Jeff Strand
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Buy *Mandibles* online Mandibles

Jeff Strand
Mundania Press
212 pages
June 2003
rated 3 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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Few horror stories are set in bright daylight. Horror belongs in dark creaky mansions and foggy old castles, or at the very least deserted towns with a power supply problem. Itís hard to fear anything in the daylight - unless youíve had a true fight with fire ants. Jeff Strand hass obviously been bitten to the point of inspiration, because Mandibles digs horror out of its true home and parades it through the streets of Florida.

Mandibles is a grand lot of fun. There are giant ants of varying sizes, action scenes of various plausibility, and weed-whacker jousting. Despite the humor, the tension is real, and it seems always possible that this will be the sort of monster movie that ends with the monsters leaving the town in ruins and an ominous question mark filling the screen.

Except that it isnít a movie. That shouldnít be a problem for a book, but few stories beg so hard for the glory of a visual. Here, the absence of lurid rubbery monsters and hyperdramatic sound stings is a palpable loss. Perhaps the most visible missed opportunity here is the perplexing cover. Rarely does a story have such rights to employ extravagant '50s-style horror movie art as its cover, and instead Mandibles advertises itself with bland computer generated art of what looks like nothing so much as residents of ďThe SimsĒ being terrorized by a giant antmobile.

Strand makes it clear that the wild B-movie spirit of Mandibles is intentional. At one point, a character observing the early stages of ant invasions rattles off a list of their spiritual ancestors in his mind. Them!, Food of the Gods, Tarantula - all movies, not books. The reason for this is obvious when one of the heroes rides a giant ant off into the sunset. Giant insects are visual stunners.

Itís hard to escape the feeling that Mandibles is a script rather than a novel. The characters, though likeable for the most part, are also simplified sketches that would benefit from the quirks and inflections brought with an actorís interpretation. Hack and Slash are little more than nuisances in the book, time-wasters in an already brief narrative, but their demonstrative violence and semi-comic teamwork would add urgency in the rush of a film.

And then there are the visuals. A man riding a giant ant is a wonderful visual even when itís in text, and is just one of dozens of scenes in Mandibles that deserves to be immortalized on the big screen. Failing that, a small screen. For that to happen, Strand and Mandibles need to get the kind of attention that comes from being a runaway surprise hit. Thereís no reason that shouldnít happen. Mandibles isnít the deepest book youíll read this month, or even this afternoon, if youíre a quick reader. But itís got enough dumb fun to catch the summer reading crowd and enough wit to interest the odd intellectual. Hereís hoping we see the ants invading theaters soon!

© 2004 by Sarah Meador for Curled Up With a Good Book

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