I read this atmospheric Southern Gothic while I was visiting my hometown in Oklahoma, sitting on the back porch, listening to the cicadas music with something like longing in my heart, driving fast down long back roads by the lake in my daddy’s old corvette. It was the perfect setting for a book like this. The Toll is all about the atmosphere- it is set in Georgia’s Okefenokee swampland, in a town that doesn’t even show up on maps.
As it starts out, a couple is driving along State Road 177 towards the Okefenokee to some cabins they have reserved for their honeymoon. Titus & Melanie are fighting about this, as a couple might if they decided a swamp would be a good place for a honeymoon. Then they come upon a bridge.
This bridge is unlike the others they had passed over, and it made Titus uncomfortable. Next thing he knew, he woke up on the ground. Melanie was gone… and so was the bridge.
The search for Melanie takes us to the little town of Staywater, where there is little more than a bar, a bed & breakfast, and one pizza joint. Here we learn that people have been disappearing in that same place about every 13 years for as long as anyone can remember. And the two people who remember best are the Spratford Cousins, Daisy & Claire, who live in a sprawling southern estate called Hazelhurst. Daisy & Claire are both over 80, and are guardians of a 16 year old named Cameron. But they aren’t quite ready to share.
So Titus & the local police squad (like 3 people) go through the motions of an investigation, as everyone in town looks on. Titus begins to realize that something is off when the town crazy, Netta, tries to tell him about how her own son disappeared about 13 years ago. About what lies in the swamp around them. And how the Spratford ladies once tried to stop it.
Now, I enjoy it as much as anyone else when a book leaves you with some questions. But I really felt like this one left me with far more questions than answers. And, in some ways I felt like the focus was on the wrong people- people I really didn’t care about. I honestly couldn’t bring myself to care very much about Titus & his bitchy wife, or about the bartender & his bitchy girlfriend. I wanted MORE about the Spratford witches. Because that’s what they are, really. But we don’t even get to hear about their history in any detail. Where did Cameron come from? What’s up with that house full of creepy dolls?
Why is the blind dog in the tree?
And most of all…I wanted to know more about the town history. Not just a couple of quickly read news articles.
It was also missing another key element of most Southern Gothics- religion. I think that if we had learned more about the Spratford ladies & their witchery we might have gotten into that, but alas. Regardless, this was a really fun read, and I zipped through it. What the ladies do to try to defeat the “thing that pushes” again is truly shocking, and I never saw it coming. I give it a solid 4 stars!