Reviews · Seasonal Reads

REVIEW!! The Haunting of Alma Fielding: A True Ghost Story by Kate Summerscale

London, 1938.

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.

The Haunting of Alma Fielding by Kate Summerscale is published by Bloomsbury and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, and Wordery.

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 BookshopSam Read BooksellersBook-ishScarthin 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!

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Non-Stop Non-Fiction

I recently took a glance over my ‘Read’ shelf on Goodreads and was surprised to see how many non-fiction titles I’ve been reading of late. Whilst I’ve never been adverse to reading non-fiction, I’ve always considered myself  primarily a fiction reader. Yet out of the last ten books I’ve read, five have been non-fiction and my only recent 5* Goodreads review went to a non-fiction title. So why the sudden change in my reading habits?

I think primarily it’s because I’ve been super busy  recently so most of my reading has taken place in snatched bites of time. 5 minutes over my morning cup of tea, 15 minutes before bed, 10 minutes whilst waiting for an appointment. A whole day to sit and read – or even a few uninterrupted hours – sounds like a complete luxury to me at the moment. Reading in small doses means its hard to settle into a plot-heavy novel where it’s important to recall who all the characters are, what happened in the last chapter and what person A said about person B ten pages ago.

 

The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child MurdererThis coincided with my discover that the true crime genre – something I’d always worried would be sensational and tacky – has become home to some thought-provoking, genre-blending books that scratch the itch left by ‘Serial’ and ‘S-Town’: two of my favourite podcasts in recent years.

First up, I listened to the audiobook of Kate Summerscale’s ‘The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer‘. Although not actually as focused on the ‘sensational’ murder as the blurb and advertising would have you believe, this was a fascinating piece of narrative non-fiction covering such varied topics as early mental health treatment in Victorian England (surprisingly progressive) and the role of bandsmen in the trenches of WWI (much larger than they’ve been given credit for). Complete with the narrative drive that Summerscale is known for, this was a great audio – although the ‘mockney’ accent the narrator used for some of the characters nearly drove me to distraction!

Killers of the Flower Moon: Oil, Money, Murder and the Birth of the FBIDavid Grann’s ‘Killers of the Flower Moon‘, subtitled ‘Oil, Money, Murder and the Birth of the FBI’, is ostensibly a book about the murders of a number of Osage Indians throughout the 1920s, but opens up into a discourse on power, money, land rights, injustice and racism. It was a sensitively written, fascinating and powerful examination of a largely forgotten piece of  American history. Grann’s writing is a brilliant blend of journalistic drive (he knows how to work a cliffhanger!) and stylised reportage and I was keen to check out more of his work so also read ‘The Devil & Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness and Obsession‘, which is a collection of his shorter essays and articles. I didn’t enjoy this as much as ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ – as with all essay collections, some pieces held my interest more than others – but it confirmed my opinion of his writing style and I’m looking forward to starting ‘The Lost City of Z‘ soon.

The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a MemoirAlexandria Marzano-Lesnevich’s ‘The Fact of a Body‘ is a slower-paced combination of narrative true crime with memoir resulting in an emotionally raw yet moving examination of the lasting effects of historic abuse. Juxtaposing the 1992 molestation and murder of a young boy by a paedophile with the author’s own repressed feelings about abuse within her own family. Not an easy read by any means, and with subject matter that will undoubtedly have triggers for some readers, but a skillful and intimate blending of two genres that really pushed the boundaries of what I thought a ‘true crime’ book could be.

Most recently, I’ve read ‘True Crime Addict: How I Lost Myself in the Disappearance of Maura Murray‘ by James Renner. This is written in short, snappy chapters – often only one or two pages each – and is also a blend of personal memoir and true crime. Less literary in style than ‘The Fact of a Body’ and with more of the narrative drive found in Grann or Summerscale’s work, this is a dual investigation of the strange disappearance of a young woman from rural New Hampshire and of Renner’s own complicated true-crime addiction. It definitely had that page-turning quality although, because the focus is less on a historic case and on an open, unsolved investigation, I did experience a level of unease about some of the speculative elements of Renner’s investigation. It’s a compelling narrative to be sure – and Renner does a good job of keeping the primary focus on his own mentality and raison d’etre – but there are some leaps into the dark corners of the internet and  toying with outlandish amateur theories that left me feeling a cold.

So do I intend to carry on with this non-stop slew of non-fiction? More than likely. I’ve got a short break planned this coming weekend which is a much needed chance to get absorbed into a nice chunky novel. But I have become more aware of how my reading habits need to change to fit around my lifestyle in order to avoid a slump. When I’m busy, non-fiction is just easier to read in short doses. So maybe I need to use non-fiction as my weekday reading and make fiction my weekend choice, when I can indulge in a lazy morning sipping tea and curling up with a good book? If it stops me from entering those hideous periods when I just don’t read at all, it’s certainly worth a try!

I’d be interested to know if anyone else finds their reading habits have changed with their lifestyle and if you find yourself reading differently at different times? Drop me a comment down below or send me a message over on Twitter. And, until next time, whether it’s fiction, non-fiction or something in between, Happy Reading! x