Loosely billed as ‘horror,’ I don’t think that The Toll earns the genre. With a Southern Gothic atmosphere, it has a dual plot line that only intersects near the end. One story begins with a bored seventeen-year-old boy, Cameron, his elderly witchy godmothers and the restless feeling of wanting change. The other plot surrounds a squabbling honeymooning couple headed to a cabin in the Okefenokee swamp, who experience something surreal as they cross a strange bridge. Because the tone between the two stories feels so different, it almost feels like two books in one. I read an advance reader copy, and parts of it still felt like a draft. In fact, in the end notes, Priest notes that it was written around the time of a cross-country move and selling a house, and I can’t help but feel quality was sacrificed. Still, it was occasionally diverting.
Characterization was decent. Although the cast was often interesting, one of the challenges for me is that they were difficult to care about, as almost all of them were ethically challenged. The honeymooners, Titus and Melissa, are a mess. Cameron, the seventeen year-old, is basically a shallow, developmentally younger boy. The elderly godmothers were the most entertaining, but felt a little to contrived and cryptic at times. Still, they were by far my favorite characters. Dialogue occasionally feels awkward but actually quite real. A quote from Titus:
“He had a feeling that much of his forseeable future would be dedicated to keeping his mouth shut. He didn’t like how he felt about that feeling.”
Setting was decent, but didn’t really immerse me in the swamp until the last quarter. I had more of a feel for the idiosyncrasies of the town than the swamp. While Titus goes into the general description of the bridges and the water as they approach the reserve, it’s more the affection of an alligator fan and casual visitor than a person that knows the biology and plants of the swamp. I’ve read quite a few mysteries set in swamps that gave me a much better appreciation for the heavy, still air and stagnant pools of algae-crusted water.
Many points in the book felt underdeveloped or not well-thought out. At one point, Priest throws in something about Nick in the bar being a ghost. It was a moment of mental whiplash; not that I minded, but suddenly there was this new thing I had to integrate into my understanding of this village. Likewise, Cameron is surprised to learn the object of his crush is actually in her thirties. We’ve already read how this is a one-horse town; this seems surprising to me when he’s lived there for fourteen years. The fact that Priest makes a point of small facts is frustrating as they seem to provide points to catch oneself on instead of enhancing the scenery–somewhat like walking a path with many branches blocking the way. I suppose it added to the atmosphere of strangeness in the town, but mostly it left me a little bit puzzled.
Take Practical Magic, by Alice Hoffman, cross it with American Elsewhere by Robert Jackson Bennett. Change the desert cliffs to deep swamp, throw in squabbling honeymooners instead of a gentle romance, and there you go: The Toll. Mostly it felt like a lot of ideas jumbled together and needed more development to grow them into something intimidating and ominous. On my diverting read scale, I’d rate it below Mira Grant’s Into the Drowning Deep. If you want a good Lovecraft tale, go with Winter Tide or The Ballad of Black Tom.