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The Stuff of Nightmares : A GIFT UPON THE SHORE <i> by M. K. Wren (Ballantine: $18.95; 375 pp.) </i>

<i> Martin is an occasional contributor to Book Review. </i>

This cautionary novel is scarier than anything by Stephen King or Clive Barker. Certainly the stuff of any book lover’s worst nightmares.

M. K. Wren’s horror concerns the struggles of two groups of people along the Oregon coast, trying to survive in a post-nuclear-holocaust world.

The tale is centered on two remarkable women: Rachel Morrow, an artist, and Mary Hope, a writer. As the story develops, it’s more than coincidence that Mary’s last name is Hope.

But the nuclear holocaust is not the biggest horror in this tale. It’s what happens afterwards that curls the toes and sickens the soul.

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The heart of Wren’s novel is the fate of those books that survive nuclear blasts, firestorms and winters, and then come up against the implacable and fiery belief of a handful of uneducated and very fundamental Christians who feel these last books are contrary to the Bible’s truth.

As Miriam, one of the main antagonists, claims, these books, lovingly saved by Rachel and Mary and put in a vault, are full of heathen idols and evil in general and deny God’s existence. Ergo, they should all be destroyed before they erode the morality of the few children in this fledgling farm community named Amarna.

Mary Hope, as the children’s teacher and sole defender of the books, provides the novel’s crucial confrontations, as she struggles with Miriam. Here, the word is definitely mightier than the sword.

Wren’s story is too painfully real in the face of recent demands that certain books be removed from school curricula. The getting and preserving of farm animals and seed grain, of building a community and a flourishing family unit are nothing to the preserving of human thought. And Rachel Morrow and Mary Hope embody the thinking that even in the face of such daunting odds, art, imagination, poetry, etc. should have equal value with chickens, cows and corn.

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The world Mary and Rachel live in, at the outset of the novel, is full of strife, starvation, a Lassa fever plague out of control and governments at the hysterical edge of paranoia. With this set-up, the inevitable happens, and nuclear devastation silences the planet.

But because there was a strong storm brewing when the bombs went off in Portland (which helped to lessen the fallout), Rachel and Mary are able to hide out in a prepared basement for two weeks. Then, slowly, they try to put together some kind of life, and begin to search for other survivors.

It is these other survivors, in a Christian fundamentalist commune to the south called the Ark, who provide Mary and Rachel with hope for the continuation of mankind--and the future seeds for yet another Dark Age, especially when, after upheavals and tragedies befall both sides, some of the members come to Amarna to live.

As Mary ages, she decides that the family--and, hopefully, future generations--should know the story of her, and especially Rachel’s, struggles to hold onto life and man’s printed legacy. She takes under her wing one of the older boys, Stephen, and tells him the chronicle of Rachel.

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This telling of the chronicle in flashback, interspersed with Mary’s harrowing struggles with the ignorant and superstitious Miriam, comprises a strong, vivid tale. Wren’s writing is clear and concise for the most part, though bordering on the mystic when it comes to her descriptions of the woods, and especially the ocean in it’s many moods. Two concerns, obviously close to Wren’s heart, since she lives and writes on the Oregon coast.


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