Almost a year on from falling deeply in love with M. Dressler’s compelling ghost story The Last to See Me, I was looking forward to reading the sequel, I See You So Close, but some doubts continued to ferment in the back of my mind. Was a sequel necessary? How could the story keep its compelling, taut conflict? Though I feel that the sequel lost some of the first book’s narrative immediacy, the tale stays with me as more of a cosy ghost story – one where a spirit has transcended the shackles of her own trauma in order to go on and seek to help others.
In the first book, protagonist Emma Rose Finnis, an Irishwoman residing in the small town of Benito, California, in the early 1900s, continues to haunt the modern world – a place that considers ghosts dangerous, things to be hunted – long after her death. But when a hunter appears to eradicate her existence, she must fight for her right to remain.
In I See You So Close, Emma remains a hunted spirit, assuming the flesh and face of a person that lets her walk and be in the world beyond the home she served while still living. To stay hidden from the hunter who pursues her, Emma takes shelter in the Sierra Nevada town of White Bar, a seemingly pastoral place where a number of residents have come to make the best of their own variety of bad situations. But the town harbours its own ugly secrets, and in the wake of these dangerous shadows, Emma’s own past will not stay buried.
First, I feel the need to express my personal debt of gratitude for The Last to See Me; that book completely transformed my own relationship with ghost stories, thanks to the fundamental perspective shift – telling a ghost story from the perspective of the ghost – along with emotionally authentic conflict, characters, and the deeply moving fight for survival. As I went into I See You So Close, I found myself asking, “Who is Emma, now that she has broken free of her past restraints?” I also maintained that the first book was good enough to stand completely on its own.
The narrative logic of the sequel holds, and becoming reacquainted with Emma in the role of healer – as a beacon for the lost – had a few genuinely touching moments, but the shift in focus also, to me, yields a story that is more of a slow-flowing river, rather than the turbulent waters that I immediately loved in the first book. This change, however, also lends itself to creating a kind of story that’s good to snuggle up with in the middle of winter – a kind of spiritual homage to the Victorian-era Christmas ghost story tradition.
As for the plot, things remain compelling enough to draw the reader to the conclusion, but again, in that slow, languid way that matches so well with the sleepy days of winter. As the story moves on, I also find myself admiring the evolving proposition of meeting the past on its terms, and what we can do to help acknowledge and heal the traumas of the past, even those that do not belong to us or our families personally.
Though Dressler’s voice remains strong in the sequel, I also found myself missing a number of the minute details that were so lovingly crafted in the first book. One of those present in I See You So Close is in Emma’s growing friendship with metal artist Su Kwon, a Korean American woman who introduces Emma to a completely different cultural attitude to ghosts. In their exchange, Su explains gwisun, a kind of spirit that belongs to a person who passes before finishing something they feel compelled to do. In the book, Su details that these spirits are to be met and accepted on their own terms – that the living should provide assistance in order to help the past rest.
I also was hoping to see more of Emma’s personal inner fire in the second book, but her cleverness – along with her relationships with other characters, as well as their own personalities – is still lively enough to make things feel real at several points throughout the book. These moments are where Dressler’s aptitude for writing at the intersection of conflict and compassion continue to shine. And in this, I find an answer to my question: Emma is far more than the conflict and constraints that had confined her. I See You So Close is an opportunity to get to know an old friend on new terms.
Despite my criticisms, I See You So Close remains a cosy ghost story that is perfect for the winter doldrums, due to both the timing of the narrative and Dressler’s ongoing ability to weave emotionally compelling stories. While I was hoping for more, the story remains a solid entry in a series that will continue to haunt the reader for many long years.
I See You So Close by M. Dressler is published by Arcade Publishing. Buy the book.
Laura Kemmerer is an editor living in Pittsburgh. Find her on Twitter @hpbookcraft.