Some words don’t like to get out on their own. You can’t be spick without being span too, while “nitty” pines away unaccompanied by “gritty.” Similarly, “bedfellow” has hardly ever appeared without a preceding “strange.” Like its one-word title, Jeremy Shipp’s new novel, Bedfellow, is unnerving and unusual. And like a bedfellow without its strange, there’s something missing.
Bedfellow describes a very strange home invasion; the reader enters the story at the exact moment the monster—or maybe it’s an alien?—does. From the very first words of the book, the Lund family is in trouble: “Hendrick prides himself on always responding well to an emergency, but he freezes in place when a man in a Space Jam nightshirt crawls through their living room window.” The present tense narration is appropriate, for once that man comes through the window, the Lunds have no pasts and threatened futures. Whatever has come to the house has the power to rewrite memories: Before its first night in the house has ended, the creature that calls itself “Marv” has installed itself as an invited guest. The following days bring new identities and new memories: college friend, then best friend, then twin brother, then miracle worker, then demiurge, then deity.
In April, I reviewed Shipp’s first Tor.com book, The Atrocities. It was an odd book, piling sinister flourish upon macabre detail until the Gothic transmuted into the comic. His new novel is less coy about its mix of tones: On the second page of the novel, the house’s sinister invader, having established its mind control, is asking whether the Lunds possess a copy of Howard the Duck on Blu-ray, or, lacking that, on DVD. Marv expresses particular interest in the scene with the naked duck woman.
Where The Atrocities was full of lonely men and women, family was mainly present in its absence, in dreams of loss, cries of regret, and urns on mantelpieces. Bedfellow bears a dedication “to my family,” and all four members of the beset Lund family receive POV chapters. Alien or supernatural woes aside, the Lunds have mundane challenges—Imani came from an abusive family, Hendrick has a wandering eye, and Kennedy is a teenager—but their initial presentation is almost cloyingly cute. Imani cooks theme dinners (the Jurassic-era “Dino Din” with “pterodactyl eggs”; the rabbit-centric Sunday Bunday) and loves terrible puns (“I’ll gopher broke to keep you alive.”). Tomas has a whole range of toys he imbues with endearing foibles (“the army man who only fears balloons”), while Kennedy, apropos of nothing, calls all of her chat partners on a Chatroulette-style website “Sparkle Fantastico.” So perhaps the Lunds deserve their fate: quirkiness kills. And Marv’s taste for eighties schlock—the aforementioned Howard the Duck, for one, and the Garbage Pail Kids movie, for another—is finally more threatening than his penchant for eating people.
Shipp’s best writing comes in vignettes tenuously linked to the main plot: The single best chapter of the book describes Tomas’s favorite play space, a leafy square hidden in the intersection of several properties and only accessible by squeezing through a gap between fences. It’s a suburban waste space transfigured by childhood ingenuity into a place of magic. Similarly, the standout chapter from Kennedy’s perspective concerns a surreal internet conversation with a woman who believes her deceased ferret was, in another life, her sister. This chat prompts a reminiscence of a visit to a roadside tent freakshow featuring “jars full of dead baby aliens and a mummified cat and a big walnut that grew a human mouth.” If every page were as good, this would be a rave review.
Like The Atrocities, Bedfellow suffers from an abrupt ending. One character meets a brutal end, another finally demonstrates their agency, and a third drives to places unknown in a strange vehicle. We’re told that someone “must have a plan” as they leave through the gathering darkness, but for all the time we’ve spent with the Lunds, we have no idea where that road might lead. I’m not sure where Shipp is going either—this isn’t what I expected as a follow-up to The Atrocities—but I hope he finds a way to channel the best parts of these first books into a more cohesive successor.
Bedfellow is available from Tor.com Publishing.
Matt Keeley reads too much and watches too many movies. You can find him on Twitter at @mattkeeley.