By Wes Craven

Simon & Schuster. 350 pp. $25

Reviewed by Charles Wilson

Wes Craven received a master's degree in writing and philosophy from Johns Hopkins and spent some time as a humanities professor before he turned to a career of writing and directing slasher movies. To some, this career move might seem a strange use of a good education. Consider, for instance, a typical scene from "Nightmare on Elm Street: Dream Warriors," where a sweet boy confined to a wheelchair finds the villain, Freddy Krueger, in his room. Frightened by his intruder, the boy mutters a Dungeons-and-Dragons spell to try to shield himself: "I am the Wizard-Master. . . . In the name of Lorick, Prince of Elves, demon be gone!" To which Freddy laughs heartily, says, "I'm sorry, kid. I don't believe in fairy tales," and digs his hand of knives into the boy's flesh. Any sign of a Johns Hopkins degree at work here? Any sign of sympathy?

But if we are reading Craven's intentions generously, there is a sort of tragic confusion at work here; like so many of Freddy's victims or the victims in "Scream" and "Scream 2," the boy waves a flimsy paper wand against a fate that is much more clever and incisive. And though Craven may handle his themes quite differently than would a Shakespeare or a Sophocles, he does present, as they do, miscarried struggles for survival against the uncompromising and often capricious hand of death.

Now we have Craven's first novel, Fountain Society, which deals more openly with the struggle for survival against the power of death than any of his movies. Devotees of Craven's films might be surprised, though, not to find a scar-faced villain, a single butcher's knife or even one teenager. What they will find instead is an often well-rendered, funny and engaging scientific thriller about human cloning, and a sympathetic portrait of a loving 50-year marriage.

The year is 1998, and the couple in question is 76-year-old Dr. Peter Jance and his wife, Beatrice, who is slightly younger. A brilliant physicist and mathematician, Peter is developing a new weapon called "The Hammer" for the U.S. government. He fears how others might use his weapon, but the science fascinates him. Beatrice, a neurobiologist, works under a Dr. Frederick Wolfe on the same military compound as part of the Fountain Project, an operation so hush-hush that only Wolfe, whom an assistant unaffectionately calls "Nosferatu," has all the pieces of it in his mind.

Peter is dying of cancer, and the military brass, desperate to see "The Hammer" shepherded to completion, want to keep the project's mastermind around. Wolfe begins to explain to his military and scientific cohorts what's up his sleeve. In the 1960s, he took tissue samples from several people who worked closely with him -- including Peter -- and developed human clones birthed by mothers attending government fertility clinics. Aided by Beatrice's research, Wolfe believes he has found a way to take a brain from one person and have it ride "piggyback" on the body of its clone. Unfortunately, Peter's clone -- who has grown up oblivious to all this to become an investment banker in Switzerland -- will have to be sacrificed. Still with me?

Peter and Beatrice have deep qualms about the moral issues involved here, but as Peter plunges toward death he agrees to undertake the operation out of love for his wife. "What came surging up in his vision was their life together," Craven writes. "The love, the houses, the beds, the laboratories, the gritty determination to make it work, the very length of it." (Craven succeeds in this instance and elsewhere, though perhaps not eloquently, in getting the tenor of a long relationship right; when Beatrice gets angry at Peter, her anger tends not to be rage but rather "tender condescension and wifely disapproval").

When Peter is finally up and about in his new 35-year-old clonish outfit, Craven's novel changes from solely a science-fiction/military thriller to also become a peculiar rendition of Shakespeare's "Comedy of Errors." The Swiss investment banker clone had a life of his own, and Peter's body feeds him memories of a young woman whom he has never met. When he accidentally encounters the woman on Vieques Island, she believes she has found her dead lover, Hans. And Peter, unable to control himself, falls guiltily into his first extramarital affair. But wait . . . Dr. Wolfe made more clones than he confessed, and this woman looks an awful lot like a younger Beatrice. Could it be . . . her clone? And what's to become of Beatrice then? Or her clone? And by now the military brass and the unpleasant Dr. Wolfe don't need Peter any more -- he's finished "The Hammer" -- and he's in for the run of his life.

All of this is quite silly and fun. Craven's voice is rarely mellifluous, but it is seldom stilted either. There are some Cravenesque moments, such as the grisly operating scene where Peter's old brain is inserted into the new body, but the book also provides some nuanced thoughts about the moral implications of cloning. (Peter, expressing his reservations about cloning to Beatrice, alludes to the Studbugs in Swift's Gulliver's Travels, creatures that never die and whom "everyone who had a normal life span grew to despise . . . because they hogged everything.") Ultimately the novel suggests that death need not be so frightening if you have loved someone well and consistently while here. Perhaps such a redeeming message, along with the October 1999 release of "Music of My Heart," a slasherless movie that Craven directed about a violin teacher in Spanish Harlem, will help disassociate this author from his knife-wielding villains.

Charles Wilson, who lives in Washington, has contributed to the New York Times Book Review and Preservation magazine.