Fall creeps up on me every year. I like to have an array of seasonal books to read so that when it arrives I’ll be ready. With house repair costs this year I’ve had to curtail book buying. That, and most of the titles on my to-read list are used books that seem to have become extortionately expensive since the 1970s. In any case Cherie Priest’s The Toll stood face out on the shelves of Buffalo Street Books in Ithaca and it caught my attention. Set in the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia, this unsettling novel brings the reader into the liminal space of the dying small town. There’s a bit of magic in Staywater, although everyone who lives there knows it hasn’t got long before it goes altogether. And every thirteen years a monster comes.
Priest knows not to describe the nameless creature too clearly. The monster seen in broad daylight can quickly lose its patina of fear. This is some kind of supernatural swamp beast and everyone local seems to know it’s picking them off. The outside authorities, however, pay no attention to small towns that have “nothing to offer” to the greater economy. That aspect resonated with me as the erstwhile denizen of a community of less than a thousand. I watched the dissolving of my adoptive hometown as the tax-base shrank to the point that they could no longer afford to pave the streets and decided to go back to gravel. Once the oil refinery—what gave the town “value”—closed, outside interest disappeared. Ah, but I digress from fiction.
The Tool is a moody novel that doesn’t take itself too seriously. There’s backstory here that remains untold. Two of the protagonists are elderly female cousins who are comfortable with the spiritual world. They are the past saviors of this little town in the swamp. The other characters have all come to an uneasy peace with their periodic tormentor and they have nowhere else to go. When the monster strikes against unwary outsiders the locals don’t welcome outside attention. Those acquainted with small communities know that’s what life is like. Attention brings cash, but often unwelcome change as well. One of the more haunting aspects of this novel is the number of threads left dangling in the wind. Not everything is resolved, and life goes on much as it always has, without or without the monster. A moody read, this ghost story has, it is clear, a deeper message.