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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).