Today, we present the October edition of our Stories That Teach series, in which authors discuss effective craft elements of a particular story. We are proud to feature a contribution from the venerable Adrian Van Young, who dissects Laura Benedict’s masterfully unsettling tale “When I Make Love to the Bug Man.” In Benedict’s creepy story, a woman becomes mysteriously enthralled with the exterminator hired to rid her house of a spider infestation. You won’t quite believe what happens next.
“The narrative world holds itself in suspense, threatening to go either way, any moment. The narrator’s voice is that world’s only constant, insisting again and again: ‘I am here.'”
I often tell my writing students, as some eminence in the past once told me, that a first-person narrator must be essential.
As opposed to third person, limited or omniscient, which gives the writer greater freedom in choosing how to tell a tale, a first-person narrator tells it directly: with her unique bias, in her unique voice, with her unique way of perceiving the world. The narrator’s voice is the sum of this work—calling consciousness out of the gibbering void, arraying it before our eyes.
Voice, in first-person narration, is story. Without it, an “I” might as well be a “she.”
When you tell a scary story with first-person narration, you’re doubling down on that notion of “voice.” You not only have to hear the voice, as you do with Humbert Humbert in Nabokov’s Lolita or Celeste Price in Alissa Nutting’s Tampa, rooting through its biases to uncover some semblance of narrative “truth,” but the voice begins to function as a shadowy veil between what the narrator perceives and what’s hidden, drifting this way then that way, brightening then obscuring.
This ripple effect builds pervasive suspense.
Take, for instance, the narrator of H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu,” who begins the tale: “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.” Or, “Merricat” Blackwood of Shirley Jackson’s novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle: “My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance . . . I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenent, and Amanita Phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.”
When I first read “When I Make Love to the Bug Man” by Laura Benedict in the process of blurbing Richard Thomas’ anthology The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers, I came away ashen and wildly amused. I couldn’t have told you, at first, why this was. The story terrified me, aroused me, confused me, repulsed me, disarmed me and made me crack up.
Principally, though, it held me in suspense. This seemed especially remarkable for a story in which nothing outwardly suspenseful ever happened—for a story without even much of a plot. The delivery-method, in that case, was hidden. How had Benedict worked such a startling mix?
On the surface, Benedict’s is a kind of horror story, deeply psychological and supernatural at once. When it opens, an unnamed suburban homemaker with a “cheerful, shiny family” and a sexual uber-mensch of a husband, Robert, has shed her perfect life to serve a shadowy figure whom she refers to only as the Bug Man.
“Bug Man, Bug Man, who came to save me from the spiders,” she chants in the story’s opening passage. And then: “I am in love with the Bug Man. I cannot leave him.”
Verily, we learn that the Bug Man is just that: the narrator’s exterminator, who she has hired to take care of the panoply of spiders living in her attic (“wolf spiders, jumping spiders, daddy and granddaddy longlegs, cave cricket spiders . . . orb spiders, brown recluse spiders”). Her description of the Bug Man is glib, yet disarming: “You wouldn’t call the Bug Man handsome. Hair steely gray, push broom mustache, mature belly straining confidently against the fifth button of his tidy uniform shirt. He’s the barber, the shoe salesman, the produce guy at the grocery store. Polite. Not a professional man, but someone who knows a day’s work. His eyes are clear and dark and steady. Infinitely calm. I never act rashly, or ask for more than I need, they say. His uniform agrees: Above his neatly pressed black pants, his starched white shirt . . . bears a logo with a spider emerging from a cave. Below it is his name in machine-perfect script: Darrin.”
Though clearly the Bug Man is more than he seems.
After confessing her devotion as a kind of frame-story—“Sometimes I think about my three children, and Robert. But I am needed more here. I am truly wanted here”—the narrator winds us back in time, recounting her enslavement to the Bug Man, a.k.a. Darrin, a pheromone-trance that works in her like “pollen.” Their dalliance is sexual only by name; it involves a black box filled with musical insects, a species of wildly uncomfortable foreplay and, at the risk of spoilers—you can read the entire story for yourself right here—climactic creatures so grotesque that when the narrator first witnesses them, “crawling across the table in a disorganized group,” she says: “I felt like the end of the world had come, and I was the only sane witness left.”
Ah, but there’s that special voice!
The descendent of Lovecraft, Jackson and Poe—mainly Poe, I’d wager, here, with its legion exclamation points and em-dash interjections—crossbred with someone out of a Sandra Brown novel or E.L. James’ Shades of Grey (the story originally saw publication in Pank Magazine’s 2011 “Pulp Issue”), the narrative voice in “When I Make Love to the Bug Man” is always working overtime. Overtime’s what makes it work.
When she first describes her sex-life with her husband Robert by way of comparing it, later, to her sex-life with the Bug Man, the narrator speaks in parodic hyperbole: “You might think I was dissatisfied with Robert. No. Robert was more than satisfactory. Maybe even too satisfactory. Too good. Even our sex was aggressively superior, like an Olympic relay event. . . . Sometimes I needed only the sound of his key in the front door lock [to ready myself], leading him to wonder, Naughty girl, what were you doing before I got home? But I never told him. I only smiled. It was all the encouragement he needed, and we were down to business, the part where our breath was short and my mind never wandered, and we could see our common goal, like a glittering trophy.”
It’s a wonderful passage, not only for its humor and how it establishes the narrator’s sexual prowess, but also for how it makes fun of itself; the way it makes the story’s bed. Combining the euphemistic diction of Harlequin Romance with the manic, headlong syntax of a someone emerged wild-eyed from the annals of 19th-century psychological terror (Guy de Maupassant’s “Le Horla” or Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”), Benedict makes the implausible plausible. By characterizing sex with her husband as “aggressively superior, like an Olympic relay event,” their “common goal” of orgasm “like a glittering trophy,” Benedict ridicules her narrator’s sexual showboating so you don’t have to. Everything’s there, in that sleazy-coy prose. The tacit acknowledgement that such a depiction is even remotely plausible to anyone breeds a subtle suspense underlying the prose.
You start to believe that such stuff is the norm, even when you know it can’t be.
The shrill exaggeration of the narrator’s voice ascends by degrees through Benedict’s story. After her first proto-sexual encounter with the Bug Man in the dark of the narrator’s house, being treated for spiders, she returns to the hotel where her husband and children are sleeping. There, she showers, “marveling at the tingling abrasion of my abdomen and between my legs.”
She then undertakes a bizarre absolution: “Please don’t judge me. This situation with the Bug Man . . . it’s not like me. It’s not like me at all. I’m the mom who teaches Sunday school and never complains. I’m the mom who remembers teachers’ birthdays and Grandparents Day and tips the waitress at Chili’s a minimum of twenty percent. I know which of my kids doesn’t like fabric softener on his clothes, and what kind of dental floss Robert prefers. At least, I was that kind of person. I can’t help it that I’ve lost those feelings. I’ve lost my compassion for everyone but the Bug Man.”
Here, Benedict adds yet another layer of suspense to the story by situating her old-school unreliable narrator—terrified and resigned to the thing that awaits; seeking our understanding, if not our forgiveness—in an utterly banal and familiar world. It’s one in which psychosexual enslavement to the Bug Man exists alongside fabric softener and industry-standard tipping; where a woman can cast aside her children and husband for “orgasm after orgasm,” perpetrated by the Bug Man (and in their trembling afterglow something more sinister) as readily as teaching her kids about Jesus, “[remembering] their teachers’ birthdays.” This unlikely pairing between incident and milieu gives way on a kind of hyper-reality reminiscent of the stories of George Saunders (“Sea Oak,” “The End of F.I.R.P.O. in the World”) or Alice Kim (“Mothers, Lock Up Your Daughters Because They Are Terrifying,” “The Missing Guest”) where the story’s world looks like our own, badly tweaked; a simulacrum of our world that we dare not examine too closely for cracks. The narrative world holds itself in suspense, threatening to go either way, any moment. The narrator’s voice is that world’s only constant, insisting again and again: “I am here.”
As “When I Make Love to the Bug Man” concludes, the narrator’s voice gains vertiginous heights. The prose becomes more stylized still; faintly archaic, then darkly sublime (“There were—God help me—his children”; “I ran from the room wanting out! Out! Out!”). The narrator’s voice reacts directly to the incremental horrors of life with the Bug Man, and yet we find her powerless to wrench herself away, and flee. When the Bug Man throws open his little black box, the root of his mesmeric power, the narrator observes in thrall: “The music from the box was nothing more than the sound of a thousand insects and spiders thrumming. They moved, but none were escaping over the edges of the box. Even the cave crickets seemed hobbled, stumbling blindly over the slow-moving caterpillars and fat beetles. Feeling my lover’s delight, I shoved the revulsion I felt down into my gut, telling myself that they weren’t so bad. People had worse hobbies.”
The suspense is all there in the voice, once again—not just in the narrator’s contrary impulses, but in the humor and the horror of the story, coexisting; the visceral hysteria of “. . . I shoved the revulsion I felt down into my gut,” followed by the shrugging offhandedness of, “People had worse hobbies” is inarguably, if uncomfortably, funny. Like energy streams that meet head-on, pushing for predominance until they unkink and shore up in the middle, the story harmonizes near the height of its discomfort, worse discomforts still to come. And yet the story’s final note is less annihilating than it is disconcerting; the narrator’s voice lulls us back to the beginning, those spiders “knocking softly” on the walls of the house that she no longer shares with her husband and children.
In “When I Make Love to the Bug Man” by Laura Benedict, one of my favorite scary stories of the last ten years, the suspense is only nominally a matter of plot. For me, it inhabits the narrative voice, so finely calibrated in how it deploys, like a blanket of insects of all shapes and sizes, any moment you’re sure it will fray.
But it doesn’t.
Adrian Van Young is the author of The Man Who Noticed Everything (Black Lawrence Press, 2013), winner of the 2011 St. Lawrence Book Award for a collection of stories; an occult mystery serial novella, A New Orleans Murder Mystery for The-Line-Up.com; and the novel Shadows in Summerland, out from ChiZine Publications. His fiction and nonfiction have been published or are forthcoming in Lumina, Gigantic, The American Reader, Black Warrior Review, The New Orleans Review, VICE, Slate and The Believer, among many others. He is a regular contributor to Electricliterature.com. He lives in New Orleans with his wife Darcy and his son Sebastian. See more at: adrianvanyoung.com