Ben H. Winters, author of “Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters” (or co-author with Jane Austen, but I digress), has struck out on his own with the psychological, supernatural thriller “Bedbugs,” a B-movie-inspired venture with all of the spine-chillingness of “..and Sea Monsters” and none of the literary merit or character appeal of “Sense and Sensibility.” A page-turner till the end, those otherwise blank pages of the novel speckled with increasingly “mature” (read: larger and more terrifying) bed bugs are especially prone to quick flips, and may inspire in those most paranoid or traumatized a desire to read this book standing up on a hardwood floor, away from any possible bedbug haunts.
Susan and her husband Alex have moved to a too-good-to-be-true Brooklyn apartment, where Susan, who quit her job to return to her real passion of oil painting, hopes she’ll be more inspired to actually paint rather than spend her days getting mani-pedis. Their three-year-old, Emma, is babysat by Marni, a college student who wears American Apparel T-shirts and H&M jackets. Susan is vaguely jealous of her and worries about her husband’s possible infidelities with her, because that’s what happens between babysitters and husbands.
Once they move into the new home, though, Susan finds three telltale bites on her wrist, and rather than paint, she spends her time in bedbug chat rooms, consumed—mentally, emotionally, physically—by the creepy-crawlies. Her blemishes, malaise and paranoia multiply with the exponential growth of the insects, and it’s impossible not to squirm and scratch as we wonder what’s really happening to Susan.
In lieu of real character development, Winters (a former Newcity staff writer) uses pop-culture shorthand to create the neurotic protagonists’ personality: Her most prized possession, in some flat foreshadowing, is a $2,550 Design Within Reach bed. Susan keeps her Ambien in an Altoids tin, her daughter in a pink Maclaren stroller, and her “rugged and dark” husband Alex at work photographing Cartier watches. The brand references, thankfully, drop off once Winters has painted a picture of these two-dimensional nouveau-Brooklynites, but never develop into a cultural critique.
More unsettling is Susan’s nonchalant racism: The maintenance man, “an older black man with a bald pate and a massive gut,” stops Emma from going into the dangerous basement. Susan’s response? “Did you touch her?” Winters is clearly going out of his way to make Susan as neurotic and unlikeable as possible, but throwing in assumptions about race and child abuse and quickly abandoning the issue goes beyond the expectedly flat characters and plot holes of a horror book.
Still, for those who can bear to stick it out with increasingly insipid Susan long enough to watch the bites multiply, the bloodcurdling “Bedbugs” manages to succeed in doing what rarely happens off the screen: Keep things spooky enough that it’s impossible to go to sleep without knowing how it ends. Even then, you may leave the lights on and sleep on the floor. But that’ll only make you more like Susan. (Ella Christoph)
By Ben H. Winters
Quirk Books, 253 pages, $15