There is, as any experienced reader knows, nothing so fraught with menace and melancholy as a Southern Gothic novel. Is it the region's history of race-based atrocities? The unaccepted burden of historical guilt, the economic and cultural isolation? Or is it just that all that Spanish moss hanging from the trees makes everything seem obscured and portentous? Whatever the reason, the Southern novel comes in two main varieties: The first is the Gothic, best typified by William Faulkner's enervated lyricism. Then there's the sharp and sorrowful style of which Robert Goolrick is shaping up to be a master. Goolrick's second novel is called "Heading Out to Wonderful," but from the moment the proverbial stranger arrives in town, we know his characters are headed for anything but.

The town, Brownsburg, tucked into a corner of the Valley of Virginia, is a seemingly ordinary place for its time, but really it is a hotbed of agonized sado-masochistic obsession. The stranger (and hero), Charlie Beale, underneath his attractive and amiable demeanor, is a wounded, desperate man. He has a sense of the eternal, marveling at "the vastness of the sky ... the people who were his people," but "thirty-nine years on the planet had beaten the poetry out of him."

Brownsburg itself sports a thin veneer of Southern hospitality over the kind of craven conformity that scarcely conceals a simmering rage. The man who "owns" Brownsburg, Boaty Glass, is a rattlesnake-mean, violent, twisted and hateful character whose baseness makes Faulkner's Snopes clan look like the Von Trapp family.

His child bride, Sylvan, who becomes Charlie's obsession, shows spirit, but she, too, is enthralled -- to the sadistic fantasy of movies; they are all she knows of beauty and grace, so she devotes herself to them with religious zeal.

In one of the more breathtaking acts of senseless masochism in literary history, Claudie Wiley, a young African-American woman who shows true genius at clothing design, declines an offer to go to college in the North for free, returning instead to the small town where she has to hide the fact that she is making good money from her talent, vulnerable to every bit of envy she might inspire.

A small child is used as a go-between in an adult love affair, which is in itself an act of heedless selfishness that only a compulsion could inspire, and suffers through life shrinking in terror and tragedy because of it. The town, needless to say, is under the sway of its church when not under the sway of its rich man.

There is a sentimental side to Goolrick's writing; he often employs epiphany and elegies -- for a woman's beauty, a man's better qualities and often of the region itself. "This land will hold you," says a character whose life would have been better had he left it, "and keep your stories."

Goolrick means to talk of something beautiful, fierce and timeless that will grab you and keep you where you are. Then again, so would an alligator.

Emily Carter is the author of "Glory Goes and Gets Some."