Thursday, September 22, 2011

Bites and Scratches from Hell: My Review of "Bedbugs" by Ben H. Winter

On the way out, Susan asked to see the bonus room one more time, while Alex spoke to Andrea in his low all-business voice, she walked in a slow, enchanted circle around the tiny room and then stopped to rest her hands on the windowsill and gaze outside. The small back lot was separated from the mirror-image lot, belonging to a house on Orange Street, by a weathered wooden fence. The lot was overgrown with wild grass and dotted with bent and spindly trees; Susan wondered which of these gnarled beauties she would paint first.
Turning from the window, Susan was suddenly struck by a sour unsavory odor, a nasty staleness in the closed air of the room. She crinkled her nose and in the next breath, it was gone.
Bedbugs, Ben H. Winter pp. 20

Alex and Susan Wendt 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 crawling 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. Neighbors insist the building is clean. Susan fears that she's going mad-but as the mysteries deepen, a more sinister explanation presents itself: She may literally be confronting the bedbug problem from hell.

               Before I begin this review I would offer a bit of advice: Do not read this while home alone, in bed, with only your cat for comfort. Especially not if you only have your cat for comfort. You will be creeped out – you will stare suspiciously at your pillows and sheets, and your toothbrush will become your nemesis …

                Now that I have warned you about the creep-fest that is this book, I will review. That is, after I make one more thing perfectly clear: I LOVED IT!

                Yes, Dear Readers, it was a great book – for the horror loving, creepy feeling wanting nerd I am, I loved it! But again … had nightmares of bugs eating me alive all night …

                I got Bedbugs from Quirk, in exchange for an honest review, and I received it on Friday when I got home from work, concluding my Week from Hell. Unfortunately for me, I couldn’t get to it – due to family, work and the Boy – until Sunday night, when the boy was passed out, the family far away an work done for the day. About 9:00pm, on a Sunday. I finished it at 12:35 am. It was that good. My speed reading abilities were at maximum throttle. I was engrossed – so much so that when the cat jumped up next to me as I lounged in the bed, my eyes wide, I shrieked a little.

                The plot revolves around the female of our couple, Susan. She was formerly an artist, then a lawyer and now trying to be an artist again, but just hasn’t been able to really stick it to her canvases. She muddles around New York, her daughter has a Nanny (who’s not so much responsible or timely) and her husband has an increasingly harsh working environment – working as a photographer of gemstones. In an effort of further procrastination, she begins apartment-hunting, armed with the belief that their 3-year old daughter, Emma, needs more than a curtained nook for a bedroom. But they are on a tight budget and so their looking proves frustrating. Until she finds an ad for 56 Cranberry Street for under $4k. Ultimately, despite the weak protests of hubby, Alex, the Wendts move into the two-floor apartment in the brownstone at Cranberry Street, despite the eccentric landlady with the rhinestone glasses and weird laugh.

                And all is well.

                Until …
                Susan beings sensing strange things in the house. It begins with a Ping sound, and then a strange upturned floor board, an inexplicable hallucinative state where she paints the strangest things, and finally, a row of three bug bites on her arm.

                Paranoia runs high in New York – the paper constantly headlining more and more of the bedbug epidemic that has swept the city, and so Susan falls into that paranoia, hiring an exterminator quickly to get to the bottom of the red bumps on her arms – red bumps that her husband and daughter don’t have. The exterminator, of course finds nothing.

                At this point, you realize you are in the throes of a horror novel, truly. Before this, the strangeness could be attributed to things like the eccentric landlady or the portly, elderly handyman, Louis. But when Susan, who has bug bites, and is being told by everyone that bedbugs are indeed a serious occurrence in NYC – cannot find any shred of proof that bedbugs exist in her home, and everyone begins dismissing and isolating her, you realize that we are now in for a ride into the darkness that is the horror genre.

                As the events of the novel escalate, and Susan’s behavior becomes more and more insane, the Reader is drawn into the plot with a feverish frenzy, knowing that only one of two outcomes can occur: either Susan is crazy and this all leads to an end scene with her strapped in a white padded room, or the bedbugs from hell – the badbugs – are really there, out to get her, and not afraid of trampling whoever gets in their way.

                And my goodness, Readers, it is quite the ride.

                By the end of the book I had to take a few minutes to mull it all over – that’s what happens when you read it all so fast that it plays like a movie screen in your mind’s eye. All the clues that pop up seemed so obvious in the end – so glaringly obvious, and yet, so well hidden in the words of the book, that you couldn’t help but gloss over them, attribute them to well-known New york quirks and token lines and characterizations.

                Winters is a great author – he is not overly prose-y and he doesn’t wax philosophical where there is no need: instead, he delivers what he promised – a high intensity ride that will creep you right out. His character, Susan, is both heroic and irritating – she embodies all the insecurities we love about our horror scream queens, without sacrificing her intelligence or her likability – she’s suspicious of everyone and judgmental, but she cares about her family and friends. Similar to his other works, there is a tongue and cheek approach to this novel that make the outlying horror of it so pronounced – there is a scene where Susan asks herself how bad bedbugs really are – they don’t carry disease, they don’t leave damage – they feed and then burrow away into some dark place to digest – then follows this up with the concept of badbugs – such a wallop of a comparison that you can’t help but think – the reason we fear the bedbugs is because they creep us out.

                All in all, an excellent edition to the Quirk library and I am so glad I got a chance to read it! Though my skin is still crawling at times with the phantom bedbugs I see in the corner of my eye, I would read this again in a heartbeat!
                Go pick up a copy and just remember: read during the day, far from a bed and without your cat! 

Ben H Winter’s Website:
As a Bonus – here is the book trailer – an edition to reading that Quirk is single-handedly making imperative!

Up next for Review: Under the Dome by Stephen King

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