In a London suburb in 1938, with war looming on the horizon, attractive well-off housewife Alma Fielding is being plagued by a poltergeist. Glass and china are splintering in mid-flight before smashing to the floor, objects float down the stairs behind her, lumps of coal levitate from the grate… it is a house under siege – from itself.
A report in the Sunday Pictorial catches the attention of Dr Nandor Fodor, of the International Institute for Psychical Research. His chief rival is the ghost hunter Harry Price. Could this be the case Fodor has been looking for?
Kate Summerscale’s latest narrative non-fiction book, author of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher and The Queen of Whale Cay, is a fascinating insight into the human condition. It is as engrossing as a novel thanks to her meticulous eye for detail – right down to the curtains hanging at a window, for example – and historical accuracy. Not only that, she has the knack of posing questions for the reader at almost every page. Why, we ask, would a well-off, happily married woman be targeted by terrifying poltergeist activity? And why would she bother making it up?
In truth, this is a documentary of two people: the titular Alma and Nandor Fodor, both whom Summerscale treats with the utmost respect and care. She captures the vaudeville of the séance room, and Fodor’s sense of fun, and the playfulness and the magic of supernature. Yet, it is impossible to avoid the darker undertones of Fodor’s investigation.
“The golden age of psychical study”, writes Summerscale, “was also the heyday of supernatural hustle” – and here lies the rub. Fodor desperately wanted to find proof that the supernormal experiences he investigated were real. Time and time again, his detection work resulted in a debunking – but never publicly, because Fodor was a kind-hearted man, choosing to seek out the goodness even in frauds. His unlimited faith and warmth for his subjects rarely waned; in my humble opinion, his contribution to understanding of the human condition outweighs the many nights he sat awake in haunted houses, waiting for ghosts to appear. It is this genuine warmth – unlike the chutzpah of Harry Price – that Summerscale deftly conveys. Even when Fodor catches his subject in the blatant act of trickery, his generosity is astounding. Fodor is the kind of guy you’d want on your team.
Equally, the portrayal of troubled Alma is just as touching. It is easy to forget we are reading about real events, so alive is she on the page, and that’s a testament to the author’s ability to transport the reader right there, to 1938. Summerscale’s process is as fascinating as the content itself, and I would happily read a book on (just like a magician) how she did it. Similarly, the supporting cast of Fodor’s circle, and the inner workings of the International Institute for Psychical Research, lift a lid on a fascinating period in history.
There’s just one thing I wish the author had capitalised on more. In the book, she visits Barry Fielding, Alma’s grandson, an encounter that takes up a couple of pages or so. It’s quite possible, of course, that Barry had little to say on the matter. Perhaps he was too young. Perhaps it wasn’t spoken of. But I can’t help feeling that not expanding on his thoughts of the case – surely, he would have an opinion? – was a lost opportunity. Here is a direct descendent of the woman at the centre of the trauma, a woman whom Barry lived with for a while. I would have very much have liked to hear more from him, and of what Alma was like in her older years.
Alma’s haunting came as the shadow of war haunted ordinary people; people who had already endured a cataclysmic Great War, many of them coping – or not coping – with the consequences. Against this background of shellshocked soldiers and grieving mothers, supernature became an outlet for all the frustration, trauma, and heartbreak. Fodor became obsessed with the case, to the point that it threatened his career, pushing Alma, at once victim and perpetrator, to the edge. In explaining Alma’s probable issues, Summerscale is articulate and succinct.
Don’t come to this expecting a traditional ghost story. While it’s difficult to know the entire truth of the matter, Fodor’s observations and theoretical debate on the link between supernormal events and repressed trauma is absorbing. This is a deep, complex and thought-provoking read, released at exactly the right time. Our world as we know it has changed, and we, too, are experiencing a period of upheaval. It is a piercing, unforgettable example of how real life can be stranger than fiction, and a reminder of how complex and fragile we human beings are.
The Haunting Of Alma Fielding: A True Ghost Story by Kate Summerscale is published by Bloomsbury (UK).