Like Charles Frazier’s earlier novels, “Thirteen Moons” (2006) and the best-selling “Cold Mountain” (1997), his suspenseful, if often heavy-handed, new book, “Nightwoods,” conjures the untamed land of southern Appalachia with a native’s unsparing love and wary respect. Although this novel is set in the early 1960s — not the 19th century like its predecessors — it too recounts both a love story and a story of survival and endurance. Mostly, though, “Nightwoods” is a story about second chances. Each of its central characters has reached a point in life where resignation or weariness or anger has replaced hope, where “the awful dailyness” of existence has become challenge enough.Neglected as a child and raped as a young woman, Luce is now a virtual hermit, living in an abandoned hotel, where she is part caretaker, part squatter. One of Melville’s “isolatoes,” she focuses her life around books, music and the world of nature: “birds and leaves and weather,” the change of seasons and shifts in the great planetarium of the sky above. She resembles a woman in a Wyeth painting — proud, self-reliant, alone.Stubblefield, the man who inherits the hotel and some other ramshackle properties from his grandfather, was dumped by his fiancée and has since become someone who drinks a little too much and has “quit counting on anything too far in the future.” Years and years ago he’d had a teenage crush on Luce, and when he meets her again, he suddenly feels that he’s been wired “into some science-fiction time machine,” which has given him an opportunity to remake the past, to be “bolder, smarter, funnier, wiser.”Luce believes you can’t “count on anybody,” and she is loath to let anyone get close enough to hurt her. Now, however, she is suddenly responsible for two children who have been put in her care: twins born to her sister, Lily, who was killed by her violent husband, Bud. The twins, Dolores and Frank, were horribly abused by Bud, and though capable of speech, they’ve pretty much stopped talking. They are also given to brooding violence: they’ve killed several chickens and display a dangerous fascination with fire.Luce believes “you take care of whatever needy things present themselves to you” during your passage through the world — “otherwise you’re worthless.” But she “didn’t expect to love the children, and she sure didn’t expect them to love her ever.” That, she thinks, was “a lot to ask in either direction.”As for Stubblefield, she grudgingly allows him to hang around the hotel — he owns it, after all, and could presumably sell it or kick her and the children out — but she keeps her distance.In recounting the slow, sometimes apprehensive circling of these characters around one another, Mr. Frazier displays a keen psychological understanding of their fears and desires, and their driving impulse to keep themselves safe, at any cost. Drawing upon his intimate knowledge of the North Carolina woods and mountains, he shows how Luce tries to teach the twins about the world of nature that surrounds them, and how the cold, practical facts of botany and astronomy — the names of plants and trees and constellations — begin to ground them in a day-to-day reality, offering Luce the slender hope that they might one day be healed, or if not healed, at least made well enough to avoid inflicting damage on themselves or others.It is in underscoring the twins’ ferocity that Mr. Frazier’s writing unfortunately turns portentous. He says that Luce worried that if Frank and Dolores were made to go to school, “they might harm the other students,” and that “maybe in 15 years the children would be making everybody who brushed up against them scared or hurt or dead.”Mr. Frazier’s prose grows even more ominous and purple when he turns to focus on Bud, who often seems like an exile from a Cormac McCarthy novel: one of those blood-maddened, nihilistic creatures on a rampage, leaving death and destruction everywhere in his wake.Having been acquitted of Lily’s murder (thanks to the efforts of a wily lawyer), Bud has been stalking the two children, who were witnesses to their mother’s killing. He has a violent confrontation with Luce and Stubblefield, breaks into the hotel in search of money he’s convinced that Lily kept from him, and he kills Luce and Lily’s father (who has the improbably alliterative name of “Lit”).When the twins catch a glimpse of Bud snooping around the hotel, they are terrified and flee into the mountains with a borrowed horse. Fast on their heels is Bud, who has armed himself with a machete.In fact, Mr. Frazier tells us, Bud dreams of blood: “It covers the earth. Animals and humans in their billions, their skin like the membrane of a balloon or a rubber. A thin scurf trying to keep the liquid from spilling out, but doing a poor job of it. Touch a needle to your finger and see how bad it wants to get into the air. If God wanted things different, he’d have coated us in armor. Or made us pray to a face pulled apart by pain, screaming.”Such over-the-top passages are not only ridiculously melodramatic, but they also rip a hole in the textured emotional fabric of this novel, which Mr. Frazier has so painstakingly woven through his depiction of Luce, Stubblefield and the two children, and the Appalachian landscape they inhabit. There is sufficient drama in these people’s struggles to overcome the past and to forge new lives for themselves, without turning them into prey for a Grand Guignol, horror movie predator, who loves to talk about blood and death.