Bloodshed on the Appalachian Trail
Sallie Bissell's debut novel, In the Forest of Harm, generated exceptional buzz when it first made the rounds of the Frankfurt Book Fair in 1999. Now that the novel is finally available, it's not hard to understand why. A sometimes awkward, sometimes exhilarating account of three imperiled women in the Appalachian wilderness, Bissell's book is a wild ride that deliberately evokes both Deliverance and The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, and it has all the earmarks of a substantial popular success.
Bissell's heroine is Mary Crow, an up-and-coming Assistant D.A. with an unbroken series of convictions in capital cases. The novel begins when Mary, having successfully prosecuted the son of a wealthy real-estate agent for first-degree murder, decides to take a brief vacation. Accompanied by fellow lawyers Joan Marchetti and Alexandra McCrimmon, she heads back home to North
Carolina for a weekend hike along the Appalachian Trail. At the same time, she plans to visit the grave of her mother, who was raped and murdered when Mary was still in high school.
Two unforeseen factors immediately impinge on the narrative. One takes the form of Mitchell Whitman, older brother of newly convicted murderer Cal Whitman. Having been brutally cross-examined by Mary Crow during the course of his brother's trial, Mitchell, an incipient psychopath, is determined to exact revenge. Unknown either to Mary or Mitchell, a second psychopath is about to enter the scene. His name is Henry Brank, and he's a full-fledged schizophrenic who is haunted by the memory of the sister he murdered; he has lived in the wild for 30 years, trapping animals and preying, occasionally, on people. Before the weekend is over, all of these figures will converge and collide in a primal encounter encompassing rape, kidnapping, madness, and murder.
In the Forest of Harm falls considerably short of the literary level of its primary models. Its prose style is, well, prosaic, and too many characterizations seem flat and perfunctory. In spite of all this, Bissell's story eventually finds its feet and manages to generate a surprising amount of tension and narrative momentum. The alternating story lines are briskly paced and skillfully intertwined. The sheer physical ordeal of women caught between the harsh realities of the outdoors and the bizarre imperatives of madmen is evoked with troubling immediacy. Most significantly, Bissell captures the (literally) haunted beauty of the Appalachian wilderness with a precision and authority that lift her novel to a whole new level and help to justify its considerable claim on our attention.
Bill Sheehan reviews horror, suspense, and science fiction for Cemetery Dance, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and other publications. His book-length critical study of the fiction of Peter Straub, At the Foot of the Story Tree, has been published by Subterranean Press (www.subterraneanpress.com).
First-time author Sallie Bissell’s In The Forest of Harm is an incredibly powerful novel. Bissell creates a scenario of danger and suspense that will leave you breathless as you race through the book to find out what happens next.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
An assistant DA returns to the North Carolina mountain country of her youth in Bissell's hair-raising camping-trip-gone-wrong debut thriller. Half-Cherokee Mary Crow, Atlanta's hottest young prosecutor, has just won her sixth murder case when she decides to take her two best friends, Joan and Alex, along with her on a hiking vacation near Little Jump Off, N.C. She has hidden motives for revisiting her one-horse hometown: her mother was raped and murdered 12 years ago in the country store she managed, and Mary needs to come to terms with her death. But death still haunts the cursed countryside, and the three women find themselves in perilous situations, fighting for their lives with both a crazed mountain man and the obsessed brother of the Atlanta murderer, bent on revenge. When Alex is spirited away and Joan is raped, Mary must muster the strength to match wits with two deranged killers, calling upon her old tracking skills and deep knowledge of the forest. Meanwhile, her high school sweetheart, Jonathan Walkingstick, realizes something has gone wrong, and heads after the women up the mountain. Gory scenes abound in this punched-up female version of Deliverance, but Bissell is particularly good in describing how Alex, Joan and Mary's friendship sustains them and is strengthened over the course of their harrowing adventures. Even though the three women pop up cartoonishly each time they are felled, and their pursuers are supernaturally crafty, the tale compels with its depiction of desperate camaraderie and descriptions of gorgeous mountain scenery. A sequel seems likely, and the title is a natural for film or TV adaptation. Agents, Robbie Anna Hare and Ron Goldfarb. Rights sold in Germany, Japan and the Netherlands. (Jan. 2) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Bissell's debut novel is a fast-paced story with well-drawn characters. Assistant D.A. Mary Crow joins law school buddies Alexandra and Joan for a weekend of hiking and camping in the North Carolina mountains. There, they find themselves stalked by a killer seeking revenge. Part of the book's eerieness comes from the location itself. Bissell's descriptions of the Nantahala National Forest, where a clear view can be replaced by dense fog in only a few steps, give the text an unearthly and primordial feel. The ability to draw on inner strength in a time of crisis is not a new theme, but the struggle of these women to survive will not be easily forgotten. Recommended for all but the most conservative libraries (there is some violence). [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 9/1/00.]--Karin Mentz, Dr. Gertrude A. Barber Ctr. Lib., Erie, PA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
From the Publisher
She studied the cabin, yards away. Looking up at the hunter's moon, Mary had to smile at the irony: on one hand she was the hunter, on the other hand she was the prey.
Run! The warning rippled inside her head. If he has a gun you'll be harder to shoot moving fast. She leaped out of the rushes and dashed across the meadow.
Foot by precious foot she slunk along the back wall. On her belly it would be slower, but down low she would be harder to spot. Finally she reached the corner. For a moment she lay still, thinking hard. The earth felt warm against her cheek; the sweet aroma of autumn grass filled her nose. This is insane, a voice taunted in her brain. You are an assistant district attorney for Deckard County, Georgia, not some Cherokee commando.
"Oh, but tonight I am," Mary countered silently. "Tonight I am exactly that."
-- from In the Forest of Harm
Read an Excerpt
Atlanta, Georgia, 2000
"Indian bitch!" Calhoun Whitman, Jr., uttered his first words in court as he lunged over the defense table. "Motherfucking squaw!"
Mary Crow did not flinch as Whitman rushed toward her. Jurors scrambled backwards in the jury box while Whitman's defense counsel leapt from his chair and threw himself at his client. Though Whitman was a slender young man, he had quick reflexes and astonishing strength. Even with the beefy attorney clinging to both his legs, Calhoun Whitman, Jr., writhed like a rattlesnake toward the prosecutor's table.
The two bailiffs who normally dozed on either side of the bench jolted forward. With a flurry of grunts, curses and the final sick thud of a skull striking the floor, the three men pinned the just-convicted murderer at the foot of the witness stand. An instant later both bailiffs had their service revolvers pressed against the base of Whitman's brain.
"Oh, my God!" Mrs. Calhoun Whitman, Sr., shrieked over the babble. "They're going to shoot him!"
"Order!" Judge Margaret McLean slammed her gavel on the desk. The sharp rap was swallowed in the din that enveloped the courtroom. "I will have order in this court!" She banged the gavel as if she were hammering nails. "Officers, put that man in cuffs and irons!"
"Oh, nooo . . ." Mrs. Whitman sobbed as one bailiff cuffed her son's hands behind his back while the other kept both his foot and pistol wedged against Cal's neck. Mary Crow sat motionless as the bailiffs snapped the leg irons around Cal's ankles and wrestled him to his feet. When everyone in the courtroom had retaken theirseats and her heart had stopped its own rhumba in her chest, Mary stood up, as was customary, for Judge McLean to address the accused.
"John Calhoun Whitman, Jr., a jury of your peers has found you guilty of one count of sexual battery and one count of murder in the first degree upon the person of Sandra Dianne Manning. You will be sentenced by this court on Friday, November third, in accordance with the criminal code of the State of Georgia. Until that time, you are remanded to the custody of the State." Judge McLean scowled down at the strikingly handsome young man who now stood gasping before her in his torn Armani suit. "Take him away."
The two bailiffs grabbed Cal Whitman by his manacled arms and hustled him toward the door, his leg irons rattling like a cascade of dropped change. When they passed in front of the prosecutor's table, Cal locked his knees and elbowed both officers.
"Stupid whore!" he raged at Mary, his blond hair falling into his face. "Cherokee lesbo cunt! You're gonna pay for this!" Then he threw back his head and spit. Everyone gasped. A milky wad of saliva curved through the air, then plopped on Wynona, the small gray soapstone figure of an Indian goddess that Mary kept on her table at every trial. As his spit dripped from the little statue, Cal's pretty mouth stretched in a triumphant, mocking grin.
"Out of those spike heels, you're just a skinny piece of brown cooze!"
Mary felt her face grow hot. She despised men like Whitman, men who played rough with women and then expected their money or their power to put things right. She pressed her hands flat on the desk and leaned toward him, knowing the warm scent of her perfume would linger in his memory as an ever-present reminder of the day she hung him.
"Have a good time in jail, Cal," she murmured, not bothering to hide the pleasure in her voice. "I hear a few of the larger inmates are looking forward to being with you."
"I'll get you for this!" Cal screamed at her as the bailiffs dragged him out of the courtroom. "I swear to God I will!" The door slammed behind him, but his threats echoed crazily down the hall, fading only when they locked him in a padded, soundproofed cell.
"Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, thank you for your service. This court stands adjourned." With a brisk nod at the jurors and a sharp glare at Whitman's attorney, Judge McLean withdrew to the calm blue interior of her office. Then the true bedlam began.
Mary looked at the sputum-drenched Wynona and shook her head. At last this case, this crime of passion which some wag in her office had termed "the muff snuff," was over. Atlanta had been shocked when the younger son of one of its wealthiest real-estate developers had been charged with raping and then killing a Gap salesgirl, but when the papers had implied that political forces had put pressure on the DA's office to charge Calhoun Whitman, Jr., with the crime, the whole city had gone nuts. All Mary knew was that the case landed on her desk. Although the late Sandra Manning had shown a proclivity for multiple sex partners, the evidence had pointed overwhelmingly to Whitman. Her boss and the mayor and even the governor had wanted this political bombshell out of the papers, so Mary had gone to trial with the evidence she had. For the past two weeks she had prosecuted. Today the jury had convicted.
Kate Summerfield, the chief crime reporter for the Journal-Clarion, was the first to corner Mary.
"Hey, Mary, doesn't this make six convictions for six indictments?"
Mary fought the urge to grin and raise one fist in triumph. It would be better if the press did not find out how good it felt to nail scum like Whitman. It was a rush better than coffee, better than skydiving, maybe even better than a talented man lingering between your legs. She glanced down at her papers and answered Kate's question with a modest nod. "Handsome Cal makes six."
Kate gave a low whistle. "That's amazing for one so young. Say, is it true that the old Cherokees chopped off one hand if someone killed a man, but two hands if someone killed a woman?" She scribbled in a long, skinny notebook that looked more suited for grocery lists than front-page headlines.
Mary laughed. "Who on earth told you that?"
"Read it somewhere. Is this old Cherokee tradition why you never bargain when the victim's a woman?"
"To tell you the truth, I've never thought about it one way or the other." Mary smiled, but did not elaborate. Actually, Kate had gotten it right. The old Cherokees were hand-lobbers and she didn't bargain when the victim was female, but Mary didn't want anybody attributing that to her over breakfast tomorrow morning.
"Is this the first time you've convicted someone from a prominent Atlanta family?"
It's the first time I've convicted someone whose aunt plays bridge with my grandmother, Mary thought, but again she smiled. "Kate, I go after whoever Jim assigns me."
What People are saying about this
From the Publisher
“A top-notch thriller.”
“In the mode of Patricia Cornwell ... Bissell masterfully drives the plot with ... Gut-wrenching suspense.”
— The Asheville Citizen-Times
“A nail-biting novel of psychological terror, survival, and loyalty And friendship.”
— The Purloined Letter
“Hair-raising ... Harrowing.”
— Publishers Weekly
“Bissell tightens the screws slowly and expertly.... A shrewdly imagined female actioner, tailor-made for audiences who would’ve loved Deliverance if it hadn’t been for all that guy stuff.”
— Kirkus Reviews