Ellen Toby-Potter, Ellen Potter, . . MacAdam/Cage, $24 (260pp) ISBN 978-1-931561-33-4

Reading Toby-Potter's dark, inventive first novel is akin to staring at a pointillist painting, nose against the canvas, and slowly stepping back until the seemingly random points converge to reveal a complete picture. That picture is a landscape of smalltown Loomis, upstate New York's answer to Southern Gothic. Loomis's oldest and most cursed family, the backwoods Mayborns, have been dogged by rumors of unspeakable horrors for more than 100 years; their sins seem to be physically represented in the "black and grotesquely shriveled" fingernails of the Mayborn women. June, 14, carries the telltale trait and is told that, because of it, "the world will always shun" her, as it has her ancestors. About to cross the Mayborns' path are two former cult members, manipulative head-turner Iris ("how reckless it was to have such beauty bestowed on a person like Iris") and her fastidious teenage daughter Lee, who also has shriveled, black fingernails. Mother and daughter dutifully return to Loomis for a cult reunion until Iris finds trouble and deserts Lee. The longer Lee lives in Loomis and investigates the Mayborns, the more she learns about herself and questions a possible "kink in her moral codes." Toby-Potter introduces one uniquely creepy character and one strangely plausible plot point after another, without losing her focus or confusing the reader. As the revelations build, the novel approaches its vibrant, jaw-dropping conclusion. Deliciously strange, this is a notable debut. Agent, Alice Tasman. (May 14)

Forecast:Few writers successfully follow in the footsteps of Joyce Carol Oates, but Toby-Potter is one of them. Strong reviews should help launch this promising first novel. N.B.: Philomel Books will publish Toby-Potter's children's book, Olivia Kidney, in June 2003.