It's well nigh impossible to get through more than three chapters of Wicked Bugs without experiencing a skin-crawling sensation. Author Amy Stewart's definition of "bugs" is a bit broader than an entomologist's might be: She includes proper insects as well as spiders, worms, and scorpions in her chatty, charming, illustrated volume, defining "wicked," she said, as "anything that is deadly or dangerous to people, or that has caused catastrophic, large-scale destruction." That includes some little guys that seem straight out of sci-fi, because of the way they look, the way they defend themselves, or — as is often the case — the way that they mate or propagate.
"I was really just so astonished at the intricate life cycles of some of these insects," said Stewart, who lives in Eureka. "The green-banded broodsac, for instance, is a parasitic worm that lays its eggs in the gut of a bird. The eggs leave the bird in bird droppings, land on the ground, and must be eaten by a snail in order to move through the next stages of its life cycle. If no snail comes along, they're out of luck. Then, to reach adulthood and lay eggs, they have to get back in the body of a bird! So they push themselves into the snail's antennae and wave them around, hoping to attract the attention of a bird. Miserable situation for the snail, as you can imagine."
Despite all the tongue-eating louses, bombardier beetles, and wide variety of zombie bugs, Stewart, who reads at Mrs. Dalloway's (2904 College Ave., Berkeley) on Thursday, June 9, claims to have suffered not a single nightmare while researching or writing the book. "But I did have symptoms," she said. "I always do way too much research for these books, and for Lyme disease, I read several books by people who were infected in the early days of the discovery of the disease. Pretty soon I had all the symptoms — swollen glands, aches, fever — that was too much!" Briony Morrow-Cribbs, whose detailed, somewhat Gorey-esque black-and-white illustrations infest Wicked Bugs, had to spend many hours examining the creatures very closely, in photographs or as actual specimens. "At one point," Stewart said, "she wrote to me and said, 'Do you just itch all the time when you work on this book?'" But the author finds these dastardly chiggers, maggots, and hornets "fascinating and not at all difficult to think about. I mean, they're creepy, but in a really engrossing way." Her fearless interest shines through in her prose, and the way she's able to — through anecdotes, historical data, and the occasional celebrity — contextualize the harm (physical and psychological) that the bugs can do.
"For every bug," she explained, "I was looking for a great story — an interesting victim or villain or a surprising moment in history where bugs were involved. And any time I could work in a famous person — Marquis de Sade, Christopher Columbus, Napoleon — all the better. So really, the discoveries for me were as much about people as about the bugs. I wanted each chapter to feel like a little murder mystery." Still, she'll change it up slightly with her upcoming work: "The next book is about something that can be wicked, but in a very different way: It's a book on botany and booze. The research has been much more fun." 7:30 p.m., free. 510-704-8222 or MrsDalloways.com