Infestation & Madness

Author: Ben H. Winters

Boy meets girl. Boy and girl have adorable daughter. Girl quits job to be an artist. Girl insists they move. Boy and girl find suspiciously low priced, perfect apartment. Girl goes mad. Horror ensues.

It’s the old, old story, no less enjoyable because we like that old story. What is better than a too-good-to-be true apartment with an eccentric landlady, a locked basement, a disturbing smell in the perfect artist-nook room, and paranoia inducing imaginary bugs on a mission?

Susan, the wife in the story, has quit her job, with her husband’s approval, to work on her art. The problem? Whole days go by, and she never picks up a paintbrush. Meanwhile, her husband is worried about their finances and his job. It’s hardly the best time to up stakes and move, but Susan is convinced that a change of scenery will revitalize her art and give them more space for their daughter. And so, she wins.

We start the book with little empathy for Susan. She is selfish, self-centered, and lazy. She insists on a full-time nanny (how do they afford this?) yet spends her jobless day mostly feeling anxious about not doing anything. Her fear of judgement from her husband is, honestly, earned because we the readers are judging her. But then it starts. As her painting gets off the ground, she begins to find clues about the previous residents who left in the middle of the night. Then the bugs start to come. But hubby and daughter are unable to see them. Only Susan feels them every night, wakes up to their bites and to watch them sucking and growing fat on her flesh. As the landlady gets weirder, Susan’s sleepless nights and haunted dreams of bed bugs grow more real, more unavoidable. Our general dislike morphs into sympathy as Susan goes down the rabbit hole, living in a world of physical and mental torment that those around her refuse to see and acknowledge. Is Susan slowly going crazy or is something else going on here?

Louis-Marie Poissant, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Bedbugs is a straight-forward, traditional new-home boogeyman type of horror story, but it is good, nonetheless. The grossness of the unseen, hellish infestation is well drawn, alternatingly terrifying and repulsive, as is Susan’s gradual descent. But Susan refuses to give up, and with her newfound spunk, readers start to root for her, forgetting our former dislike. This is now a matter of survival, and the little annoyances of daily life mean nothing here. As Susan researches we start to unravel why only she can see the bedbugs and, ultimately, what they mean for Susan and her family.

The story is engrossing (and gross) right up until the ending, when things start to get a little too outlandish. I don’t want to give the ending away, because it is still interesting and horrific in turns, with an unforgettable dumpster scene that left me squirming in my seat. The epilogue ultimately destroys a lot of the ambiance, however, and ties everything into too much of a neat little bow, making me wish the author had simply skipped it or spent more time refining the conclusion.

Still, Bedbugs was an engaging and fun, if not perfect, horror story. It’s lightweight, a summer beach read for those with darker inclinations. One word of warning, there is violence against an animal (cat) that is briefly mentioned a few times, but nevertheless disturbing and sad, especially for those animal lovers out there.

– Frances Carden

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Frances Carden
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