By now we’ve all become aware of the bedbug epidemic that swept through New York City and the rest of the nation over the last couple years. For a while there, some folks were reluctant to stay in hotels, sit down on movie theater seats, and so forth. I’ve never actually seen one of these tiny terrors, but bedbugs are supposed to be almost impossible to spot or get rid of. And they seem like they’re (potentially) everywhere. Heck, I even know some people who got bitten by bedbugs after they purchased what was supposed to be a brand-new mattress. But as annoying as bedbugs are, they aren’t a real danger – right? Somehow Allen Dusk has managed to make bedbugs a genuine scary threat.
Some mild plot spoilers follow.
Shady Palms begins almost as a kind of technothriller: one of Al Qaeda’s top agents in America is on the loose trying to steal some material for a dirty bomb in the San Diego area. He’s being tracked by a couple of gung-ho FBI special agents. This initial first third of the novel is all very well done, but the story quickly morphs into something quite different: a very successful “killer animal” story about irradiated, mutated bedbugs that begin to devour the unwitting residents of a sleazy motel. The eponymous Shady Palms motel isn’t just your ordinary sketchy motel with dirty sheets, no amenities, and over-abundance of hookers, johns, and down-on-their-luck types. Shady Palms is run by a creepy dude named Sanjay who is much more than he appears to be. Both Sanjay and his motel have grim past, and this comes back to haunt Sanjay and the motel cleaning staff as guests start disappearing at the hands … er, proboscises of a new breed of bedbugs growing ever more fearsome.
I’ve seen “killer animal” books featuring dogs, wolves, sharks, bats, rats, worms, crabs, roaches, spiders, slugs and more, but this was the first I’ve encountered one featuring bedbugs as the unlikely villains of the piece. At first glance, it may seem almost a little silly for bedbugs to kill people, but Dusk is able to bring it off very successfully. These little suckers surprised me by embodying a real sense of menace.
The plot is fast-moving and unrelenting; it was sufficiently action-packed that I wanted to keep going and stayed up past my bedtime on several nights finishing the book. The characters are interesting and their dialogue convincing. Sure, almost every character in the book is a deeply flawed person – some of whom have committed terrible acts – but despite all that I found myself wanting to read more about them, learn more of their secrets before they meet their grim fates. The novel’s horror elements are certainly gruesome, but creative, and leavened with plenty of dark comedy. This could have been a run-of-the-mill, forgettable story, but Dusk’s writing rises head and shoulders above his competition and makes this a horror novel that shouldn’t be missed. Shady Palms was the first Allen Dusk novel I’ve read, but I genuinely hope it won’t be my last. He’s got real talent. Highly recommended, especially for those who enjoy creature features.