Bedbugs, the latest psychological horror-thriller by Ben H. Winter, will make you itch, make you carefully inspect every tiny black dot you see, and make you look at apartment rental in a whole new way. But most of all, Bedbugs will keep you in its gruesome grip from beginning to end.
When Susan and Alex Wendt decide to leave the cozy confines of their Union Square apartment in Manhattan for a spacious, affordable duplex in Brooklyn Heights, their hopes for a bright and happy future have never been higher. Susan, a former lawyer turned stay-at-home mom, finally has a room of her own to fulfill her lifelong passion to paint, and Alex’s commercial photography business is poised on the precipice of great success. Little Emma, the couple’s happy go lucky 3 year old, is just as happy in her new digs at 56 Cranberry Street as she was in her tiny nook of a bedroom in the old place, except for the nightmares and her mommy’s scary painting room.
In a late-night wine fueled painting frenzy, Susan paints a spot-on portrait of Jessica, the pretty young woman who used to live in the apartment, based on a small photograph she finds curiously folded and tucked into the window frame of her painting room. The next morning, Susan wakes up to a crescent-shaped spec on her pillow that might be blood or possibly paint, while the portrait of Jessica seems to have sprouted ugly welts on her face that Susan does not remember painting.
As the story progresses, we witness Susan’s quick and ugly decent into madness and think we know where Winter is leading us. And we’re dead wrong. All that we believe to be true about 56 Cranberry Street and Susan’s insane belief in the infestation that only she can see and feel as her body and mind deteriorate at warp speed is blown to bits by the end. From the creepy Mrs. Roper-like landlady and her secretive handyman to Susan’s mysteriously morphing portrait of Jessica, Bedbugs kept me on edge, needing to know how and why such a seemingly normal woman could become a victim of her own obsessive thoughts. Is she really nuts or are sinister forces beyond her control are doing one hell of a number on her? Mostly, I just wanted her to stop scratching and get some sleep.
Winters impressively nails the voice and perspective of a Brooklyn mom. His characters are believable and his Brooklyn landmarks, shops, and restaurants are actually real places. Bedbugs pokes steadily at a very common fear most of us have. Winters knows this and masterfully works us into a state right alongside his main character. That I was scratching imaginary itches and brushing imaginary bugs off each page is a testament to his effective storytelling.
Winters is the author of Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, also published by Quirk Books.