Cherie Priest‘sThe Toll (2019) is set in the fictional town of Staywater, Georgia, which she locates adjacent to the real-life Okefenokee Swamp Park. Once a thriving logging town, Staywater is now little more than a courthouse, bar, motel, pizza parlor, gas station, a lot of derelict businesses, and a life-sized dollhouse called Miss Kiser’s Uncanny House of Replicas and Playful Imitations.
Residents are accustomed to hopping on SR 177, which bisects town and Swamp Park, to travel to nearby towns for pretty much anything they need. Outdoor enthusiasts who stop off before or after a visit to the Park keep the town’s anemic economy alive. Every 13 years, something pays Staywater’s swamp a visit and takes a few things. And the things it takes, it means to keep.
Unlikeable newlyweds Titus and Melanie Bell are en route to their ill-chosen honeymoon in the Swamp Park. The Park’s cabins may boast modern amenities, but these two belong in a swamp about as much as they belong together. The spare description of their roadtrip establishes that they’re out of their depth, even before they reach the creepy stone bridge. The blurb on the back of the book sums up their predicament succinctly: “Drive that route from east to west, and you’ll cross six bridges. Take it from west to east and you might find seven. But you’d better hope not.” The Bells know nothing about the area and cell service for their GPS craps out. Attempting to cross the bridge doesn’t work out terribly well, and Titus awakens to find himself lying in the middle of the road, Melanie missing, and the bridge nowhere to be found.
The contemporary story takes place over the 48 hours after Melanie goes missing. Titus bides his time while the police search for his wife; the residents of Staywater try to go about their business and pretend that something terrible isn’t happening. Again.
17 year old Cameron Spratford lives with his godmothers, cousins Daisy and Claire Spratford, who found the boy when he was a toddler. Someone, presumably his unknown parents, left him tethered to the front door of their crumbling farmhouse, which bears the the appropriately Southern Gothic name of Hazelhurst. The octogenarians garden, knit, and practice witchcraft, but they also have cellphones and they even know how to use them. Daisy and Claire’s dialogue is realistic and hilarious, and I can easily imagine them weaving spells using little more than their formidable power, colorful profanity, and perhaps some buckshot for good measure.
Cameron is mooning over Jess, a woman nearly twice his age who runs the local bar with her boyfriend Dave. Everyone in town calls Jess’s eccentric Aunt Netta crazy. Priest walks a fine line with this characterization, edging towards problematic stereotypes of madness as otherworldly wisdom before revealing how Netta acquired her reputation and how the rumors both mask the truth and put the town in increasing peril.
When Netta tells Cam “You know, everything’s a ghost story, eventually” (88), Priest isn’t just having fun with Southern Gothic literary trends. In Staywater, ghosts have an important role to play and Priest twists traditional haunting conventions smartly.
Local law enforcement searches the swamp, but they don’t hide their abiding belief Melanie is a runaway bride. Honestly, I didn’t read this book when it was first released because I thought it was just another entry in the “wife disappears and husband goes to jail because no one believes him that some creepy shit went down” genre. Fortunately, a copy arrived in a subscription box and I decided to give it a chance for the logical reasons that it was in my hand and also that Priest lived in the same weird small town as my mom for a long time. Perfectly logical. I’m glad I cracked it open, it’s great fun.
Although the police treat Melanie’s disappearance as a possible crime and install Titus in the town motel while they investigate, it’s obvious the people of Staywater know Titus is innocent and Melanie is gone forever, but no one plans to share that with him. They’d just like to ride out this window of unnamed danger and then move on with their lives, as they always have in the past. In the modern era, vague stories in local papers about floods or passing killers no longer obscure these cyclical disappearances, and the story of a missing bride quickly draws outside attention. The atmosphere in the town, and the story, grows thicker by the hour. The story really kicks into gear when Dave reveals his secret to Titus: he believes him about the spooky stone bridge.
From the start, Priest unspools ample evidence that Staywater residents are weird and Staywater is weirder, but it’s a flavor of weird so well-written that the unexplained oddities of the town don’t detract from the sense of horror in whatever cyclically terrorizes the swamp, they instead heighten the horror by contrast. There are so many delightful examples I’m itching to share that would clarify what I mean, but I don’t want to spoil any part of the intricately crafted narrative or the pleasures of this fun, short novel.
There are a number of tantalizing elements in the story that aren’t addressed, but, again, I don’t want to spoil anything so these are just a few examples. How long ago was Cam abandoned at Hazelhurst? Could it have been…13 years? Do the cousins know more about Cam than they’ve ever let on? And what’s up with the town’s aversion to/fear of the local auto-body shop? Priest emphatically establishes that there’s something seriously wrong there, but whether this is intended as a misdirect or was just a dropped plot point is maddeningly unclear. The reader does learn what happened to Melanie in the end and the lives of numerous characters are irrevocably changed, but it also feels as though Priest is leaving the door open for future visits to Hazelhurst, Staywater, and the Okefenokee Swamp. I hope so!
The Toll was included in the August Night Worms monthly book club box, Summer Vacation.
July was a misery. A global heatwave, strong earthquakes in California, fires in the American Southwest, and other signs of catastrophic climate change were all around. In DC, power outages and random violence were attributed to the miserable weather. Tourists listlessly thronged the museums while residents inched through endless construction between their mediocre-paying civil service jobs and their overpriced apartments. The Benandanti, a powerful cult of archaeologists who secretly control the world, really dropped the ball in the summer of 1994.
With the (possible) exception of that powerful cult of archaeologists, I found Elizabeth Hand’s 1995 Waking the Moon an uncannily accurate reflection of reality as I read the book in the summer of 2019. Despite the hyper-realism afforded my reading experience by climate change, gentrification, and sweaty tourists, Waking the Moon is fiction – a Tiptree Award winning novel by an author whose work I’ve long admired.
Spoilers are few and far between and most of the plot details I reveal are either in the book blurbs, on the back cover, or occur within the first 2 chapters of the book. Still, you’ve been warned.
The story opens in 1975 at The University of the Archangels and Saint John the Divine, aka the Divine, a vaguely fictionalized version of Catholic University in Washington, DC. Although the real-life, over-the-top Shrine is vital to the plot, the Vatican isn’t in charge in this world. The Catholic Church can only dream of wielding the power and influence of the ambiguously religious, multi-faith Benandanti, who run the place in Waking the Moon.
Look, if I controlled everything and I wanted to hide in plain sight, Academia the cover I’d choose. But members of the Benandanti aren’t hiding, exactly. I actually love that it’s unclear how well known they are. What little Hand reveals about their history and machinations is much more evocative than what we get in the combined works of Dan Brown.
At The Divine, the Benandanti seem to devote most of their resources to fostering a culture of favoritism and privilege on campus, teaching ethically hinky anthropology courses, and fretting about when someone will reawaken a bloodthirsty Moon Goddess. It’s all rather vague. What matters here is that this is a world in which Anthropologists and Archaeologists are wealthy and powerful and Feminist Archaeologists are celebrities.
I know, right?
So where was I?
Summer is ending and visiting Divine professor/Benandanti member Dr. Magda Kurtz, a world-famous Feminist Archaeologist, is preparing to head back to California.
I assume Magda was inspired by UCLA Archaeologist Dr. Marija Gimbutas, a controversial figure who was largely responsible for the late 20th Century Goddess craze. Magda’s dissertation-turned runaway bestseller seems to be an homage to Gimbutas’s 1974 book, The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe.
At the Divine, Magda’s seminars are legendary opium-infused gatherings filled with magic and mystery. (I may be in the wrong DC Anthropology Department).
Magda, we soon learn, is a traitor to the Benandanti and possessed by Moon Goddess Othiym.
Magda’s backstory is the stuff of a thousand archaeologically-influenced horror tales. Dig financed by a rich industrialist with an unethical collection of Antiquities. Superstitious locals. Rumors of tainted or unholy ground. The discovery of a Powerful Sacred Object. Magda’s realization a Dark Power led her to the site. The dig-site accident to inject a bit of dramatic tension, followed by a scene of Archaeologists running for their lives. The meteoric career ascension of the Archaeologist who unethically kept the Sacred Object.
Honestly, I can overlook all the horror-archaeology clichés, because that’s not what tried my patience. Stumbling around the site at night, Magda accidentally exposes the burial of an ancient human sacrifice which proves that the Mood Goddess was more than a minor local Minoan deity.
Even if Magda was an expert in skeletal analysis, I’d call shenanigans. By the light of the moon and a weak flashlight, she casually determines sex, cause of death, and age at time of death of a partially exposed set of human remains down in a pit? Nope.
Fine. OK. Yes. I get it. I’m being pedantic and realistic while reading a splendid, atmosphere-oozing fantasy novel.
Let’s just accept that the Goddess chose Magda, led her to the site, gave her knowledge, and enabled her to earn early tenure. All she had to do was use the lunula she found with the remains to slit her colleagues throat, feed the Goddess some blood, steal the artifact, and keep it all a secret. I appreciate that Hand didn’t spend time detailing how the Goddess finessed it so Magda could turn that circumstantial evidence into a career. It just is and here we are.
Anthropology Department Chair Balthazar Warnick and his Benandanti pals invited Magda back to The Divine to do whatever it is she’s been doing there all summer. One thing we know she wasn’t doing: fooling the Benandati. They totally know she’s a traitor, probably because she runs around wearing the lunula, that large sacred crescent-shaped necklace/weapon.
The real action begins when the students arrive on campus for the Fall semester.
Impossibly beautiful freshmen Angelica di Rienzi and Oliver Wilde Crawford are Benandanti legacies. Oliver’s parents are “famous (and famously wealthy) anthropologists.” (79) Sure, why not?
The Benandanti see A Sign. Impossibly beautiful Angelica and Oliver are fated for something or another! And! There’s a second portent! A plot complication named Katherine Sweeney Cassidy!
Angelica and Oliver befriend Sweeney on the first day of class.
The story unfolds predominantly through Sweeney’s first-person narration. Strategic shifts to the third person provide glimpses of the growing Goddess cult out in the world, as well as assurance that Sweeney is pretty reliable, she’s just doesn’t seem terribly observant or inquisitive about how or why her life unfolds the way it does.
A pair of angels showed up in Sweeney’s dorm room her first night on campus and watched her sleep, but otherwise Sweeney seems to just be a smart kid who somehow chose a super-elite university brimming with Benandanti legacies without knowing about the Benandanti.
Hand deftly demonstrates that magic is imbricated in this world in the first few pages. Warnick is at a lodge in West Virginia when he’s called back to the Divine on short notice. He casually opens an ordinary wooden door and steps through a portal back to the campus in DC. In my opinion, the second half of the book is overstuffed with incantations and lyrics which felt like ponderous and twee intrusions amongst the otherwise elegant, atmospheric scenes. Fortunately, Hand doesn’t bog down the plot with elaborate metaphysical explanations for magic or wizarding bowel movements, so I guess plodding through some incantations is a small price to pay.
So. Yes. Magic. On the first night of school, at a bacchanal, Professor Warnick shoves Magda through a portal, presumably sending her to her death in a hellscape of giant insectile beings. Sweeney and Angelica witnessed this horror and the memory haunts Sweeney forever.
Magda gave the lunula to Angelica before she was hauled to her doom. The Benandati don’t take it away from Angelica because, let’s be honest, they don’t seem great at many parts of their job.
Sweeney and Oliver drink a lot and do a lot of drugs and spend a lot of time at gay clubs in Southeast DC and very little time going to class. Bloodshed ensues when the students visit the Orphic Lodge in West Virginia. Things end poorly for a bull (dead), Oliver (institutionalized), and Sweeney (threatened with expulsion on trumped-up drug charges, but ultimately exiled from the Divine to the inferior archaeology program at nearby George Washington University).
The book then jumps ahead to 1994. I have the 512 page UK edition. 120 pages were excised from that for the US edition and it’s my understanding that the first half of the book bore the brunt of this sacrifice. This probably for the best, because it’s in the second half (incantations aside) that the story truly gets its hooks in you.
Sweeney now works in the Anthropology Department at the Natural History museum and lives in the carriage house behind the Capitol Hill home of her boss, Dr. Dvorkin. She’s oblivious to Angelica’s rise to worldwide stardom as a super-famous and influential Feminist Archaeologist with a New Age cult until she catches her appearance on a daytime talk show. Angelica’s bestsellers are presumably homages to Dr. Marija Gimbutas’s later books, The Language of the Goddess (1989) and Civilization of the Goddess (1991). I could do some research on this, but I didn’t, because this started out as a quick Goodreads review and is already a bit out of control.
Where was I? Right. New Age. If your definition of “New Age” is “abducting and murdering pretty young vulnerable men who society considers expendable every month under the light of the Full Moon,” that is.
Sweeney doesn’t seem to use email and there’s no mention of the Internet. It’s 1994, after all. Angelica now uses her married name – Angelica Furiano (Italian for Avenging Angel) – but Sweeney is still in touch with all of their mutual besties from the Divine and, not to put too fine a point on it, she and Angelica are professionals in the same field.
Clearly, the Benandanti put a lot of energy into conspiring to keep anyone from spilling the beans to Sweeney that Angelica is now leader of a worldwide cult of Goddess-worshipping women. I’m joking about Sweeney’s cluelessness, but the subtle ways this is revealed add immeasurably to the sense of unease I felt as I read. This is some damn good storytelling, intertwined with damn good worldbuilding.
As the world catches fire and Angelica advances her blood-soaked mission to get the Goddess back up to full strength, the Benandanti finally quit wringing their hands about her true genocidal nature and…still don’t really do much.
Well, they do finally clue Sweeney in that they’ve been greasing the wheels for her for 19 years because they saw A Sign way back when that suggested that she’s going to save the day for them somehow maybe they hope.
Sweeney is rather upset to realize how much of her life has been guided by the Benandanti, which include not only the faculty at the Divine but her boss at the Smithsonian and who knows who else.
She’s never forgiven the Benandanti for exiling her from the Divine without explanation that weird night in West Virginia. Or for what she saw them do to Magda. She seems feisty enough to let the world burn and them with it. It’s a testament to Hand’s skill that Sweeney doesn’t come across as helpless or compliant or foolish for being led down this carefully crafted path for all these years.
I must confess that, from the start, Sweeney seemed to me a foremother to Cass Neary, the protagonist of several of Hand’s excellent crime novels, so from the moment she arrived in the story I felt like she was going to come into her own, possibly before there was any actual evidence to support this outcome
Ultimately, she does save the day, but not out of any sense of obligation to a patriarchal cult, and I’m not going to tell you how because spoilers.
To be fair, although she didn’t ask for their meddling, she got a lot of stuff out of the Benandanti, like free Anthropology degrees and Federal employment and an office with a window on the Mall side of Natural History and affordable rent on a cottage in an idyllic garden.
On the other hand, that adorable cottage she lives in through over a decade of DC heat and humidity doesn’t have air conditioning so maybe even with all of the assists, Sweeney and the Benandanti could just call it all square.
But, they got her that super-hot 19 year old intern who’s good in bed and slavishly devoted to her.
What super-hot 19 year old? You ask. I told you I skipped over quite a lot because I didn’t want to ruin your fun and I also wanted to get to a few serious points.
First, the novel is quite progressive and has aged pretty well. It’s lovely that the fluidity of gender and sexuality are neither questioned nor pathologized, and I imagine that epic conference papers have been written about this book, but I don’t want to ruin many of the interesting twists in the story for you by discussing these characters or their story arcs here.
Second, the heroes and the villains. If you want to know which is which, I can’t help you.
The Benandanti certainly aren’t heroes. They excel at infiltrating every element of society and gliding through bureaucracy, but their entire mission statement is to maintain the status quo and to be vigilant for the rise of this genocidal moon goddess. The status quo sucks. And when it’s obvious the Moon Goddess is on the way they just sit on their thumbs for decades. By 1994, apocalyptic shit is going down all over the planet and a lot of people are dying, both directly at their hands and indirectly due to their inaction. Not heroic, dudes.
Plus, they didn’t give Sweeney air conditioning.
While they may not be heroes, they aren’t the sole villains of the piece.
Angelica isn’t any easier to pin down. As the Moon Goddess she’s going to crush the patriarchy, but then she’s probably going to eat everyone and sandblast the Earth.
Third, I think it’s vital to mention that pseudoarchaeology is a prominent tool in regressive ideologies that promote Nationalism and erase or obscure the histories of Indigenous and historically oppressed people, among other issues. A critical component of these false narratives is the idea that archaeologists suppress knowledge, destroy data, horde treasures, and generally work to mislead the public in order to secretly control the world. This is bad for society and it’s dangerous for archaeologists, who are reporting increasing threats from members of the public who accuse them of conspiring to hide “the truth.”
While I greatly enjoyed Waking the Moon and recommend it highly to fantasy readers, especially archaeologists who enjoy literary fantasy fiction, the endlessly reproduced image of the archaeologist as secretive keeper of divine wisdom and true knowledge will always make me a little uneasy. It’s because of this that I knocked 1 star from my rating. Okay, that and maybe also all those insufferable incantations.
Grady Hendrix’s Horrorstör is clever in all the right ways, but it’s also quite creepy. You can’t ask for much more from a high-concept horror novel.
It’s a little too creepy and clever, honestly.
I used to love our IKEA clothes drying rack. It folds flat and stores neatly in a nook in the laundry room, but it’s quick and easy to set it up and it holds several loads of laundry at once.
“Love” might be over-stating my relationship to any of our household accoutrements, but it’s safe to say I liked this thing a lot. Liked. Past tense.
Horrorstör ruined my laundry rack for me.
Ever since I finished the book I’ve been utterly and completely creeped out by the laundry rack. I’m not kidding. I have such a visceral reaction to the thing that I avoid doing laundry until Husband can set the rack up for me.
This is ridiculous, not least of which because there isn’t a drying rack in the book.
Berman did, however, Executive Produce a couple episodes of Dig, which was truly abysmal in ways that even the narcotics and other assorted drugs I was on while recovering from a long and serious illness couldn’t improve. Seriously, even for television, that was some seriously ridiculous pop culture archaeology. Let’s just hope she learned her lesson from that debacle, because damn. Just…damn.
Sorry for the long absence, I didn’t mean to neglect you so.
My sanity wasn’t devoured by bad SyFy movies, but I was quite ill for most of the Spring and early Summer and it’s taken me much longer to get life back to something even close to resembling normality.
Wouldn’t want things to get too normal, though, so while I continue to sort things out, here’s a hypnotic re-edit of the ending of The Wicker Man.
I’ve been ignoring the links to the devil baby video on facebook because, up until a few minutes ago, I thought it was a promotional stunt for an energy drink. Apparently, based on how hard Husband is laughing at me, this is not the case. I think babies are demonic and I watch horror movies, so, um, maybe the marketing team was a little too oblique in their approach.
I suppose they’ve succeeded on some level, in that I’m sharing it. So, um, there you go. I guess.