Over the years, I’ve come to discover a few things about what I love in books and films. Heist movies, for example, are like catnip for me – it’s one of the reasons my friend Dietrich knew I would love The Lies of Locke Lamora as much as I do. But one of the smaller subgenres of horror that I’ve come to fall in love with is stories about people who may or may not be losing their mind, and have to deal with it in isolation. Rosemary’s Baby is an obvious riff on this (despite the fact that Polanski did it better in the all-time great Repulsion, which is the ne plus ultra of the genre). Novels handle it wonderfully as well – King has done a couple of these, and Sarah Langan turned in an incredible version of this with her novel Audrey’s Door.
But, man, has it been a long time since I read one of these as good as Bedbugs.
Bedbugs is by Ben H. Winters, who I came to by way of The Last Policeman series. That series – about a policeman who continues to investigate cases despite the impending end of the world – was haunting and wonderful, a strange paean to staying true to your ideals in the face of a hopeless world. It was a series I really enjoyed, and it left me wondering what else Winters could do…but horror wasn’t necessarily on my list.
I was wrong.
Bedbugs is a simple enough story: a young couple moves into a seemingly perfect New York City apartment, one that’s insanely wonderful, perfectly priced, and everything they need. The husband is working on getting his photography business to be sustainable; the wife is taking time off from work to back to her painting. And this house is everything they need for themselves and their young daughter. There’s a slightly batty, but sweet, landlady; there’s a likable maintenance man; and man, that price is right. Sure, there are a couple of small problems here and there – a faint smell they can’t get out of one room, an odd pinging noise they hear now and then – but nothing they can’t live with.
But then Susan, the wife? She becomes convinced that there’s a bedbug problem in the house. Convinced in spite of the fact that there’s no proof, even. She’s been bitten, of course, she’d explain to you…but she’s been scratching so hard at the bites that there’s no evidence left, because of how much she’s torn up her skin.
It’s at this point that Bedbugs hits the gas and never looks back, and sets the reader into a bizarre ride into a world that may be real or may be psychotic, and toes the line perfectly. Books like this demand a lot from the author – in the best situations, you need to either leave the insanity as an open question and not lean too hard one way or the other (Rosemary’s Baby), or else spin so hard into the insanity that it becomes its own story (Repulsion). Bedbugs handles itself perfectly, leaving you constantly questioning things, and ultimately leaning the way the author wants you to lean – just so he can throw a swerve at you.
The result is a gleefully nightmarish ride, particularly for those of you averse to bugs. Winters cranks things up at just the right pace, letting us simmer and then hitting us with another bizarre burst of imagery when we least expect it, and the whole thing ends up feeling wonderfully creepy and unsettling. And the ending? Without saying anything concrete, I’ll say that it sticks the ending perfectly in a way that few of these manage to do – it’s a satisfying ending, and one that seems like it’s not a cheat while still delivering on the book’s promises.
Part of me wants to dock the book for a couple of minor issues along the way. The husband seems a bit too laissez-faire at one point; again, I’m trying to avoid spoilers, but there’s at least one point where it seems like a good husband would take more action than he does. (Luckily, Winters has made us question the husband a bit by that point, but nonetheless, it still feels a bit jarring.) There’s also the story of the previous tenants, which ultimately almost feels too abridged in a way that I can’t get into without major spoilers; I love how it ultimately plays out, but some of the parallels between their lives and Susan’s life seem a bit too convenient.
Ultimately, though, those are issues I had after the book, not during. And really, I could focus on them, but none of that takes away from the gloriously insane ride that Bedbugs gave me, or how perfectly paced it all was. I’ll forgive a couple of minor missteps for a horror novel that’s as effective and unsettling as this one is.