Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1051
Under the supervision of Fate Turner, the high sheriff of Sevier County, a farm is being auctioned off for nonpayment of taxes. When the owner, Lester Ballard, threatens the auctioneer with a rifle, one of the men assembled at the auction hits Lester in the head with an ax and takes him away. From that time on, Lester has difficulty holding up his head. The blow might have affected his mind. Because of Lester’s behavior, many local people are afraid to bid on the land, and it goes to John Greer, an outsider. Lester is determined to kill Greer.
Lester has no home and no way to support himself, without even enough money to buy whiskey; but he is not defeated. Deep in the woods he finds a deserted house, cleans it up, brings his few possessions to it, and moves in. He survives by stealing food and shooting game. He has no way, however, to fulfill his sexual needs. One night he relieves himself while watching a couple having intercourse in a car, but when they see him, they flee. Sometimes Lester visits Reubel, in hopes that one of his nine promiscuous daughters will help him, but they only laugh at him.
Lester has always been mean, but after he loses his farm, he seems to go crazy. It is inevitable that he will get in trouble. One fall morning, while he is hunting, Lester finds a woman lying on the ground, where she evidently passed out drunk. They fight; then Lester rips off the nightgown she is wearing and carries it away with him, leaving her naked. Later, the woman charges Lester with rape, and he is put in jail, where he spends nine rather pleasant days, eating his fill and enjoying the company of another inmate. After Lester is released, Fate warns him to stay out of Sevierville and out of trouble, predicting that if he does not change his attitude, Lester will end up murdering someone. Defiantly, Lester says that he does not care about the people of the town, or, he suggests, anyone else.
Lester still needs a woman. At a county fair, he shoots a rifle so well that he wins three stuffed animals and is chased away by the pitchman. Despite his skill and his trophies, the pretty girls in the crowd turn away from him. Lester goes home alone, carrying two toy bears and a tiger.
Hoping to win the favor of one of the girls in the area, Lester captures a live robin and, despite her mother’s objections, gives it as a toy to the girl’s retarded child. When the child chews off the bird’s legs, the two women are annoyed and disgusted, and Lester leaves their house.
One December morning, Lester finds the solution to his frustrations. He happens upon a car in which a man and a woman are lying dead, victims of carbon monoxide poisoning. Lester’s first thought is to take their money, their whiskey, and the woman’s makeup. Then he has an inspiration. Returning to the scene of the accident, he carries off the woman’s corpse. At his house, he puts her in the nightgown he had taken earlier from the drunk, and he hoists her body into the attic. Later, in Sevierville, he buys sexy clothing for his find, and from that time on, whenever he needs a woman, he brings the corpse down from the attic and uses it. Now Lester has money, as well as food and shelter, and even someone he can pretend is his wife. Since he hid the car and the man’s body, Lester thinks he is secure. One night, however, the house catches fire and burns to the ground. Lester is able to save some possessions, including his stuffed animals, but the body in the attic is totally consumed.
Still undefeated, Lester makes his home in a cave. On one of his forays, he encounters Greer, but Lester makes no threats. In fact, he even denies that he is the man whose property Greer now owns. His revenge can wait; he has more pressing needs. Finding the girl with the retarded child alone in her house, he makes sexual advances to her. When she rejects him, he kills her and then burns down her house, with the child inside. Fate’s prediction has come true; now Lester is a murderer.
When Lester is arrested, however, it is merely for setting fire to the house where he was living, and again he is released. Now Lester turns his attention to Greer. He takes pleasure in stealing eggs from the man he believes stole so much from him, and he spends most of his time hiding near Greer’s house, watching him and brooding upon revenge. So far, Lester manages to cover his tracks. Even when Fate finds the car in which the couple died, he has no reason to connect Lester with the missing girl, and Lester remains free. Having given up on women who are alive, he now decides to procure dead ones. When he finds a couple parked in a pickup truck, he kills them both and takes the dead girl to his cave. Again, however, the cards seem to be stacked against him. In the spring floods, he loses not only the girl’s body, but most of his possessions, even the stuffed animals. The little he has left, Lester drags farther up the mountain, depositing it in his new home, a sinkhole.
Then everything goes wrong. When Lester tries to kill Greer, he succeeds only in wounding him. Greer shoots back, and Lester awakens in the hospital with an arm missing. Certain that Lester is responsible for the other crimes, a mob seizes him, and to keep from being lynched, Lester admits his guilt and offers to take the men to the bodies. However, after he leads them into a cave, Lester gets away and makes his way safely back to the hospital. Judged insane, he is confined in a mental institution, where he dies of pneumonia. One spring day, a farmer’s team disappears into a sinkhole, and, exploring the chamber below, the sheriff finds the bodies of seven women. At last Lester’s victims can be properly buried.