Home Books The Haunting of Alma Fielding: by Kate Summerscale

The Haunting of Alma Fielding: by Kate Summerscale

Kate Summerscale’s new book takes the reader back to the 1938 investigation of a dramatic case of poltergeist activity in London, which may seem – especially given its subtitle A True Ghost Story – like the setting for a nostalgic entertainment with all of the Agatha Christie-like charms of a period drama, but in fact it offers something with far more depth and contemporary significance. That’s not to say that it isn’t also entertaining in exactly that way; the book takes as its starting point the papers of a Jewish-Hungarian refugee, Nandor Fodor, then the chief ghost hunter for the sadly now defunct International Institute for Psychical Research, and Summerscale introduces us to a world where Spiritualist meetings, séances and table tapping co-exist, not always comfortably, with the newer worlds of psychoanalysis and cinema.

The author traces the surprisingly scientifically-minded Fodor’s footsteps as he becomes involved in what initially seems like just another haunting in a time when there seem to have been, by modern standards, a staggering number of them. The case concerns an apparently normal woman, 34 year old Alma Fielding, whose Croydon household too, could hardly seem more ordinary. She lives with her husband Les, a builder and decorator and – like most of his peers – a veteran of World War One, their son Don and a lodger, George, a shoe-mender with a workshop in the garden. The investigator contacted the Fieldings after reading a newspaper report about a series of fairly dramatic poltergeist attacks centring around Alma, but as Summerscale makes clear, the case became crucial to Fodor for personal and professional reasons as much as from a genuine desire to help. Ghost hunting was a competitive business and the Institute had powerful rivals, some of whom were less scrupulous about getting to the truth of a haunting than Fodor was.

Although he was a believer in – or at least, not a discounter of – paranormal phenomena, the investigator was gaining an unwanted and unhelpful reputation as an unmasker of fake mediums, which was to an extent tarnishing the reputation of the Institute at the time of the Fielding case, and so it was in Fodor’s professional interest to uncover some genuine paranormal activity. To his credit though, he rarely seems to have let this factor colour his investigation when there were more mundane and likely explanations to hand and in the end it feels as though his belief was less in the supernatural ‘other’ in a spiritual sense, than it was in a more inclusive rational worldview. That things labelled paranormal or supernatural existed he seems not to have doubted, but for Fodor what these occurrences required was a more thorough understanding of just where the boundaries of the normal and natural really are.

As we follow Fodor’s investigation, we meet an array of characters – fake mediums, titled aristocrats with spirit guides, rival ghost hunters, all of whom, on the surface seem far more peculiar than the more or less ordinary Alma Fielding, but one of the book’s main concerns is with what goes on beneath the surface of everyday life, and as the mysteries deepen, Alma is revealed as a young woman with a troubled psyche and history of which even she herself was only partly aware. The same is true of Nandor Fodor himself, and the advantage that Summerscale has over the investigator is perspective; she can read far more clearly the currents of the age which contributed to the events of the book and which were no doubt obscure to the protagonists at the time. So, whereas the investigator is delving into the private and subconscious life of the unfortunate victim – though that is never entirely her status – of the haunting, the author shows us too a nation where almost everyone suffers from a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder caused by the Great War, made ever more raw by the escalating international situation of the late ‘30s. There was a reason that surrealism developed in the ‘20s and ‘30s, and Summerscale reveals a world where the near-epidemic of apparently supernatural events is barely less strange than the everyday reality people were living with.

Nandor Fodor, in England to escape the rise of fascism in Europe, found himself working for British establishment figure Lord Rothermere, whose Daily Mail threw its support behind Hitler and Mussolini as well as homegrown fascism. When Fodor takes the subject of his investigation on a working trip to Bognor Regis, the author notes that the seaside town “boasted an amusement park and zoo and a branch of the British Union of Fascists, which ran an annual summer camp nearby.” Clearly, this was an age, like our own, with extreme absurdities and anxieties that made a belief in conspiracies, the irrational and otherworldly seem entirely natural. What Summerscale sees too, from a 21st century perspective is that Fodor – despite his apparently well-meaning desire to understand and help – was driven by an almost obsessive need to understand and explain, and in doing so, he came perilously close to initiating what would now be seen as an abusive therapist-patient relationship with Fielding.

In the end, the fascinating documented facts as recorded by Fodor – who ultimately believed that Fielding was both a subject of genuine paranormal events and a fraud – can only tell us so much, and it’s to Kate Summerscale’s credit that she resists interpreting those facts in more depth than Fodor, himself a knowledgeable psychologist did. What she does is to pull back from his voluminous notes and theories, to show how much the investigator himself contributed to the escalating tension and drama of the case. At no point is the reader required either to accept or repudiate the role of the supernatural in The Haunting of Alma Fielding, but whatever the source of her ailments, the book leaves us in no doubt that Fielding was a haunted woman; haunted by the tragedies and mysteries of her own life. And more than this, the author demonstrates how Fielding’s public and private troubles mirrored that larger world she inhabited, of the dowdy-yet-glamorous, archaic but modern, febrile interwar Britain that is so vividly evoked. It’s a place that is immediately familiar to us from film and television, from stories and photographs – and those Agatha Christie novels – but whose surreal texture is rarely commented on and has largely been forgotten. The country Summerscale shows us is one that we could learn much from; haunted both by the memory and trauma of one world war and by the premonitory dread of another, whose existence, though debated endlessly during the second half of the 1930s, grew more inescapable by the day.

As readable as a novel, The Haunting of Alma Fielding is a gripping, charming and sometimes disturbing glimpse into a vanished era. In giving us an insight into the complex lives of its two eccentric protagonists, Kate Summerscale incidentally gives us a portrait of a country and a world caught at a point of maximum tension, and the unpredictable ways in which the energies that shape the world’s larger events impact on the lives of individuals, and vice versa.

Summary
A superb dissection of a haunting, lifting the lid on the dark energies which, regardless of belief in the paranormal, simmer beneath the surface of everyday life
81 %
Paranormal investigation

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