up!
Big mistake: Susan soon discovers that the brownstone is teeming with bedbugs—or is it? She awakens every morning with fresh bites, but neither Alex nor their daughter Emma has a single welt. Exterminators search the property and turn up nothing. The landlady insists the building is clean. Susan fears that she's going mad—but as the mystery deepens, a more sinister explanation presents itself: She may literally be confronting the bedbug problem from Hell.
You may think that a psychological thriller slash horror novel centered around a bunch of bugs may be a little simple; but let me assure you, BEDBUGS delivers. I read this book over a week of vacation with my family along the east coast of Florida. Going from hotel room to hotel room sleeping in a different bed every night and reading about cimex lectularius definitely got into my head. I found myself checking sheets for spots and moltings more than once; no lie.
Ben’s characters are, for the most part, very human; the exception being Alex, Susan’s husband, who I felt didn’t have a whole lot of depth. However, let me quickly say that I think it added to the reader experience of the book. The supporting cast does just that; they support the protagonist. The novel is really about Susan, and her isolated journey through hell.
The first half of the book takes its time and gives you a cozy feeling. The family really does have it all. Alex is successful at what he does allowing Susan to pursue her true passion, which is art. Their daughter, Emma, is healthy and happy, and even Marni the nanny has found her place with them. Susan convinces Alex to move from their cramped little apartment in a less-than-ideal part of town to a wonderful place in Brooklyn Heights. The rent is a little more than they’re used to; but so much less than they expected. It even had a ‘bonus’ bonus room which she could turn into a painting studio.
Then we meet Andrea, the strangely loving and warm landlady and Louis, her handyman. The family grows accustomed to her slightly intrusive ways as they get to know her and her sympathetic situation. The last tenants ran out and left her stranded, her husband recently passed away, and she’s getting too feeble to take good care of herself.
That’s where the story really gets going. Susan starts to hear rumors of a sort of local epidemic of bedbugs driving people to leave the area. She asks around a little, and Andrea assures her there have never been any problems. Shortly after, a brutal local tragedy strikes too close to home, and Susan’s mental rollercoaster begins its downward spiral. First, something isn’t quite right about her art. Then, she gets an unsettling pattern of welts. Soon after, nightmares follow; leading into a full on badbug infestation.
This book is well worth the read for nearly anyone; middle grade through adults. There are mild, if any, sexual references, scenes of horror/violence, and occasional language (yes, the "F" word shows up here and there.) The author has done a great job of writing a PG-13 level novel without making it feel odd or forced. Word choices like “dude” and frequent references to modern conveniences like iPhones, definitely make this feel like a twenty-first century read. Also, at 256 pages, once the narrative gets moving, there’s no room to slow down. The plot-twist ending will wrap the story up nicely which will leave you satisfied . . . and possibly a little more paranoid about where you sleep.
We were also lucky enough to be able to ask Ben a few questions about the book. Continue reading to see our questions and his responses.
First, there is a lot of great New York imagery in the book which makes me wonder, where are you from?
I’m actually from Maryland, originally, and I currently live in the Boston area, but I did spend many years living in Downtown Brooklyn, pretty close to where my protagonist lives in Bedbugs. It’s a wonderful place, not only physically beautiful -- with the bridge and the parks and the view of the Manhattan skyline and so on -- but also with a vast range of fascinating people, from the from old hardcore Brooklynites tucked away in their ancient brownstones, to the too-cool-for-school hipsters drinking espressos in the coffee shops, to young parents pushing their strollers to the playground. I tried to make the Brooklyn of the book like the one I know and love. Except the one in the book is a lot creepier.
Your other work, which I’m familiar with, is Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. Have you always been into Horror, or is this new territory for you?
Sure, I’ve always loved horror, though I never went in much for the spooky-dude-running-around-with-a-chainsaw kind of stuff. As for Bedbugs, I like to see it in the tradition of a certain kind of “psychological” horror novel, where the line is forever shifting between what is real and what is imagined, and the hero’s paranoia and anxiety are as tormenting as anything that may or may not be hiding in the closet. The Turn of the Screw, Rosemary’s Baby, and even The Yellow Wallpaper were big influences.
My earliest experience with horror, that I remember, was an episode of some kind of short-lived Twilight-Zone-ripoff type show, where some criminal ends up buried alive. I remember nothing about that episode, except that A) someone got buried alive, and B) it scared the hell out of me.
Would you mind sharing a little bit of your writing process? Does writing come naturally to you, or are you simply human like the rest of us?
My writing process is pretty standard. I light scented candles, descend into a trance state, and pray to the great goddess Isis that she may guide my pen.
Just kidding. I drink a lot of coffee, scrawl notes on index cards, and force myself to keep going until I get to the end.
I’ve gotta say, as much sense as thousands of tiny, parasitic beetles make for horror I never would have come up with BEDBUGS myself. You’ve got probably one of the most creatively unique ideas I’ve ever read. How did this story come to you? Why bed bugs?
Bedbugs just seemed like the perfect subject for a contemporary horror novel. Like all the great bogeys, the threat of them -- the mere possibility of them -- is at least as scary as the reality. You hear tales of bedbugs that ended leases, that destroyed relationships, that shut down thriving furniture stores. It’s like a modern-day plague, as much because people are freaked out by the things than because of anything they actually do. So when my editor and I set out to update the perfect-young-couple-finds-the-perfect-apartment subgenre, it was like, forget the haunted Native American burial ground, let’s give these poor suckers some bedbugs.
So, we have BEDBUGS the novel; is anyone writing the screenplay? Will we ever be able to see BEDBUGS the movie?
Well, of course I think it would be a terrific movie, and budget-conscious producers should take note: the cast is just six adults and one child. Plus hundreds of thousands of cimex lectularius, of course, but they’re non-union.
Lastly, do you have any projects on the horizon that we and our readers can look forward to?
I actually have a sideline, believe it or not, in books for young readers, and I have a middle-grade novel called The Mystery of the Missing Everything coming out in a few weeks. At present I’m wrestling with a very odd detective novel, which, if all goes well, will be out at some point next year.
Thanks, Ben for your book and taking the time to talk to us here at Zombies and Toys.
You can check out Ben's website at www.BenHWinters.com and you can follow him on Twitter: Twitter.com/BenHWinters. Stop by your local book store or log on to Amazon, or Barnes and Noble to grab your copy of BEDBUGS.
Ben H. Winters is the New York Times best-selling author of Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters (Quirk, 2009). His most recent book, the YA novel The Secret Life of Ms. Finkleman (HarperCollins, 2010), was nominated for an Edgar Award.