Stories That Teach: “When I Make Love to the Bug Man” by Laura Benedict – Discussed by Adrian Van Young
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.