CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR

By Myrlin A. Hermes

Simon & Schuster. 207 pp. $23

Let's say you're a married woman living in a small Southern town in 1949: What to do when your husband takes up with a captivating young female who "smells like violets and vanilla"? Why, move her right into your house so she can lend a hand with the cooking and laundry, of course.

Well, maybe it wouldn't have been everybody's solution. Nevertheless, this is the premise for Myrlin A. Hermes' fitfully interesting and frequently irritating first novel, "Careful What You Wish For." Perhaps having read Alice Walker's "The Color Purple" at an impressionable age, Hermes works over similar ground but has turned out a book that ultimately has more in common with "Dark Shadows," television's camp Gothic soap opera of the 1960s.

Eleanor Cline, nee Blackmar, is the insecure but blameless offshoot of a family whose beyond-the-pale doings have for decades excited general disdain and disapproval in the hamlet of Liberty, locale not given but apparently somewhere below the Mason-Dixon Line. Eleanor's great-grandmother Helena Blackmar rolled into town in 1872 via iron horse to do a little extemporaneous speechifying in the name of voting rights for ex-slaves. ("Who is in charge here, anyway?" she demands of the conveniently assembled, head-scratching citizenry.) Helena ended up staying on, planting this herb and that in her garden and thereby earning the title of "witch." Eleanor's mother, Evalie (almost invariably referred to as "Evalie, the wild one"--it's that kind of novel), indulges in wildnesses largely unspecified outside of a wide-ranging sex life that leaves her with an illegitimate daughter. Owing to the highly inheritable nature of evil, the stage is thus set for poor Eleanor to be monitored as a sort of bad-seed-in-waiting by the townsfolk. In part to escape their relentless scrutiny, she marries handsome outsider John Cline and withdraws to the safety of a life of standard-issue domestic malaise. She bakes pies, he snarls, they have a son, years pass.

Enter Natalie, biracial enchantress extraordinaire. When Eleanor gets wind of John's affair with the young woman (courtesy of a helpful acquaintance in the Ladies' Sewing Circle), she directs her husband to install his mistress in their house without delay: "Might as well get a little help around here" is apparently her thinking. As it turns out, though, Natalie is not just any vixen but a genuine Mysterious Magical Entity, and soon enough not only John but also Eleanor and even young son Adam have fallen under her spell.

The two women go shopping, twitter together like parakeets in the kitchen, bed down in one another's arms, and in general get on John's very last nerve. Catastrophe predictably ensues, and the family is scattered to the winds. Eleanor ends up exiled--"quiet, nondescript, fearful of being found"--in New York City for more than a decade, but eventually Hermes contrives to get everyone back to Liberty either in corporeal or spectral form, and the book lumbers to a patched-together ending of exaggerated harmony and optimism.

As a first-time effort, "Careful What You Wish For" is not without merit. Hermes takes a stab at some interesting ideas: the replication of family dynamics from generation to generation, the layering of shades and ghosts over daily life, the town as character. The last in particular is a notion worth exploring, but unfortunately it's one that withers on the vine because the book evokes neither time nor place effectively.

At any number of points, both plot and prose lapse into the overheated, hocus-pocusy balderdash of supernatural romance. Hermes likes her symbolism laid on with a trowel, and displays an unfortunate proclivity for some of the hoarier genre conventions. Tripping nervously up a dirt road called--what else?--Witch's Pass, Eleanor reaches through "decades-old instinct for the cross that had once hung at her throat," possibly in anticipation of a run-in with Count Dracula. Characters allude mystically to their "dream memories"; roses abruptly pop into bloom at opportune moments after years of flowerless sulking. And how about the idea of blowing off a homicide because the murderer "didn't mean to hurt" his victim; he "just felt too much"? Better justification was offered by the Twinkie Defense.

Myrlin Hermes is 23 years old, an age at which having published a book at all is a substantial accomplishment. There's plenty of time for her to turn into a real writer. On the evidence offered by "Careful What You Wish For," though, she isn't there yet.

Boyd Zenner, a writer and editor living in Charlottesville.