In THE LAST TO SEE ME, M. Dressler blurs the boundaries between the living and the dead, showing us that otherness is a matter of not seeing and not knowing how to communicate, and that evil resides not either in the world of ghosts or men, but in one’s own heart. An excerpt and fascinating conversation between AFLW fiction editor Shilpa Agarwal and the author, on the heels of her winning this year’s $10,000 Book Pipeline Award book-to-film project for the novel.
The Last to See Me
He’s come to clean me out.
It’s as simple as that.
He’s come to scrape me clean, like a strand of meat clinging to a mussel’s shell.
He wants to put me down in Evergreen, in the tangled graveyard set aside for lost souls. This hunter, he hopes to put me down there with the poorest of the poor, the forgotten, the graves no one tends to, their crooked stones leaning aft, as if taken aback by how far injustice can go, even after death. In that cemetery, hard by St. Clements Church, the animals pile insult on injury. They burrow down toward the collapsing coffins, our boxes softened underground, and bring up bits of bone and tats of lace. And the dead can do nothing about it, their hands and feet tied.
But what ghost has ever asked to be gnawed and stripped? Who wants to lie down in a cold bed she didn’t choose or make? Who wants their bones rolled into a hole, like dice weighted to land on only one number, and always the worst?
Now, let’s say you want to change the odds. Let’s say you refuse to be put down in a pauper’s grave. What do you do?
It helps to be trouble. Troublesome. Irish stubborn. A mighty will — that’s the ticket. It takes will not to be what everyone expects you to be. It takes heart not to go where they tell you to go. Especially here, along the rugged north coast, in this place where the tides would as soon see you dragged under as drawing breath.
In the seaweed that washes up on my village’s cove, you’ll find all sorts of things the tide has dragged along with it: bobbing globes of buoys, ruined fishing line, plastic grocery bags choked with sand. Things that can’t fight back. Look up from the beach, craning your neck toward the top of our crumbling cliffs, and you’ll see the village of Benito itself, ignoring the flotsam below, dressed in its Sunday best, even on the blackest days. For we do have black days here, even in this most beautiful part of California.
In winter, our sky grows so heavy it’s like a box lined with padded silk closing down on you. The fog stifles. The foghorns moan. The waves turn to claws on the black rocks, and the air smells of cold, wet lead.
In summertime, it’s better. That’s when the tourists come up in their bright, sparkling cars and their smart summer clothes, and they marvel at the view from our peninsula, and lick at expensive toffees and taffies, and don’t even guess that what they might be tasting, on their tongues, in the air, isn’t only summer’s seasoning but the ashes of all the brave women and men who once lived here, as I did, before each life turned to salt.
It’s funny, isn’t it, how the people who eat up the most in this world often don’t taste what it is they’ve dined on? How those who have the means to eat whatever they like are always hungry for more, always more, while the truly famished among us sweep the floors and scrub the dishes and leave the village at night to sleep in places where the rooms are smaller, away from the water and the views, in the woods, in simple beds behind doors as thin as paper, the best wood having been cut for somebody else — for Augustus Lambry, and his like.
When the loggers first came here, a hundred and fifty years ago and more, they were poor — but their will was mighty. They might have worked for men like Lambry who slept in clean, white sheets, but the trees those lumbermen felled were their own business, their own life and death at the edge of the void, and they cut only the biggest, loftiest trunks and shoved and dynamited them downriver, toward the mills and the sea. In those days, Benito’s cove was a half-moon’s sweep of deep water, deeper than it is now, with cypress trees perched thick as crows on the cliffs, except for where a track was cleared to make way for the Lambry logging chutes. Even after the boardinghouses and saloons started going up — once there were so many loggers a town had to be built to manage them — those trees, and the mounds of salt grass covering the headlands, stayed free and wild. Then, in time, the Main Street Hotel sprang to life, where maids who washed and ironed and cooked could hope to stay clear of grabby sailors; and the peak-roofed storefronts all along Albion Street; and St. Clements Church, its white steeple driving away the last of the Indians; and finally the temple the Chinamen built, with its roofs curled like red shoes left out in the sun. And closer in, on the first hill after the fine houses of the merchants, Evergreen Cemetery was laid out. Evergreen, where even now my poor family rests, broken footstones all in a row.
Above the marble monuments of the wealthy, the gulls rooked and called, and the white-waisted clouds floated, while down in the cove the doghole schooners bobbed at anchor, creaking, and over at the Point, the lighthouse swung its jeweled lamp in a wide circle, warning of hidden dangers.
Just because you can’t see a thing doesn’t mean she isn’t there.
The hunter has parked his bright car at the foot of Evergreen Hill and is coming, now, from the direction of the cemetery toward me. I know what he is. I’ve seen and heard a hunter’s boots before. They make a sound like a sawblade scraping on sand. This one, he’s tall and bulky and box-jawed. He squints at the house, his cheeks taking up the slack skin under his beard. I’m standing in the rose garden in my white dress with my red ribbon twining though my hair and a little shiver runs through me, a piece of my own will. I hold steady, the way you do when you know a wave is coming, and you lock your knees to meet it. The sandy street leads him to the wrought iron gate at the edge of the garden. He opens it, then turns around to make sure he’s latched the groaning lock securely behind him, but maybe also to be certain he’s alone. So this is a hunter, I think, who watches his back. He looks up and sees the blackrailed tower of the house, the steeple meant to rival the church’s with its white shingles layered like gulls’ feathers, though here the paint is starting to flake off and show the older white underneath, the ghost of its old self. He narrows his eyes again, and I see that his skin is rough — a working man’s face — and that his clothes are black and simple — a working man’s clothes — and that although he is, to be sure, one of the living, he’s one of the dying, too, because there is gray at his temples and gray blurring his whiskers, his own flake showing.
He turns his peppered cheek to his left, then to his right, and sees, not me, but the great bundle of life beside him: one of our famed Lambry rose bushes. He reaches his hand out, entranced, cupping one perfect, yellow bud. A breeze coming from far out at sea stirs its petals and my dress. And it’s this flutter of wind, he might decide, and be wrong, that pushes the black thorn deep into his skin, under his sleeve, at the wrist.
The name the living give to such blows is “accident.”
I watch him lick the blood from the root of his palm. I see the flash of silver inside his sleeve. It’s that metal band these hunters all wear. The thing that marks them.
Then, with a motion as calm as when he opened the gate, he takes the yellow Lambry bud and lifts it gently back into its place in the overgrown, latticed arbor, as though putting a child back in its high chair, and he turns away to move farther along the garden. As though I hadn’t just warned him not to.
I’ll need to adjust my thinking, then. His is the strut of a man who takes the first cut lightly. Or maybe he’s like me. Emma Rose Finnis. Irish born. Irish stubborn. Raised to be staunch in the face of wounds.
The bells of St. Clements are ringing, and the sun can’t make up its mind about where it wants to burn, dancing in and out of the mists over the cove. But I’ve made up my mind already. I’ll keep this man close.
Excerpt from The Last to See Me by M Dressler, reprinted with permission from the author and publisher, Skyhorse Publishing.
Shilpa Agarwal: Your novel tells the story of the ghost of a young woman, Emma Rose Finnis, who died under strange circumstances a hundred years prior. She’s now being hunted by a ghost hunter. At one point she says, “Never make peace with the thing that’s trying to kill you.” Is there more to her statement than just survival?
M Dressler: For me, yes. When I read that line, which also ended up being the epigraph for the book, I understand that Emma means it literally — I will not make peace with this hunter, Philip Pratt — but also that she is saying something much larger: never stop fighting the larger forces that would quell and silence you and push you into the darkness, into the margins. Pratt, the ghost hunter, is not an isolated figure. He is part of a larger system, a worldview, that sees ghosts as “dirty,” as detritus — and the anger that human beings can carry, even into the grave, and the criticism they voice represent something, in this world, that should be swept away and ignored. Emma, I think, is saying, “Never consent to your own erasure. Never help anyone wipe you away.” I love that about her.
SA: Emma’s ghost finds strength and sanctuary in places of light. She says, “How odd it is that most of the living think we spirits live in shadows. Why, when we are always trying to hold back the darkness?” What is this darkness they are trying to hold back?
MD: It’s so interesting rereading these lines. Again, I see the darkness is silence and erasure. It is not hell or evil (in a traditional sense) or punishment. It’s that place where you are nothing, not only where you cease to be but where everything you represent ceases to be. It’s where you can’t be heard, and where you don’t matter. In this world, ghosts don’t inhabit the darkness, or want to. They want to resist it. They want to be in the light. They want to have value.
SA: Mr. Pratt, the ghost hunter, could easily be portrayed as a straight-up villain, but you’ve been very careful not to do this. Emma says, “I’ve seen no other hunter trust his beating heart more than his weaponry. It’s a brave touch, I’ll give him that.” Neither ghost nor ghost hunter are cast in a dichotomy, rather their conflict seems to lie in the fact that they don’t know how to understand or speak to each other. Is this true?
MD: I’m glad you noticed that. I wanted to convey — and I worked very hard at the idea that — everyone in this book is fully human. Pratt is a product of a world that doesn’t want to look at things that make it uncomfortable. He thinks he is doing “good” in the world by removing the uncomfortable, the frightening. Emma is a product of her place in the world as an immigrant and working-class young woman, and now her place in the taboo world of ghosts, and she wants to persist and is willing to do what it takes to survive, which she sees as her “good.” The two characters respect each other’s strengths, but they do not at all understand one another, they can’t see below the surface, they don’t understand what makes the other one so stubborn. With that said, though, I don’t see them as being on an equal plane. Pratt is driven by a profit motive — he is paid handsomely to “clean out” ghosts — as well as by his sense of what is “right.” Emma simply wants the right to survive, to be.
SA: Emma must behave as unhuman as possible in order not to be caught, meaning that she must suppress her emotions and “make [her]self go as cold as ice.” There’s some irony here in the fact that she must make herself less human in order not to be caught as a ghost. In the context of your novel, why is the other path, that of bridging that divide to humanity, not available between her and the ghost hunter?
MD: The missing aspect — the bridge that simply does not exist between them — is trust. And what prevents it from being constructed for most of the novel is that neither one of them is willing or able to take the risk that trust would require. Emma has seen too many ghosts annihilated by hunters. She is not going to take the chance that this one is any more understanding (particularly when there is no evidence that he is) than others she has encountered, and in those few moments when she reveals herself to Pratt, it is under very specific conditions that she controls. Pratt, for his part, is protective of his livelihood and his reputation as one of the “best” cleaners, and what makes that reputation possible is his success in putting down the dead. He also thinks ghosts are fundamentally untrustworthy shape-shifters. The interesting thing is that he seems so hungry for trust. I see this especially in his relationship with Ellen DeWight, the real-estate agent trying to sell the house being haunted by Emma. Pratt’s work requires him to engage with the slippery and the misty and the unsolid, so he looks for the solid among the living. But it turns out the living can be just as slippery and unreliable as the dead.
SA: Mr. Pratt is very deliberate in his methods of ghost hunting. He tells his friend, “Something has always told me that the easiest way to get rid of a thing that scares you is to bring it close. Then, once you see what it is, you can figure out how to crush it.” One way he does this is by learning the ghost’s name, such as with the boy who died in the mines. Can you speak to this power of naming?
MD: Emma says it well when she points out that if you can’t name a ghost, you can’t “rouse” it. That you need to know who someone is in order to understand them, and in understanding them move them. This naming and knowledge sounds on the surface like empathy, but in Emma’s world it is the thing she most fears. If Pratt knows who she is, if he can call her by her name and touch on the wellsprings of her emotions and experiences, she is vulnerable to manipulation by him. She sees that this is the way power works: it seems to care for you, to call you by your name because it wants to honor who you are, when in fact all it wants to do is turn this knowledge to its own advantage.
SA: Can you tell us a little bit about what you’re working on now?
MD: Another ghost story. I adore the genre. It has such a rich history, yet is still so full of possibilities. The modern gothic allows me to tell a tale full of suspense and page-turning mystery and at the same time address things that matter: life, death, justice, legacy, power, who has it, who doesn’t, what it means to be invisible, what it means to be seen. I’m fascinated by this world filled with the will to claim what is human and hungry and unquenchable. I’ll be haunting it for a while.
M Dressler is a novelist and essayist whose work has been praised by The New York Times as “splendid” and by Library Journal as the writing of a “natural-born storyteller.” She is the author of four novels: The Medusa Tree, The Deadwood Beetle, The Floodmakers and her latest, The Last To See Me. Praised as a “bewitching, gorgeous mystery” by Kirkus Reviews and as “chilling” and “unforgettable” by Booklist, The Last to See Me was selected as the $10,000 Book Pipeline Award book-to-film project winner this month. Dressler’s stories and essays have have appeared in the Kenyon Review, Creative Nonfiction, The Massachusetts Review, Literary Hub and The Washington Post. Her awards include the Fulbright Fellowship and the Paisano Fellowship in Literature, as well as writing residencies at Hedgebrook and the Carson McCullers Center. She is a professor of creative writing at Guilford College, where she directs the Sherwood Anderson Creative Writing Program.