by Ben H. Winters
FOR RENT: Top two floors of beautifully renovated brownstone, 1300 sq. ft., 2BR 2BA, eat-in kitchen, one block to parks and playgrounds. No broker’s fee.
Susan and Alex Wendt have found their dream apartment.
Sure, the landlady is a little eccentric. And the elderly handyman drops some cryptic remarks about the basement. But the rent is so low, it’s too good to pass up.
Big mistake. Susan soon discovers that her new home is crawling with bedbugs . . . or is it? She awakens every morning with fresh bites, but neither Alex nor their daughter Emma has a single welt. An exterminator searches the property and turns up nothing. The landlady insists her building is clean. Susan fears she’s going mad—until a more sinister explanation presents itself: she may literally be confronting the bedbug problem from Hell.
I wanted something creepy, and this book delivered. (There's a lot of what I believe is termed "body horror". Also bugs, if it wasn't obvious from the title. Both of those things are on my "Icky List", but it wasn't too much for me, this time.) The story kept me guessing; I was switching back and forth between favored explanations until the end. It's nothing ground-breaking, but there's a reason formulas exist: They work. There are (at least) a couple of issues that could have used more resolution, but that often seems to be the case, in this genre. There is no easy explanation, sometimes, so the author leaves us to fill in the blanks for ourselves. (I usually just shrug and move on to the next book. Well, after writing a nitpicking review, that is.)
Not a favorite-- won't be reading it again-- but fine for what it is.
Random Bits and Pieces (with SPOILERS):
-- All the references to modern/current technology/brands/whatever caught my attention at once. There was a cluster of three of them in two sentences, right off the bat. First paragraphs of the book. It was so blatant that I decided to make a list of all I noticed. I think some people like that kind of thing-- makes them feel like they're there-- like what they're reading really happened. I don't know... Sometimes a little of that is fine, but when they're crammed in together too closely, I find it distracting, and it seems like it will "date" the book in very short order.
Anyway, here's my list:
~"folders from Corcoran"
~"bright-pink Maclaren stroller"
~"sleek miniature laser printer"
~"big black Phil and Ted's double stroller"
~Design Within Reach
~"full set of Henckels Twin Select cooking knives"
~"the Altoids tin in which she kept her Ambien"
~"ancient Pearl Jam T-shirt"
~"H&M jean jacket"
~"the Leonard Lopate Show"
~"Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch"
~"tight American Apparel T-shirt"
~"an Elephant and Piggie book called I Love My New Toy"
~"Dora the Explorer brush" (and backpack, I think...)
~They Might Be Giants
~"a Bob Dylan T-shirt"
~d.b.a. (a bar?)
~"The Weir" (a play)
~"Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard's house, in Park Slope"
~"Tom Kitt, one of the guys who wrote 'Next to Normal'"
~Bed Bath & Beyond
~"the all-knowing Wikipedia"
~"the New York Times"
~"Old Navy camisole"
~"The 'Top Chef' season finale"
~Barnes & Noble
~"Elmo's falsetto giggle"
~Maytag repairman (not especially "current", I'll grant you...)
~"cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs"
-- I know that it's not quite the same thing as focusing on his "art photography" full time, but why can't Alex still flex his creative muscles by taking artistic photos in his free time-- weekends, the occasional weeknight? This couple feels very "all or nothing".
-- This is an extremely nitpicky nitpick, but at one point Susan soothes Emma by smoothing "her pale hair", when I'm almost positive that Emma was described earlier in the book as having her father's dark hair. It's a little thing, but still...
-- It is strange (imho) that Susan has to have someone to babysit Emma at least half of the day. And then on the one day that the babysitter (nanny, whatever) calls in sick, it's like Susan can't handle being solely responsible for her little girl for a whole day! She calls Alex to see if he can come home early! I mean, I get that kids can be exhausting, but come on. One day alone with one kid-- your own child-- is too much for you? That's embarrassing.
-- I was seriously annoyed by Susan's freaked-out reaction to Emma's freaked-out reaction to being told that, hey, little missy, you're not allowed to open the creepy door to the basement. Ugh. "'Did you tell her not to go down there, or did you raise your voice at her?' she demanded of Louis." UGH. Maybe Susan should be taking care of her own darn kid instead of blaming the person who had to step up in her absence. Now, Susan does have a right to be frustrated with the babysitter (whatever her name was... Marni?), because you can't turn your back on little kids. (She might've run out into the street!)
-- Also annoying-- the way Susan talks to Emma. All the pet names-- doll, love, etc. Blech. Yeah, you love your baby sooo SOOOO MUCH. You love her so much that you can't bear to be saddled with her for a whole day, even though all you're doing in the meantime is pottering around home/town or running silly little errands that you could do with a child in tow. (Yeah, I'm being judgmental. Whatever. It's my nit-pickin' book-blog. You're darn well right I sit in judgement! Judge, jury, and executioner, honey. ...Ok, enough sass for one bullet-point...)
-- So. The blood stain on the pillowcase. ...These people get really freaked out over a small blood stain on a pillowcase. (Is it blood? Could it be blood? Omigosh, I think it's blood!!! The sky's a-fallin', Henny-Penny!) Which makes me wonder... Should I be more concerned about such things? Because if it were me, I'd notice it and probably shrug-- at most tsk-tsk a little over the fact that the pillowcase is now stained. I'd figure that I must've opened up a small sore in the middle of the night, scratched it or something. No big deal, right? Well, apparently it is a big deal, and you should jump directly to the conclusion that you have the dreaded BEDBUGS.
-- Do these people (including their preschool-age daughter) ever just spend a whole day at home? It seems like they're always going somewhere (and not just the normal, routine places, like work or school). Emma in particular seems to have a very full calendar for someone who's three-and-a-half.
-- I know that bedbugs were (are?) a big deal in NYC-- for a while there, at least-- and obviously no-one wants to get the things. They have a reputation of being all but impossible to eradicate, once they get a foothold. All that said, some of the characters' behavior seemed out of scale. When Susan calls the mother of Emma's new friends, she actually asks if Susan's having "an insect problem"-- because they saw an exterminator's van outside her building-- and then basically cuts all ties with her. ("'I'm sorry, Susan. I just can't risk coming over-- the kids--'") Well, ok, I guess you can argue that this woman barely knew Susan... But then later on, Susan calls her "good friend" to ask if she and Emma can spend a night or two at her place-- and again, it's like she has the Plague! ("'I... oh, Sue. I can't get bedbugs. I just can't.'") Of course, nothing was stopping Susan from going to a hotel, at that point, if it really was to be only for a night or two.
-- We're regularly treated to tidbits like this one: "Alex turned to look at the clock, and Susan gnawed furtively at her nails, wrenching off a hunk of thumbnail and spitting it on the floor. A pulse of pain shot up her thumb, and blood welled where the nail had been and drooled down over the knuckle. Alex turned back and planted a sweet kiss on her cheek." ~*woozy*~ I have a bit of a "thing" about finger (and toe) nails falling off/bending back/etc., so... Yuck. Also, at this point I'm pretty convinced that Susan is going ca-razy. The whole "furtive" aspect is creepy, too...
-- Ekbom's syndrome, a.k.a. "delusional parasitosis" ~shiver~ Honestly, I think that's one of the scariest things in the book. Something that could really happen to you, unlike being cursed with demonic "badbugs". I also think that it would have been sufficiently horrific if Susan had been suffering from Ekbom's syndrome, without all the paranormal stuff.
-- When Susan fires the shot that kills Andrea (and breaks the curse), Alex is upstairs, having just discovered the body of the exterminator, Dana Kaufmann. Alright. What I find difficult to believe is that the body "had been entirely consumed"-- "in a span of five hours". Maybe if there were vultures or coyotes or something that had access to their apartment. But just bedbugs? In five hours? *skeptical face*
-- Funny that in the end, everything's coming up roses for the family. They've bought a house of their own-- no more rented apartments, thank you very much! Alex has taken the winter off to be with his family. (Both these things even though money was supposed to be so tight just months earlier, which is puzzling... What's changed? They got more/higher-end business after the Tiffany photos?) They've even bought a puppy! It's the American Dream, alright, except that Susan still checks the bed linens for evidence of bedbugs.
Unanswered Questions (SPOILERS):
-- How did the bedbugs/badbugs change Susan's painting? Or was she actually changing it herself? That's what I assumed was happening, during her "insane" period. Well, either that or that Andrea was sneaking in and doing it at night, but Andrea would need to have significant artistic ability to do that...
-- Why did the bedbugs/badbugs focus on Susan, in particular? Was she just the most vulnerable person in the family? In a similar vein, why did Andrea go to such lengths (supposedly, though throwing her down the air shaft seems a bit risky, because necks do break) to keep Susan alive for the bed/badbugs, when she just killed the exterminator and the handyman? Why not keep all of them alive? Did the bedbugs not care about the other people being alive? Was it just part of Andrea's insanity? Maybe she didn't feel she had a choice but to kill the others, since they were strong. She had to strike a fatal blow or risk their fighting back.
-- What a coincidence that Susan and Jessie followed the same pattern-- even the point of each of them attempting to kill her husband/fiance. Too big to be a coincidence. So what does it mean?
-- Susan finds Jessie's own severed finger, with its engagement ring still on it, in the corpse's pocket. Clearly, she has to find it there so that she can explain the "pinging" they heard earlier in the book-- and so we can all shudder over the thought that Jessica was still alive while the new family was already living upstairs. It's plenty creepy, but it doesn't make perfect sense to me. What would stop Jessie from just putting the ring on another finger and continuing to signal for help? Wouldn't it have been more useful for (the insane) Andrea to simply take the ring away? (All this assumes that there was nothing else within reach that Jessie could've used instead of the ring, too.) I suppose having her finger cut off could've been sufficient deterrent to prevent Jessie from wanting to try to signal again, but I'm doubtful. She knew she was going to die a torturous death down there. Any risk would be worth taking. ...Only other explanation that comes to mind is that Andrea somehow pinned down her arms or closed the bin more securely after cutting off the finger...
-- Susan determines that Andrea purposely planted the seed of "hotel" to make Susan suspect Alex of cheating on her and to drive her over the edge. But... How does that make sense? Am I forgetting something? How would Andrea know about the hotel matchbook and Susan's momentary suspicions (from earlier in the book)? And how would Andrea know that Susan had read that bizarre bedbug book, which was the thing that convinced her that the only way to escape the infestation was to kill the person who'd invited it? ...It doesn't quite fit together logically. Of course, this is a book that expects you to accept the concept of demonic bedbugs from Hell, so...