September 29, 2011
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Ben H. Winters' Bedbugs is a truly creepy, perfectly paced horror novel. Filled with quirky characters and itch-inducing prose, this psychological thriller is a worthy followup to Winters debut Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"Increasingly troubling events culminate in a case of bedbugs that is demonic in scope. By turns gruesome and compelling, fueled by a slow-burn tension, and full of in-jokes about contemporary Brooklyn culture, Winters's breezy summer read will leave readers compulsively scratching."
The central idea of my new novel, Bedbugs, follows in a classic tradition of ghost stories: there is a house, it is seemingly perfect, but it harbors one terrifying secret. In this case, the house is in Brooklyn, the secret is -- well, you can find it in the title. Though the bugs in question (if they're even real) turn out to be a lot worse than your average infestation, I torment my protagonist, Susan Wendt, with all the things that real bedbug sufferers face: Not just the bites, but the fear, the paranoia, and the shame. The tunes that follow are designed as a walk through the dark, insect-infested psychological landscape of Bedbugs.
"Day of the Locust," Bob Dylan
For the first several drafts of this novel, before I decided it felt out of keeping with the overall style, I had a lyric from this 1970 Dylan tune as an epigram at the top of the book:
"And the locusts sang / off in the distance
The locusts sang / such a sweet melody
Oh the locusts sang / off in the distance
Yeah, the locusts sang, they were singing for me"
The real subject of the matter of the song is a bit opaque, but I love that chorus's suggestion of a plague of insects, one directed, specifically, at the narrator. That's the situation in which Susan, inexplicably, gallingly, finds herself -- or so it seems to her.
"I'm Jealous", Ike and Tina Turner
I picked this song for two reasons: because insomnia, which Tina sings of in the opening lines ("I tossed and turned all last night") is a pervading factor in Bedbugs, and because my heroine's fear of the unknown eventually manifest themselves in a suspicion of what her husband is up to, when he's outside the house. Oh, wait, there's another reason: This song is incredibly good, as are most of these early Ike & Tina numbers.
"Hurry Down Doomsday the Bugs are Taking Over", Elvis Costello
Elvis is my all-time favorite artist, so I can hardly create a playlist without him on there, and this song is so perfectly apt. Problem is, it's not one of his best, and I can't in good faith leave you with a B-list Elvis song, when there are so many marvelous ones out there. So for balance, I'll throw on…
"Five Small Words," Elvis Costello
One of several outstanding tracks from his most recent album, National Ransom.
"Caffeine Blues," by Gray Matter
When she's not staying up all night trembling beneath her covers, or surfing bedbug websites with trembling hands, Susan drinks a lot of coffee, both at home and in North Brooklyn's many coffee shops. This song, by the late lamented D.C.-punk-band Gray Matter, has been stuck in my head since I last heard it, which had to have been twenty years ago. "I had a Coke and a coffee and a glass of tea / Now I feel like dancing, is it caffeine or me?"
"Empire State of of Mind," by Jay-Z
I felt it was important to have at least one song about New York on this list, given the deep sense of place I tried to instill in the book, and I went with this contemporary hip-hop classic mostly because it references my protagonist's drug of choice: "the city that never sleeps / better slip me an Ambien".
"Forget the Ghost," Title Tracks
Like a lot of horror stories set in possibly-haunted residences, mine features many references to the previous tenant. It's not clear to poor Susan what the hell happened to Jessica Spender, who used to live there and moved out abruptly, but after a while Susan finds it very hard to stop thinking about her. There are a lot of terrific songs that use the metaphor of the ex-lover as a walking ghost, but I picked this one because of John Davis's deep, breathy vocal, and one nicely on-point lyric: "he whispered threats into your ear / while you were sleeping."
"Who's Crazy?" from the Broadway musical Next To Normal, by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey
A great rock and roll stage musical, that takes up (with vastly more gravity) a theme I play with in Bedbugs : how do you know when you've lost your mind? I actually slip in a reference to Next To Normal in the book: Susan's best friend is a successful theater actress, and I've cast her in an (imaginary) new show by Kitt called Dignity. (I confess that Tom Kitt is an old friend of mine. See, I can namedrop in my book and when I do guest blog posts.)
"Mass in B Minor", Johann Sebastian Bach
I think this is the one piece of music that actually plays in the book (please correct me if I'm wrong, dear readers, if you're out there). I'm actually more of a Mozart guy, when it comes to classical, but I decided that Bach's long, glorious, death-haunted Mass was the perfect music for my heroine to listen to while she's painting--a scene in which she slips into a kind of hypnotic trance state that prefigures a lot of nasty business.
"Underground," Tom Waits
"They're alive / They're awake / While the rest of the world is asleep." ‘Nuff said.
"Under My Skin," Frank Sinatra
Having written a novel about a plague of itch-inducing bugs that lay siege to a woman's home, relationship, and sanity, how could I resist the classic that employs persistent anatomical infestation as a metaphor for abiding love? A signature tune for Sinatra, it was of course written by the great Cole Porter. I'll end this post with a lyric that eloquently epitomizes the mental state in which I try to keep my beleaguered, exhausted protagonist for most of the book:
"In spite of a warning voice that comes in the night
and repeats, repeats in my ear:
don't you know, you fool, you can never win?"
Ben H. Winters and Bedbugs links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists