By Tom De Haven
Updated March 22, 1996 at 05:00 AM EST

Ornery, subversive guy, this Stephen King. Just when everybody in the book world is looking anxiously ahead to the 21st century and the future promise of electronic publishing, King delivers his latest novel to us the old-fashioned way: in serialized installments. ”I have always loved stories told in episodes,” he writes in his brief, chatty introduction to the first part of The Green Mile, and that love shines through here, bright and clear. Energized by the perils of working against a tight deadline (he hasn’t finished the novel yet, and doesn’t know for certain how it’s going to end), King has written — so far — his best fiction in years, a Depression-era prison novel that’s as hauntingly touching as it is just plain haunted.

Part One, ”The Two Dead Girls,” sets us up for horrors to come. Paul Edgecombe, block superintendent in a state penitentiary somewhere in the Deep South, is awaiting the arrival of a new prisoner to death row, dubbed the Green Mile because the wide corridor leading to the electric chair is ”floored with linoleum the color of tired old limes.”

Although he has presided over the execution of 78 condemned men, Edgecombe, who narrates the story, has become neither unnerved nor hardened by his duties; he takes pride in his professionalism. Yet he’s powerfully disturbed by the appearance of John Coffey, a huge, taciturn, and gentle-seeming black man convicted and sentenced to die for the rape-murders of Cora and Kathe Detterick, 9-year-old twin sisters.

One of the big dangers of book reviewing is giving away too much of the plot and spoiling things for potential readers. Well, obviously that’s not going to happen here. Is Coffey innocent? I don’t know. Just as I don’t know what happens to the other prisoner on death row, a timid Frenchman named Eduard Delacroix, who has befriended a small brown mouse with an eerily unrodentlike intelligence. Nor do I know what mayhem vicious prison guard Percy Wetmore is going to inflict. (He’s going to do something, though. Bet on it.) Is this going to turn into a gore story or a ghost story? Or both? I don’t know that, either. In fact, all I do know for sure at this point is that I’m hooked, and hooked good. Hey, Steve, just don’t be late with that next installment — okay?