Book Review

The Haunting of Alma Fielding by Kate Summerscale

London, 1938. Alma Fielding, an ordinary young woman, begins to experience supernatural events in her suburban home.

Nandor Fodor – a Jewish-Hungarian refugee and chief ghost hunter for the International Institute for Psychical Research – begins to investigate. In doing so he discovers a different and darker type of haunting: trauma, alienation, loss – and the foreshadowing of a nation’s worst fears. As the spectre of Fascism lengthens over Europe, and as Fodor’s obsession with the case deepens, Alma becomes ever more disturbed.

With rigour, daring and insight, the award-winning pioneer of historical narrative non-fiction Kate Summerscale shadows Fodor’s enquiry, delving into long-hidden archives to find the human story behind a very modern haunting.

I’ve not read anything by Kate Summerscale, but I was intrigued by The Haunting of Alma Fielding as soon as I heard about it.  I’m not a believer in the supernatural, but there’s something fascinating about the blurb, and I just had to get a copy.  I’m not sure what this says about me, but part of that was wanting to know why there’s a rather odd collection of objects on the cover, including a tiny turtle (or terrapin, as it turns out) so imagine my delight when it proved relevant to Alma’s tale!  Whatever your own views (on the supernatural, rather than terrapins) I highly recommend this.  It’s a fascinating account that is well-researched and extremely engaging.

In 1938, Alma Fielding – a young woman living in London with her husband, son, and their lodger – reported poltergeist activity in her home.  A newspaper became involved and witnessed the strange activity – cups and saucers being thrown by no obvious hand; things being smashed without good reason.  It’s a case that soon garners more interest, and one that eventually comes to the attention of Nandor Fodor – a member of the International Institute of Psychical Research.  He begins to investigate, first in Alma’s house and later conducting tests on Alma herself.  It’s the beginning of something that becomes something of an obsession for him as he witnesses increasingly odd occurrences focused on Alma – occurrences that he is at a loss to explain by conventional means. 

The case is intriguing, but Summerscale doesn’t simply relay the investigation and its findings.  She brings it to life by sharing the context of Alma’s experiences as well as providing detail on Fodor himself. This includes his arrival in England having left his native Hungary for America some years earlier.  What I found particularly interesting about Fodor is his scepticism.  Despite his role at the Institute, he seems to be better known for unveiling frauds (of which there are plenty) rather than as a true believer in the “supernormal”.  I think that he started out as the latter, but found his belief waning as more mundane explanations were found for the incidents he looked into.  I think that, for Fodor, Alma comes to represent something of a last chance to evidence something other and this perhaps explains his increasing obsession with this particular case.  Despite that, he applies the same rigour to the tests and the investigation as he does any other.  He wants to believe, but not at the cost of his principles. 

The reader is also provided with ample context for Alma’s experiences, including the uncertainty and potential for a second war when the first was still all too fresh in many memories.  Summerscale also talks about the increasing interest in the supernormal following the First World War and the Spanish Flu pandemic.  With so many lives lost, I don’t think it’s too surprising that people sought comfort in the possibility that they might be able to make contact with their loved ones.  Nor is it surprising that others took advantage of those circumstances, setting themselves up as mediums purely for profit. 

There’s also an element of the impact upon women who experienced more freedom during and after the war with many working and earning a wage.  By the late thirties, however, they were being encouraged back into the home and “were urged to tend to their appearance”.  We learn more about Alma in this context, including her background and the way in which things perhaps hadn’t turned out as she’d hoped.  This provides an interesting counterpoint to Alma’s experiences as a young woman whose freedom has been curtailed, and who is perhaps seeking something more than the life that would be afforded to her as a housewife. 

The American writer Charles Fort noted that poltergeists often emanated from those who had no direct power – women, servants, adolescents, children.

Despite my own views, Alma’s case is incredibly convincing and it’s hard not to get caught up in the mystery alongside Fodor.  Using Fodor’s own case files, Summerscale provides the details of the unusual goings-on surrounding Alma Fielding, and the subsequent investigations and tests conducted.  It’s thoroughly engaging throughout, and while you’d never mistake it for fiction – it’s a little too factual for that – it reads brilliantly.  Highly recommended. 

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