Them!

Mandibles by Jeff Strand isn’t exactly a parody of the killer mutant bug genre—it stands on its own merits (mostly), but there’s a moment early in the novel that is undeniably meta. 

Outside during a smoking break, a bored accounting assistant named Trevor sees a fire ant the size of his pinky. That’s a pretty big ant, he admits. By the time he’s done with his cigarette, he spots hundreds of similar-sized ants chittering on the patio. Time to get back inside and back to work, he tells himself.

Returning to his cubicle, the young clerk starts thinking about the upcoming weekend. “Maybe I’ll stop by the video store on the way home tonight and rent a copy of Them!,” he says referring to the (now) classic big bug movie from 1954. Also on his wish list: Phase IV, Empire of the Ants and It Happened at Lakewood Manor—and if he’s lucky, he’ll grab Antz and A Bug’s Life too. 

An ant kills Trevor pretty quickly so he never gets to enjoy his weekend movie marathon. But before he’s stung, he instinctively realizes that he’s a character in a novel about a giant ant invasion of Tampa, Florida. In a collision of fiction and reality, he falls victim to the metaverse. 

The remaining characters don’t know nothin’ about metafiction. Monette, Jack, Zachary and Roberta are simply trying to navigate their way to safety. Says Roberta: “Let’s just get out of Tampa. Maybe head east. I’m sure Disney World has a state-of-the-art ant defense system.” 

Unfortunately, an escalating tide of fire ants keeps the survivors running around in circles—and each ant wave is bigger than the one before it. At first the ants are two-inches long. Then they’re as big as a large rat. Soon they’re the size of a wolf or a living room couch. Eventually the crew bump into an ant that’s as big as a refrigerator. 

Mandibles is filled to the brim with characters that flit in and out of the narrative. My favorites are Dr. Tyler Enzian the sociopathic entomologist, Winston Cameraman the incompetent boss and (of course) Hack and Slash, the villainous Laurel and Hardy of the ant apocalypse. 

The author does a good job of stitching together a patchwork narrative giving readers a realtime peek into the situation. Chapter 13, in particular, is packed with various short vignettes that gradually build into a coherent account of the chaos. 

And of course, like everything Jeff Strand has ever written, there’s plenty of unsuspecting laughs throughout the novel. One thing that’s not funny, however, is the ongoing carnage. Like spam and Covid, the ants are relentless. They keep coming and coming.   

[Mandibles / By Jeff Strand / First Printing: June 2003 / ISBN: 9781594260063]