Ghost writers

Holly Nadler passes the Vineyard ghost stories torch to Tom Dresser.

When I first began to track down Vineyard ghost stories, the boom in bumpy things — bumpy as in “things that go bump in the night” — had not yet taken over the American imagination. Instead, I hit on my own interest in spooks on a visit to the U.K.

It was 1983, and my parents were living in London at my Uncle Marshall’s flat in Cadogan Square. The minute I arrived, I saw lists in the paper of all sorts of walking tours. My folks thought the literary items would be fun: “Salons of the Bloomsbury Circle” anyone? 

Instead, I dragged them to a walk called “Follow in the Footsteps of Jack the Ripper.” And suddenly there we were on a dark moonless night in Whitechapel, a sad slum in Jack’s day, and still a sad slum in modern times.

My mom said, “What are we doing in Whitechapel?”

My personal favorite was a daytime tour called “The Ghosts of London,” where we heard toe-curling stories, such as the one about Green Park. It now sits in the center of town, but back in the plague days of the 1600s, the area was a rural dumping ground for bodies carted away from the city and chucked into a mass grave. We learned that today a sad air suspends itself over the park, and no one can bear to picnic there within the acres of 50 shades of green. Yes, green. No flowers grow there. And for the English, who could grow a peony in a 4-inch pot of soil, this was some persistent curse.

It wasn’t until my husband Marty and our son Charlie, then in the second grade, moved year-round to our home on the shores of East Chop that I thought of creating walking tours of my own. The first to be auditioned for summer crowds were “The Ghosts of Edgartown,” “From Campmeet to Cathouse: The Sacred and Profane Oak Bluffs,” and “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous of Vineyard Haven.”

As you might have suspected, the historical walks drew so-so crowds, while 50 people at a time turned out for Edgartown. Soon I scrapped the also-rans and replaced them with — what else? — “Ghosts of Oak Bluffs” and “Ghosts of Vineyard Haven.” Along with walks, the time had come to write books. In fairly short order I found a publisher, Down East Books of Camden, Maine. My lovely editor, Karin Womer, came up with the title “Haunted Island.”

In 2002 I published “The Ghosts of Boston Town” and then, in 2008, “Vineyard Supernatural.” Both the Vineyard books feature cover photos by our incredibly skilled Alison Shaw. 

In the meantime, “Haunted Island” slipped out of print. I rolled up my sleeves and pitched a 20-year anniversary edition, replete with six new stories and updates on all the originals. One thing you learn in ghost research: Those perennially haunted houses stay haunted. Oh, you can bring in exorcists and burn sage in every room. The spooks go away for a while, but you’ve got to keep up with the prayers and the smudge sticks. Like a booster shot.

So just last week I received an email from Vineyard author Thomas Dresser, who has churned out so many books — a full dozen, to be exact — I sometimes ask if he releases a new one each month. The other day he wrote to ask if his own publisher, the History Press, could hire me to pen another ghost book. Their original push had been for him to do it, and he, being an honorable man, considered spooky happenings my bailiwick.

It took me about 10 seconds to examine the arc of my career, and I concluded my ghost goals were finished. It would please me if Tom took over. 

Tom grew up in Holden, and sought the bigger world at Boston University and later at Simmons, becoming the first male to glide through the graduate program with a master’s in teaching. He taught young and old alike, then spent 20 years as a nursing home administrator. In 1995 he attended his 30-year high school reunion, and sat beside his old sweetheart Joyce, who now lived on the Vineyard. She bought him a beer, they commuted for two years, then he moved to Martha’s Vineyard in 1997. 

If you’d met him at the time, as I did, you saw him writing like the dickens for this very paper. Oh, and the other paper. In 2008 the History Press took him on with a phalanx of books which roamed topics of local interest from World War II tales to African American settlement to Wampanoag tribal events to whaling captains and the maritime disaster of the City of Columbus off the coast of Gay Head. 

On a recent Tuesday morning I met Tom for coffee at the O.B. Mocha Mott’s, and I prepared him for immersion in the occult world. He told me with a worried look on his face that he’d accustomed himself to writing nonfiction, with its emphasis on facts. “That’s always a good starting point,” I told him, and then I related my first venture with a haunted locale, the old Victorian Inn on South Water Street in Edgartown.

A prior owner of the inn had sung me a whole operetta about a whaling captain named Lafayette Rowley. It was a glorious story that included mutinous sailors who materialized as ghosts on a third-floor balcony. What I’d needed to know going forward was this: Had Capt. Rowley truly lived at this particular address?

My search led me to the Registry of Deeds beside the courthouse in Edgartown. A nice young woman placed a heavy book in my arms and directed me to an open empty room that faced the Whaling Church across the street. When I spread the tome out on a counter, I felt a hand clamp down on my shoulder. Was it the young woman? I turned to look, but no one was there. No way around it: Capt. Rowley had returned from wherever master marines go when they die to let me know I’d found him.

At Mott’s last Tuesday morning I signed my ghost books over to Tom as a sort of deal memo: “You have my full blessings to write your own books about Island ghosts.”

And to all ye Vineyarders dwelling in haunted houses: Contact Tom Dresser c/o The MV Times, with fresh tales. He’s ready to receive. Just the facts, Ma’am.