Friday Review: The Toll by Cherie Priest

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

State Route 177 runs along the Suwanee River from Fargo, Georgia to the Okefenokee swamp. Titus and Melanie Bell are newlyweds on their honeymoon trip to a rented cabin where they plan to do some canoeing in the swamp. According to the GPS map, there are six bridges along their route. But the Bells seem to have found a seventh, a one-way, rickety thing with stone support pillars. They can’t get to their destination without crossing it, even though something seems off about it. They start to cross anyway, and several hours later, Titus wakes up lying in the road with no sign of Melanie anywhere. He enlists the help of the local police from the small, backward town of Staywater, but they insist there is no seventh bridge. Titus remains in Staywater, determined to find out what happened to his wife. He finds a town that seems stuck in an earlier time, with residents, particularly the two elderly sisters who live at the edge of town, who are not simple Southern folk. As Titus gets deeper into the mystery of Melanie’s disappearance, he gets drawn into a haunted legend that returns every thirteen years to take its toll for crossing that seventh bridge.

This is Southern Gothic horror, and a fairly decent story. If the above sounds a bit like the troll under the bridge fairytale, it kind of is with a few twists. It isn’t exceptionally graphic, but it is horror, so there are some moments that might be a bit much if you are not usually a horror reader. The atmosphere is creepy, from the murky swamp that hides too many dangers to the town of Staywater which is not just a small, low population backwater of a place but seems to be stuck in a past that haunts the town and anyone who arrives there. There are snippets of that creepiness scattered throughout: a house filled with dolls that are not quite alive but not quite simple dolls, an abandoned storefront with mannequins whose clothes change somehow, hints of magic and ghosts. The characters can seem a little thin, with no one point of view standing out. The closest we get is Cameron, the teenage ward of the elderly sisters who know more than they care to let on about the mysterious seventh bridge. But even he seems peripheral to the main story. The more interesting ones are Daisy and Claire, who have seen the thing in the swamp before and thought it was gone. As it turns out- well, no spoilers but the only way to fight a ghost is with a ghost.

The book is good, if a little slow especially at the beginning. But once it picks up, things roll along much more quickly, and the secrets of the town and its people (and why they stay in such a lost place) are revealed in layers that keep you reading. Yes, there is a good bit of horror here, but not the slasher movie type. It’s more atmospheric and out of the side of your eye stuff. All in all, a decent read.

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