First aired on Q (6/9/11)
Bedbugs were the stuff of dark legend, a mysterious force mothers would teasingly warn their kids about before tucking them safely into bed. But these blood-sucking creatures, once thought to have been mostly eradicated in North America, have crept and crawled their way back into our lives, and have become a major problem for many people, especially city dwellers.
They live in the shadows, feed on us, spread like crazy and are notoriously hard to kill, which is why author Ben Winters has cast them as the central villain in a new horror novel simply titled Bedbugs.
"If you were a novelist you really couldn't invent a menace that was creepier than bedbugs are in reality," he told Q in a recent interview.
Winters, who also wrote the satirical Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, came up with the idea after a conversation with his publisher about writing an hommage to 1960s horror stories involving the tried-and-tested formula of a perfect couple moving into a perfect new home only to discover evil. But instead of, say, spiteful ghosts or vampire neighbours, Winters felt bedbugs would be particularly terrifying for readers because the anxiety and fear around these insects are based in reality.
As part of his research, Winters spent hours reading bedbug blogs and online forums, and says what struck him was how obsessed people could get about their situation. He saw people share their stories and become collectively upset.
"Every time there's a new article in the newspaper about bedbugs, it sort of reinforces this idea that there's this plague."
Winters finds this especially fascinating because although bedbugs are undoubtedly a nuisance, the insects pose relatively few health risks.
"They don't carry disease in general, or if they do, they don't spread it — they're not like mosquitoes in that way," he said. "They're not like intestinal parasites where having them — like a tapeworm or something — can do you ongoing physical harm. What they can really do is create an allergic reaction in some people or just a sense of discomfort...That's it, it is the bug themselves that are what is awful, not anything they can really do, just the fact of them."
So if bedbugs aren't that physically harmful, then why the palpable, widespread discomfort about them? Winters has an interesting theory about this. He believes bedbugs have come to represent some of the claustrophobic aspects of modern urban life.
"Something about them speaks to the barely submerged anxiety about living in crowded spaces," he said. "They live in darkness and clutter, they can be brought to your home by strangers, they've come to represent something for us, this unsettled sense of being too close to other people, being surrounded by other people...there's something that's all bound up with our fear of bedbugs."
by Ben H. Winters
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"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."
Read more at Quirk Books