Written by: James Keen
“Can we leave, Mama? I don’t like this…”
Horror writers delight in taking something relatively mundane and everyday and transmogrifying him/her/it/them into something that is, at the very least, disturbing for the reader and when it’s done right positively terrifying. It’s a chance for the writer and reader to indulge in darker possibilities that – again, when it’s done right- can leave the reader with an unsettling neurosis about an heretofore run-of-the-mill aspect of everyday life. Book shelves are lined with any number of subjects that prey upon anxieties we may all share, with the ‘horror’ genre section positively awash with tales featuring monstrously intelligent rats, insects, wasps, snakes, haunted houses, cars, demonic books and so on. Ben H Winters appears to have found his own niche subject, or “vortex of anxiety” as his protagonist describes it in his novel ‘Bedbugs’. Here he explores the concept of sentient diminutive parasites with a malevolent purpose while managing to shoehorn in elements of the supernatural in a narrative that while diverting enough isn’t nearly as innovative as it could be.
A young family, Alex and Susan Wendt and their three and a half year old daughter, Emma, tired of their cramped apartment yearn for a home that will afford them some relief from their current living conditions. Alex wants to be able to commute to his job more easily, Emma needs to be schooled in an area of the city that is more agreeable to them and Susan, once a lawyer for a local firm who now dreams of fulfilling her “dilettante ambitions” to become a successful artist find everything they could wish for in their relocation to the comparatively spacious two floor apartment at 56 Cranberry Street. A rental property owned by the first floor occupant, the widower Andrea Scharfstein, described as a thin, frail old woman with “a vigor that defied her physical appearance”.Winters prepares his stage with economic competence, managing to pepper this familiar scenario with neat snippets of foreboding. At one point Alex and Susan marvel at how cheap the new place is and Alex comments, “It’s got to be haunted, right?”
Following a strong opening Winters sets about fine-tuning the narrative; there’s a hint of increasing spousal jealousy: Susan begins to suspect that Alex is envious of her artistic aspirations while he struggles to pay the bills and keep up with the rent. We learn that the landlady’s husband – Howard- took his own life and that Susan’s studio area, the “bonus room” as it’s referred to was once the setting for something particularly distressing during the previous tenants tenure. Winters dutifully feeds the readers slivers of ominous portent while we wait patiently for the titular little monsters to arrive. And when they do present themselves it’s curious that the narrative begins to falter, showing signs of becoming an all too familiar by-the- numbers genre piece.
There are some genuinely effective creepy moments in ‘Bedbugs’ that perhaps will have you nervously scrutinizing your bed linen and it boasts a gloriously gory finale that also harbours one particularly horrific reveal that this reviewer found eerily moving in its execution. On the downside the character of Susan is at times unlikeable; her internal monologues are often annoyingly self important, even petulant, and the author’s under-developed portrait of her husband is unflattering and stereotypical. There’s also an odd moment concerning Alex’s character motivation near the book’s close that is so hastily thrown in it’s as if the writer was in a rush to tie things up. While it’s clear that Winters has done his research on the diminutive parasites and the information he offers up is informative, it’s arguably not something the average reader would find particularly shocking or revealing – aside from a reference to the surprising properties of “diatomaceous earth”.
An adequately executed book that’s perhaps for those readers not yet jaded by some of the hoary old standards of horror fiction. Competently written though routine in it’s structure, this novel recalls elements of Jay Anson’s The Amityville Horror, Chauncey G Parker III’s criminally overlooked ‘The Visitor’ (filmed as ‘Of Unknown Origin’) coupled with say, the escalating paranoia detailed in Richard Matheson’s ‘Nightmare at 20,000 Feet’. Enjoyable but it’s certainly not breaking any new ground.