'A Land More Kind Than Home," a spellbinding debut by North Carolina native Wiley Cash, begins so quietly, setting a pastoral mood that proves deeply deceptive. It is the story of what happens when Carson Chambliss, a creepy, charismatic quasi-Christian preacher with a love of fire and snakes, casts a spell over a fictional "little speck of town" near Asheville, N.C., in the 1980s.

The story is narrated by three people who fear, but do not respect, Chambliss: a boy named Jess Hall, old Adelaide Lyle and middle-aged Sheriff Clem Barefield. One steamy day, Jess' brother, a mute, perhaps autistic boy, climbs up on a rain barrel outside his mother's bedroom and sees something he shouldn't have.

Things go south fast for all involved, including sweet, reflective Jess, who dearly loves his brother; astute Adelaide, who has tried to protect the town's children from Chambliss, and the sheriff, whose grief for a long-dead son informs every move he makes. The unexpected return to town of Jess' hard-drinking grandfather, who may have had a role in the death of the sheriff's son, further muddies the waters.

The story draws you in like an undertow, lulling you one moment, horrifying you the next. It never overexplains or overjustifies, never tries to be more than a ripping good yarn, and for that reason, it succeeds at being a lot more.

Cash's love and respect for his native land show through, even when he is soaking it with blood. And he is able to capture the inner world of very different people, from young boy to old woman to grieving middle-aged man. He has tapped rich veins from classic literature and his region's Southern Gothic literary heritage, and with this fine first novel, catapults himself into the company of North Carolina's finest writers.