"BEDBUGS." By Ben H. Winters. Quirk Books, Philadelphia. $14.95.
After reading "Bedbugs" you might want to fumigate any apartment you rent. You also might want to call in an exorcist.
Ben H. Winters, who authored the mash-ups "Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters" and "Android Karenina," takes on a modern re-working of the classic horror novel "Rosemary's Baby" and adds other gruesome touches.
Alex and Susan Wendt, with their young daughter Emily, rent a Brooklyn brownstone from its kindly landlady, Andrea Scharfstein. The apartment comes with an extra attraction -- a secret room -- that Susan falls in love with, intending on making it her painting room. A part-time nanny takes care of Emily, freeing up Susan to work on her canvases.
Almost immediately the action starts. There are ominous smells and mysterious pings from somewhere in the building.
Finding a picture of a former renter, Susan uses it as a basis for a portrait that suddenly shows signs of bedbug bites -- bites that weren't painted by Susan.
She becomes possessed with the idea that there are bedbugs in her apartment. The Internet, with all its informational bedbug sites and horror stories, compounds her paranoia. Even after noted bedbug eradicator Dr. Dana Kaufmann pronounces the apartment clean, Susan doesn't give up on the idea. She's obsessed by it.
The quiet horror of Susan's delusions of the blood-curling bedbugs is enough to make a reader's blood run cold.
"They scuttled up her stomach and bit her chest, her shoulders, her neck and face. In the dream she couldn't lift her arms to wipe them away, could only lie helpless as they sank their horrid needle-notes into her undefended flesh -- stinging -- pinching -- biting -- and then disappearing, skittering back to the air shaft, crawling into the cracks between the glass and the wall."
Most of the time one isn't sure that the bedbugs exist except in Susan's over-excited imagination. Then the ceiling falls in and the plot heats up as the bugs chow down. It's a book for the strong-stomached horror reader.
By the end, you may be scanning your bedding every night ... just in case.
-- Tish Wells