In his contrived but fast-paced thriller, bestselling novelist Saul (Guardian, 1993) does for insects what Hitchcock's The Birds did for our feathered friends. The action takes place in central California, where a teenage girl running away from home to escape her mother's lecherous boyfriend reinvents herself as Dawn Morningstar en route to Hollywood. She unwisely accepts a ride from a stranger who turns out to be entomologist Carl Henderson, an evil genius who, before Dawn's dreadful death, holds her hostage in the dank basement of his Pleasant Valley home, making her the object of monstrous experiments with bees, scorpions, ants, etc. At around the same time, widow Karen Spellman travels to Pleasant Valley from Los Angeles with her two daughters, nine-year-old Molly and sullen teenager Julie. Karen is getting hitched to her high school sweetheart, Russell Owen, who owns a farm, some horses, and a barn full of beehives with which Carl has been fooling around on the sly. After Molly nearly dies from a strangely virulent bee sting, Julie investigates, gets assaulted by Carl, and is stung herself while trying to flee. Russell's cranky father, Otto, saves her, but Carl tampers with the experimental antivenin the local clinic gives Julie, hoping it will be lethal. Instead, the chemical compound turns her into a ravenous queen bee host who seduces boys by the bizarre technique of spewing forth a swarm of the buzzing, biting creatures. ``And from Julie's mouth emerged a swirling black cloud, a dark and writhing mist that split instantly into dozens of serpentine tongues...and curled around Jeff Larkin's head like tentacles,'' writes Saul with characteristic hyperbole. His excessive style will never win him any literary prizes, but it's creepily compelling. A skillful manipulation of primal fears about the natural world and the corruption of innocence.