An eccentric, grisly, thoroughly original thriller sure to please doctoral candidates and gore junkies alike. The real star featured by Preston (Jennie, p. 1080, etc.) and former St. Martin's editor Child isn't the brain-eating, evolutionary aberration, quaintly dubbed the ``Museum Beast,'' that hunts victims in the subterranean catacombs of New York's Museum of Natural History: It's the museum itself. While the creature is never dull, thrill hounds couldn't ask for a creepier environment in which to encounter grad student Margo Green, journalist Bill Smithback, FBI Special Agent Pendergast, and a mob of bureaucrats, genetics geeks, and NYPD cops. On the eve of a heavily promoted megashow, the shredded bodies of two boys are discovered in the museum's basement. As the death toll mounts, Agent Pendergast, attempts to postpone the opening of an exhibit called Superstition. But he's vetoed by a publicity-conscious superior. Meanwhile, Green and Smithback combine forces to get the lowdown on some mysterious crates from a failed Amazon expedition that no one wants to talk about. It turns out that the ``Museum Beast'' is really a freak of nature, its DNA half-reptile and half-primate. It followed the crates to New York because they contained the last samples of its only food--when the supply ran out, the monster began snacking on nutritionally similar human brains. Fast, smart, and almost bulletproof, the beast also served as the central figure in the rituals of a vanished Amazon culture. If this all sounds wildly cool, it's nothing compared to the novel's final third, in which several groups of characters (including the mayor) are trapped in different parts of the museum and must fend off repeated attacks from the lizard-ape, which munches on SWAT teams and socialites before squaring off against Green and Pendergast. A thriller staged in the world's scariest building, with no room for the squeamish.