Alabama, 1911: Callie Bates, preacher's widow and mother of seven (all secretly fathered by Callie's mystery-lover), dies--along with four of her children--in an enigmatic fire; no remains of son William are found, but he's assumed to be dead. So the only survivors are oldest daughter Stella and baby Jacko--who miraculously emerged alive from apparent stillbirth, who miraculously came out of the fire (shielded by dead Callie) with nary a burn. . . but who will be paralyzed from the waist clown forever after. The orphans are taken in by the Gibsons, a severe, childless neighbor-couple--but farmer Gibson seems to go a little mad, followed by the couple's sudden departure. Next, then, Stella (a doting teenage substitute-mother) and crippled Jacko go to live for a few happy years with wise, fine Dr. Dannelly and his kind wife--while Stella begins to wonder if the Doctor just might be the secret father of the Bates children. Meanwhile, however, the county is being ravaged by a fever-plague; a redneck sheriff spreads rumors that strange little Jacko (whose paralysis was caused by just such a fever) is the devil-possessed origin of this calamity; the ensuing quarrels lead to the doctor's accidental death. And then Jacko disappears, kidnapped by ""Brown Mary,"" a feverish mystic who sees the demonic power in the cursed little cripple-boy's eyes. So, while the redneck forces seek some sort of primitive exorcism, Stella (who is finding trust and love with a young swain) must take off into the woods--searching for Jacko, meeting up with her long-lost brother William (now a religious fanatic), and coming face-to-face with her mystery father. . . before the tacky horror-fire finale. Throughout, in fact, first-novelist Childress seems unsure about whether he's writing a YA-ish coming-of-age novel (with Southern Gothic trimmings), psycho-supernaturalism in the Joyce Carol Oates manner, or just standard imitation-Stephen-King horror. And the result is an unsatisfying hybrid patched together with clichÃ‰d fire imagery--too lackadaisical to cast a creepy spell, too superficial as a character/society study, though competent enough (especially in the well-tuned dialogue) to be a not-unpromising debut.