After reading the first two books in Ben H. Winters’s The Last Policeman trilogy and awaiting the third book, I read the opening chapters of Bedbugs that was offered to readers at the end of the second book. I was skeptical, partly because of the title, which caused shudders every time I read it, and partly because I knew it would be so different from the trilogy I’ve been reading that I assumed I might be disappointed. But I wasn’t disappointed at all and was quite happy that I did decide to read it. Bedbugs is both a mystery and a sinister psychological thriller.
When the main characters, Susan and Alex Wendt find a dream second-story apartment in Brooklyn Heights that they can afford, they can’t believe their luck. The landlady is an elderly widow who appears eccentric but not menacing, and the handyman is an elderly gentleman who is a former school principal who occasionally makes comments that Susan in particular finds somewhat cryptic and disturbing. Overall, however, she and her husband are happy with their choice and quickly move into the apartment, which affords them a separate room (finally) for their very young daughter, and a spare room that Susan assumes she will begin using as her artist’s studio; she had quit working a year ago to pursue her art career, although had failed to do so and now saw this as incentive.
However, shortly after they move in, the bedbugs emerge, biting no one but Susan and in the process, a portrait she began painting of a previous tenant begins showing “bites” on her face as well. Susan at first assumes she’s sleepwalking/sleeppainting, although doesn’t understand why. She is high strung and obsessive by nature and now, as the landlady contends there are no bedbugs, she begins to obsess about them, seeing them when others don’t, scratching at bites that aren’t visible to others. She begins obsessing about a murder that took place nearby, when a young mother dropped her twin daughters from the top of a building in their stroller to their deaths. She begins thinking no one is taking her seriously about the bedbugs, although she and the elderly handyman do clean the room where her painting is, scrubbing it, and her husband relents and allows her to have a recommended exterminator come in to examine the apartment and fumigate if necessary. Everything, however, indicates there are no bedbugs. Meanwhile, she has scratched herself in so many places so destructively that her husband brings her to a psychiatrist, who diagnoses delusional parasitosis and prescribes Paxil. She strongly believes he is wrong and without telling her husband, does not take the medication. Her symptoms continue to worsen and everyone is at a loss about what to do. She fires their nanny, who she decides brought the bedbugs into their apartment as a result of her promiscuous college behavior. She sees everyone in a delusional, conspiratorial state.
She spends hours pursuing information on the Internet about bedbugs and finally comes across someone who wrote a book about “badbugs,” which scientists and psychologists have dismissed as the rantings of a delusional man. She, however, begins to believe this is what she is experiencing, after recognizing all the symptoms of the infestation he writes about.
At this point, we are now in Stephen King territory, with the realization that maybe, despite all the normal signs within the story, she is somehow right in her appraisal of what is really going on. She is still alone in this, however, and the tension and anguish, and in the end, the threats and fears, manifest themselves in carrying the story to its strong ending. There are elements that are similar to some of Stephen King’s writings and to older horror stories like Rosemary’s Baby, without the blood and gore of a slasher movie. The story, even the bizarre parts of it, rely on the author’s obvious research into bedbugs, as well as the development of the characters and the tension among them and within themselves. Everything is essentially believable and therein lies the pleasure of reading this, despite the inevitable “horror.”
I could have done without the illustrations of the bedbugs at the beginning of each chapter. I felt like I needed to brush them off and kill them! They are creepy and this story was apparently written during all the hype of bedbug infestations within hotels, motels and homes, so it hits a raw nerve. I had the desire to examine my bed linens and washing them in hot water and bleach by the time I finished the book. I guess that attests to the realism … and his ability to feed into our normal fears and disturbances. I do recommend this book if you can get beyond the bugs!