In the suburbs of the city, an ordinary young housewife has become the eye in a storm of chaos. In Alma Fielding’s modest home, china flies off the shelves, eggs fly through the air; stolen jewellery appears on her fingers, white mice crawl out of her handbag, beetles appear from under her gloves; in the middle of a car journey, a terrapin materialises on her lap.
Nandor Fodor – a Jewish-Hungarian refugee and chief ghost hunter for the International Institute for Psychical Research – reads of the case, and hastens to the scene of the haunting. But when Fodor starts his scrupulous investigation, he discovers that the case is even stranger than it seems.
By unravelling Alma’s peculiar history, he finds 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 non-fiction writing Kate Summerscale shadows Fodor’s enquiry, delving into long-hidden archives to find the human story behind a very modern haunting.
In The Haunting of Alma Fielding, Kate Summerscale moves away from the hidden secrets of Victorian drawing rooms and into the middle-class suburbs of 1930s London.
The peace of a quiet family home has been shattered – crockery has started flying off the shelves, objects throw themselves at the husband of the house, and wardrobes appear to move on their own. At the centre of it all is suburban housewife Alma Fielding, an apparently quiet and unassuming woman who is both confused and terrified by the strange goings on in her home. Desperate to find some rationale behind the apparent hauntings, she calls on the local press and they, in turn, attract the attention of Nandor Fodor, chief ghost hunter for the International Institute for Psychical Research.
Starting with a bang (quite literally given the amount of broken china that Fodor finds in the Fielding’s home), Summerscale’s latest work of narrative non-fiction follows Fodor’s investigation of Alma as he moves from observing incidences in her home to asking her to sit for seances at the Institute. As the investigation continues, Alma’s powers seem to increase – she manifests live animals, speaks in strange voices, and begins to develop physical scratches on her body. But is Alma really being haunted? And if so, is it by a ghost or by something much darker, hidden deep within her past?
As you would expect with Kate Summerscale, this is a thoroughly researched and comprehensive account of an unusual and little-known tale. Despite having read a number of books about the research activities of twentieth-century ‘ghost hunters’ such as Harry Price, I’d never heard of Nandor Fodor or of the International Institute, and I was fascinated by the fine balance they had to maintain between being open-minded towards their subjects and scientific in their pursuit of proof of the supernatural.
Summerscale does an excellent job of conveying both the popularity of spiritualism and psychical research at the time and the reasons behind this and, despite some of the Institute’s practices seeming far from ‘scientific’ by today’s standards, I was fascinated by how their thinking about psychic abilities and the supernatural paved the way for modern psychological thinking and techniques – especially in the field of parapsychology – today. Fodor certainly seemed to be a man ahead of him time in many ways, although his treatment of Alma is, at times, quite disturbing and the latter part of the book really does get you thinking about the ethics of treating a real person – and their past traumas – as a scientific subject.
The Haunting of Alma Fielding is also quite dense in places. For the most part Summerscale wears her research lightly but, in parts, she packs in huge amounts of detail – some of which felt extraneous, or seemed to relate to some side-character or event that wasn’t directly connected with Fodor, Alma or the investigation. Sometimes it felt as if this information was being repeated and, at times, the pace of the book seemed to slow to a crawl as a result. After a brisk and exciting start, I found myself really struggling to stay interested during the middle section before the book picked back up for the end.
If you’re expecting a true life ghost story similar to Harry Price’s account of the haunting at Borley Rectory, or the memoirs of various ‘ghost hunters’ then you’ll probably find The Haunting of Alma Fielding a little disappointing. For all the supernatural phenomena that is centred on Alma, there is very little that goes bump in the night here. However if you’re looking for a thorough and well-researched examination of the early days of para-psychological investigations, and of the fluid boundaries between science, the self, and the supernatural, Summerscale’s latest is sure to prove an enlightening read.
If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green Bookshop, Sam Read Booksellers, Book-ish, Scarthin Books, and Berts Books.
My thanks go to the publisher and to Netgalley UK for allowing me to read an ecopy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.
Reviews on The Shelf are free, honest, and unbiased and I don’t use affiliate links on my posts. However if you enjoy the blog please consider buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi!