Lester Ballard, a twenty-seven-year-old farmer in Sevier County, Tennessee. After his mother runs away and his father kills himself, Lester is left alone, too brutal and mean to make friends. In later years, his only companion is his rifle, and his only interests are hunting, drinking, and sex. After he loses the family farm for nonpayment of taxes and is badly beaten when he objects, he resolves to avenge himself on the new owner, John Greer. In the meantime, he tries to make a home in a remote, deserted house. All the women he approaches reject him. For companionship, he has to depend on three stuffed animals he wins at a fair; for a sexual outlet, he watches couples in cars or fondles clothing stolen from women. Lester is so preoccupied with his own needs that he has no empathy for others. When one girl turns him down, Lester murders her and sets her house on fire, leaving her retarded child to burn to death beside the body of his mother. Finally, Lester takes as his lover a girl he has found dead in a car. After he loses her body in a fire, he begins killing the women he needs. Although couples and cars keep disappearing, for a long time Lester is not suspected of being involved. Ironically, it is not his sexual obsession but his insistence on getting revenge that leads to his downfall. He tries to kill John Greer but merely wounds him. He is shot, loses an arm, and ends up in a mental hospital, where he is again lonely, alienated from his fellow killers.
Fate Turner, high sheriff of Sevier County. Fate’s Christian name is appropriate because, though from one perspective he is merely a human being with human limitations, he is also Lester’s nemesis. Fate represents the county when Lester’s farm is sold, and although he does not order Lester to be beaten, he does not object. Later, Fate arrests Lester twice for crimes he did not commit. the first time he releases Lester, Fate warns him that the next step on his path is murder. the second time, not realizing that Lester already has killed the young mother, Fate again urges him to change his ways. At the end of the novel, it is Fate who goes down into the sinkhole and brings out Lester’s victims for burial, thus closing the case.
John Greer, a man from Granger County who innocently purchases Lester’s farm at an auction. Because he is an outsider, he does not realize how dangerous an enemy Lester can be. When he encounters Lester, he is not even sure who he is. Living and working on the farm, he is unaware of the fact that Lester is watching him. When Lester finally attacks, Greer reacts quickly enough to save his own life. To Lester’s disappointment, Greer survives.
Reubel, a dumpkeeper. Although he whines about the pro-miscuity of his nine daughters, he has taken no responsibility for rearing them. On one occasion, Reubel has sexual intercourse with one of his daughters and then is vaguely regretful. In his interest in whiskey and sex, he can be seen as a parallel to Lester; the only difference is that he is more lethargic, or perhaps that he simply has access to what he needs.