A 12-year old mountain girl on her way home from school, in an unnamed Appalachian state, is molested. Five years later, a note, purporting to come from her-Betty Sue Wadkins-appears in a nearby Catholic church. "For Christ's sake," the message on it reads; the paper drips blood and gives off electric shocks. The two alarmed parish priests manage to locate and see Betty Sue, witnessing for themselves the agonies of a stigmatica, something that heretofore they've only read about. The parents reluctantly inform the visitors that their daughter has been bleeding from wounds in her feet and hands, beginning each Thursday and ending on Sunday evening, for the past five years. They believe that snakes bit her that fateful evening and she has never corrected this misapprehension, for she does not remember. The reader, meanwhile, is startled to see that Rufus, the handyman who attacked Betty Sue and whose identity the reader knows from the very beginning, is in constant attendance at her bedside. What's going on?
Coyne has concocted a swift-moving plot, one that's intelligently done, if not terribly subtle (at least not to those well-schooled in Exorcist -type clues). The younger priest, Stephen Kinsella, is an attractive figure, as is the Jewish graduate student, Deborah Laste, to whom he is irresistibly (read lustfully) drawn. But even a charming, albeit troubled, hero and lots of determinedly gruesome goings-on cannot successfully distract attention from a hollow core: One can almost hear a spectral voice asking, why? Yet, for those who automatically answer "why not?" it will provide an interlude of ghastly pleasure. (Putnam, $8.95)