The Toll by Cherie Priest
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Cherie Priest‘s The 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.