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Spirits in the Material World 

Utah author M Dressler flips the script on ghost story conventions in Our Eyes at Night

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MAIA DERY
  • Maia Dery

Your typical ghost story has a familiar arc: It's set in a world where people assume ghosts aren't real, they need to be convinced by events in the story that the ghosts are real, and then they set about solving the obvious problem of getting rid of the ghosts. For Southern Utah-based author Mylène Dressler, none of that obviousness was interesting. What if everyone in the world already took it for granted that ghosts existed? And what if the ghosts were only a "problem" because of the mind-set of the living?

Dressler—who writes as M Dressler—mines rich allegorical territory in her The Last Ghost series, which concludes with Our Eyes at Night (released March 1). Continuing the story begun in The Last to See Me and I See You So Close, it follows the conflict between Emma Rose Finnis, an Irish immigrant who drowned off the California coast in the late 1800s, and Philip Pratt, a professional "ghost hunter" who pursues Emma Rose with a Javert-like obsession.

It took a little time for Dressler to find her way to ghost stories, and indeed to find her way to writing in general. "I started out life as a ballet dancer," Dressler says, "but I always had this idea of moving on after dancing, which is a very short career. Writing and dance, it's all storytelling—writing is a form of dance; it's very rhythmic and lyrical. I'm interested in the music of language."

The concept for the Last Ghost series in particular came both from the kind of literature Dressler grew up on, and a visit to the California coast. "When I was growing up, I loved gothic narratives," Dressler says, "things like Henry James, Shirley Jackson, Jane Eyre. Then I got lucky, because I had a moment a few years ago traveling on the coast of California, zoned out in my writer's space, and I thought, 'Even if you died here, you wouldn't want to leave.' And it was all there, poof. ... It took me a little while to find, but it combines everything I love."

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One of those things she loves is the Southern Utah landscape where she lives, and as Emma Rose moved eastward in successive books—from the California coast to the Sierra Nevadas—the often-contested lands of Southern Utah became a natural place in Our Eyes at Night to continue investigating the idea of ghosts as an allegory for marginalized people.

"Ghosts tend to represent things that really shouldn't be erased so easily," Dressler says. "Emma is an immigrant, and a servant—expected to be invisible in life, and now expected to be invisible in death. The minute you step out and show yourself, in the fullness of your humanity, that's the moment you're in danger. ... [In this world], the desire to erase them is out in the open."

The danger in The Last Ghost books comes in the form of Pratt's hunter, a character who might typically be the protagonist of a conventional ghost story. For Dressler, it was important to recognize what makes someone so single-minded in perceiving an "other" as a threat, and in finding it hard to incorporate new information that might allow for a shift in perspective.

"[Pratt] also absolutely believes in the worth and goodness of what he's doing; it seems like a righteous task to him," Dressler says. "It's really this clash of world-views. He doesn't strike me as unintelligent, but he has very high stakes invested in this career. ... It's certainly recognizable in our culture right now, that people just will not let go of things that are patently false, because your identity will be destroyed.

"One of the things Emma recognizes early on, is that [Pratt]'s got that thing on his wrist, this [ghost-dispatching] weapon. Emma sees that he's manacled to his destiny. He's as much enchained as she is."

The connection with contemporary societal issues gets even more complex with the way Dressler folds climate change into her story, including the hidden "bunker" where a wealthy couple is preparing for an expected apocalypse, and where Emma and a group of fellow ghosts consider settling down. "I think of this book as an 'eco-gothic;' it's very deliberate on my part, combining these two different discourses," Dressler says. "Emma pretty much says this baldly at one point: Are the living leaving the planet more fit for the dead?"

Most intriguingly, Our Eyes at Night recognizes that the fixation of people like Pratt on solving the "ghost problem" is a distraction from the much more pressing and threatening circumstances accompanying climate change. "Instead of thinking about big things," Dressler says, "we're encouraged to worry about things like 'others' and 'border-crossers'—and that's what ghosts are in the trajectory of most narratives. We're taught to be afraid of the wrong things. We allow ourselves to be frightened and distracted.

"Pratt's very invested in what's on what side of the line. But there are things that have no boundaries, like climate. If you're writing a contemporary book, how do you ignore that? How do you pretend that's not real?"

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