Like so many other small manufacturing cities across the country, Staywater, Georgia, began its slide into irrelevance in the mid-20th century and never recovered. But being overlooked works just fine for the residents, both the living and the dead. Vintage mannequins swap clothing when no one’s looking. Dolls locked in an abandoned house chatter to themselves. A long-dead townie hangs out at the local bar every night. Two old cousins, Daisy and Claire, guard their young charge, Cameron, with spells and wards. And out in the nearby Okefenokee Swamp, a monster lurks.
Titus and Melanie don’t know any of this when they make the mistake of driving through the swamp on the way to their honeymoon. After driving across a bridge that shouldn’t be there, Titus wakes up lying on the ground. Melanie has vanished. As Titus’ search for his missing bride intensifies, Dave, a bartender who also woke up on that road thirteen years before, decides once and for all to solve the mystery of what happened to him that day. A selfish girlfriend, a reckless teenage boy, a concerned cop, and a grieving mother push and pull Titus in too many directions. In the end, everything comes down to a pair of secretive yet determined old ladies. They’re in for the fight of their lives.
Staywater and the swamp outside town are a physical manifestations of liminal space. The swamp is obvious; water and land colliding and diverging and blending and clashing. It is neither solid nor liquid but somewhere uncomfortably in between. Same goes for the town. Staywater feels both timeless and aging, magical and mundane, haunted and haunting. The former mill and logging town has seen better days but refuses to do anything to stave off further deterioration. It is alive and dead and undead all at once. Ghosts and spirits are everywhere and nowhere all at once, sometimes letting themselves be seen and other times hiding from the people they haunt.
Even the denizens that are alive are caught in the space between. Given their advanced age and declining health, death isn’t far off for cousins Daisy and Claire, but they have some feistiness left in them. Their youth has passed but the next stage of their journey has yet to arrive. Cameron’s life is effortless and empty. He has no past—his parents abandoned him with Daisy and Claire when he was a toddler—and a vague, undefined future. He stands on the metaphorical bridge between nothing and something, and may have remained there indefinitely had Melanie never disappeared. Titus and Dave might as well still be lost on that non-existent bridge for all the moving on they’ve been able to do. Until they confront the monster they barely escaped from they’ll remain stuck in the shadows of indecision and regret.
Although never given a name or tied to a particular mythology, the creature haunting the Georgian swamp feels decidedly British/European in origin. Priest notes that the creature existed in the Okefenokee Swamp back when the main residents of the region were Indigenous people (she doesn’t name the tribe, but due to the complexity and incompleteness of the historical record she could be referring to half a dozen cultures). And here’s where she loses me. The creature itself is paired with a stone bridge that looks like a gate—the only way it appears is when the hapless victim crosses the seventh bridge. But as far as I can tell, the Indigenous people of the area didn’t build stone corbel arch bridges or stone gates. By no means am I an expert, but nothing about the creature or its process lines up with the belief systems or infrastructure of Indigenous cultures of South Georgia. If the creature altered techniques pre- and post-Contact, that needed to be noted and explained. It would’ve made more sense to say the creature came with or was given access to the area by the European invaders.
Setting aside the wonky timeline, the monster itself is deeply unsettling. There is no bargaining with something this vile and otherworldly. It gets what it wants no matter what…no matter how long it has to wait. That looming sense of doom and terror is where The Toll shifts from Southern Gothic to Horror. The novel starts out as a creepy little small town legend with a Southern twist and ends in epic supernatural violence. Priest deftly navigates that transition, filling every page with immersive description and eerie set pieces. The plot moves at a brisk pace but balances nicely between frenzied and moody. The characters could probably use a touch more depth and dimension, but they’re interesting enough as they are, even if several are fairly one note. I didn’t love the lack of diversity either, but not enough to be annoyed. Hey, it’s not often old women get to be the focal point of a horror novel, so I’ll take what I can get.
All in all, Cherie Priest’s The Toll is the ideal summer horror read. This taut, brooding, sinister tale will sink its claws into you and pull you in. It’ll send chills up your spine whether you’re at the beach, picnicking at the park, or sitting on the porch waiting out a summer rainstorm. Shake up your reading with this frightfully charming novel.
The Toll is available from Tor Books.
Alex Brown is a high school librarian by day, local historian by night, author and writer by passion, and an ace/aro Black woman all the time. Keep up with her on Twitter and Insta, or follow along with her reading adventures on her blog.