The Toll- Cherie Priest

Taken in my parent’s backyard- pecan trees galore!

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 is how I imagine the bridge- except you can’t see to the other side.

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?

Nightmare fuel!

Why is the blind dog in the tree?

OK, I know there aren’t coconuts in Georgia, but look how cute this freaking doggo is!!!

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!

The Goth Guys: Birth of the Gothic

OK, as soon as I said goth guys, I know you were immediately thinking about this…

Hey girl, it’s Friday, I’m in love…

But really, the men I’ll be talking about today were more like this…

Dandy!

Yeah, I’m talking about the guys in tights and powdered wigs mostly, because these are the men who first wrote the type of novel we now know as the gothic. The beginning of the 18th Century in England was steeped in the Age of Enlightenment, and so the modern novel was born as a morality tale, or a philosophical type of story meant to (yep) enlighten the reader on the pitfalls of evildoing. As the century closed, though, Romanticism was on the rise, and the gothic fit both of these perfectly.

Horace Walpole published the Castle of Otranto in 1764, and he was “fond of mediaval romance and mystery as a dilettante’s diversion” (HP Lovecraft). That was really how most people thought of novels at that time- as a non-academic pursuit. One that is probably better suited for the weak of mind (re: women). Anyways, Castle of Otranto is considered by most to be the first Gothic Novel. It is the story of Prince Manfred and his family- on his son’s wedding day, part of a giant suit of armor falls from the sky and crushes the groom. The remaining family returns to the dreary castle & then Manfred plots to divorce his wife and marry the girl his son was going to marry. Much intrigue and some death follows. Most importantly, it is spooky and there are some clearly supernatural elements.

A few years later, the most popular author writing in this new genre was Ann Radcliffe, who began publishing in 1789. Radcliffe marks the genesis of what some think is a different subgenre of the gothic altogether- the female gothic. It can be useful to note the differences between the masculine & feminine gothic, and it has helped me understand the genre more completely. Of course, I will be covering the ladies in a different post!

So to really understand the difference, I’ll actually use one of Radcliffe’s own definitions. We have to look at the difference between terror and horror. She says that terror is the feeling of dread at the possibility of something frightening. Horror is the feeling of revulsion & disgust at actually seeing that horrible thing.

These are human emotions, apparently! Horror to the left & terror to the right. Not sure I’ve ever made those faces, but…

Terror is the type of feeling that Radcliffe, and generally the female gothic after her, looked to evoke. Never quite showing what was behind the curtain, but building that tension so that we’re afraid to look behind it.

Now, Radcliffe would say that horror contracts the soul, by absolutely annihilating our ability to respond to the displays of atrocity. That once the curtain is pulled aside, we are essentially frozen, unable to feel. The male gothic doesn’t think that way, and that is how we get to the horror of today! You know how every modern horror movie shows us every damn thing? Usually with overdoses of CGI. That is horror.

One of the things that these “masculine” gothic novels do differently is they are more likely to have unexplained supernatural events. Like a giant suit of armor falling from the sky, or like you’ll see later- bloodsucking vampires and crazed monsters. Those stories came primarily from men(but not always-I would say that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is in this category). The ladies tended to explain away the supernatural- like, oh, those noises? That’s just my crazy first wife up in the attic!

So those are the bad boys of the gothic novel! Here is a great list of books to read should you want to sink your teeth into some of these hotties:

Look at those beautiful books!

Castle of Otranto, Horace Walpole

Vathek, William Beckford

Vampyre, John Polidori

Caleb Williams, William Godwin (Mary Shelley’s dad)

Carmilla, Sheridan le Fanu (birth of the lesbian vampire?)

Dracula, Bram Stoker

Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson

The Monk, Matthew Lewis (I love this one! It is slow at times, but worth it!)

Justine, or the Misfortunes of Virtue, Marquis de Sade (yes, he had a great deal of influence on the genre)

Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde

Turn of the Screw, Henry James

I hope you enjoy these, and keep an eye out for the gothic ladies coming up next.