Cherie Priest’s 2019 Southern Gothic novel The Toll delivers the creeping terror, the strangeness and the surprises I’ve come to expect from her, since she is the queen of this subgenre. From the weird, dying little town of Staywater, Georgia, to a house haunted by dolls, to “granny women” and ghosts, to that thing in the swamp, The Toll builds and delivers on a mood that progresses from shivery to biting-your-fingernails suspenseful.
As a character in the book (and the back cover blurb) points out:
State Road 177 runs along the Suwannee Rover, between Fargo, Georgia and the Okefenokee Swamp. Drive that road 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 narrow, rickety stone bridge, and the title, might make you think “troll.” You’d be wrong. That’s not a spoiler; Priest has something stranger and scarier than a troll cooked up. There is something in the swamp, something that makes people in and around Staywater disappear every thirteen years. As the book opens, we meet some locals, including naïve teenager Cameron, and some outsiders, the honeymooning visitors Titus and Melanie. We start to realize that beyond the monster in the swamp, there are strange things about Staywater too… like all the ghosts.
The book takes a slow burn approach, starting with the elderly local women Daisy and Claire, and their young godson, Cameron. Soon, though, we meet the newly wed and often bickering Titus and Melanie, coming for a honeymoon of camping and canoeing in the swamp. As you might imagine, things don’t go well. Soon, Titus finds himself lying in the middle of the State Road with no idea how he got there. Melanie is missing.
The Toll’s tone for about the first two-thirds is closer to dark fantasy than horror, and that lulled me into a false sense of security about the story, which Priest neatly undercut exactly when she needed to. This is a horror novel and it follows the rules of Joe Bob Briggs: “Anyone can die at any time and probably will.”
The creature in the swamp is a genuine monster, but Staywater and the swamp are filled with other strangeness: women who wield magic, feuds that go back decades, and ghosts. In contrast to Titus, the outsider who keeps wanting to find a “rational” reason for his bride’s disappearance, the remaining inhabitants of Staywater are much more comfortable with the strange. One of my favorite whimsical moments occurs after a house haunted by a colony of porcelain dolls rescues Cameron from an awkward situation (they offer him shelter). Later, Daisy and Claire decide they should do something nice for the dolls.
“I ought to send them a gift, something to say thank you.”
Claire considered her knitting… “Well, the big blond one likes bows. I could crochet her something. Maybe make a whole batch of bows for her and the rest of them, so they can share.”
“You are always so thoughtful.”
Claire and Daisy have a history with the creature in the swamp, and when it succeeds in luring Cameron out of town, the action they take in order to battle it again genuinely shocked and surprised me.
The final chapters of the book make it clear that this is horror. The creature in the swamp toys with its victims, emotionally torturing them. The swamp itself changes — distances and directions seem wrong. Good intentions, strong emotions, or rational intelligence ultimately will not help you. And although the creature was defeated once before, it’s never completely clear that it will ever be vanquished. At the end of the book, with one character’s resolution, it’s up to the reader to decide which is the greater horror.
The Toll’s strengths are the depiction of the magically strange, stagnant town, the power of the swamp, and Priest’s excellent characterizations. The book had some weaknesses for me; Titus’s reactions, while he waits in town to hear if Melanie’s been found, didn’t always ring true. There is a point where the story flirts with a more obvious direction — Titus should clearly be a suspect in his new wife’s disappearance, especially once we know more about their backgrounds — but this is dropped. It lasted just long enough to confuse me. And Cameron’s dialogue didn’t always match what I had been told about his upbringing. These were small points, though, balanced out by the brilliant strangeness of the town and the creepy power of the swamp.
Priest may not have single-handedly revived the Southern Gothic horror story, but she is breathing it back to dripping, whispering, rippling, shimmering, boozing, snarking, bloody, dark-moon life, and The Toll is one excellent example.