Book Review: The Toll by Cherie Priest
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3 of 5 stars
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Tor (July 9, 2019)
Length: 336 pages
The Toll by Cherie Priest is a disturbingly dark tale of the supernatural, tinged with gothic horror and eldritch elements. The story takes us to a tiny backwater town on the edge of the Okenfenokee Swamp in Georgia called Staywater, where every thirteen years or so, someone always goes missing. Their disappearance is usually preceded by reported sightings of a mysterious seventh bridge along the west-to-east route on State Road 177, though of course, only six bridges exist according to any map. Spooky!
On an unusually cool spring day, Titus and his wife Melanie are driving along 177 towards the state park where they will be spending their honeymoon, when they come across a one-lane rickety bridge leading into the swampy darkness. The next thing Titus knows, he is waking up on the side of the road, his SUV behind him is empty with its doors flung open, and Melanie is nowhere to be found. After calling for help and being told by the police that they’re doing all they can to find his wife, Titus accepts a ride to the nearby town of Staywater to find room and board. Filled with worries and unable to sleep, he heads to the dive bar down the street in order to drown his sorrows. There, the locals tell him not to worry, that most likely his wife simply lost her way in the swamp while trying to look for help. It happens often enough to the tourists and campers who come out this way, after all, and the police will certainly make sure Melanie comes home safe.
But in their hearts, the residents of Staywater know better. They all sensed the shift in reality when it happened, the first time in thirteen years. The swamp keeps what it takes, or rather, the thing that lives there does. The bridge has helped it claim another victim, and Titus will probably never see his wife again. No one knows this better than Claire and Daisy, two elderly cousins who have lived in Staywater their entire lives, watching it crumble and slowly die over the years. They thought they had put a stop to whatever was terrorizing the town, but apparently its connection to their world was too strong. And now, the cousins have even more to lose. The two of them have been raising a teenage boy named Cameron, who was left on their doorstep as a baby. No one knows where he came from, but Claire and Daisy knows that the thing in the swamp likes to take outsiders. All they want is for Cameron to grow up and one day escape Staywater, but until the problem in the swamp is taken care of once in for all, they know that things can never be safe.
To tell the truth, even though I thought The Toll was a decent read, it’s hard not to feel slightly let down by some of its incongruencies and flaws, especially in light of how much I adored Priest’s last novel The Family Plot. I can’t help but wonder though, if some of the constraints mentioned in the author’s acknowledgements—that she worked on the book in stages over a hectic period in her life or the fact that the manuscript had multiple editors—could have played into the novel’s overall sense of incompleteness and certain elements in it that felt out of place. For instance, despite its floundering status, Staywater is a town full of quirky idiosyncrasies that I would have loved to know more about: its resident ghosts, the old department store where the mannequins apparently come to life in the night, or the old blind dog in the tree. At the end of the day though, all these things felt like they were thrown willy-nilly into the story, with no intention to ever go back and explore them. Likewise, I felt the same way about the teases about Cameron’s origins, the real deal with the cousins, or what is truly going on with Jess. And those are just a few examples; scattered across this novel are a lot more of these poor orphaned threads that don’t seem to go anywhere or aren’t sufficiently explained. Like I said, it’s just disappointing.
The ending also felt a bit rushed, and failed to live up to the long and suspenseful build-up. To be sure, there’s a strong element of horror to The Toll, but at the same time I wouldn’t say it was particularly scary. Most of the story reads like a mystery, steadily paced while dropping delicious clues about the phantom bridge and what might have happened to Melanie. And I suppose that is also why the last section of the book felt so random when it switches tack and goes full tilt on horror and thrills, which made for some great reading. However, in terms of satisfaction, the ending might have missed its mark. To put it bluntly, it felt like a copout, with too many questions and conflicts left unresolved.
Bottom line? I didn’t love this, but I didn’t hate it either. My experience with Cherie Priest’s work has always been hit or miss in the past, but I still get that flutter of excitement in my chest whenever I find out she’s writing a new book. I went into The Toll with rather high expectations because of the story’s intriguing premise, but while it was well written and entertaining enough, in the end something felt missing. I guess I just expected a little more in terms of answers, cohesion, and horror.