Kate Summerscale's new history is her most empathetic work to dateby Zoe Apostolides / October 7, 2020 / Leave a comment
Nandor Fodor first encountered 34-year-old Alma Fielding in London in 1938. Crowds had gathered outside Alma’s Thornton Heath house, whose occupants, including husband, son and lodger, were quaking in their beds: saucers and lumps of coal flew through the air, ornaments smashed, handprints appeared on mirrors. The house “seemed to be under siege from itself.”
Alma—the apparent focus of the haunting—had written to the Sunday Pictorial urging them to investigate. Fodor was a Jewish-Hungarian journalist and ghost-hunter at the International Institute for Psychical Research. “This might prove a sensational case,” he thought, a means of validating his Freud-inspired theories on the connection between trauma and the occult.
As with her previous work, like the bestselling The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, Kate Summerscale examines her subjects with a microscopic lens before zooming out on the wider picture. Societies like the Ghost Club in London, the Spiritualist Alliance and the Faery Investigation pepper the narrative; infrared-filming sessions are interrupted, in 1936, by the sitters tuning in to Edward VIII’s abdication broadcast, and resuming “the next evening, by which time George VI was King of England.”
Summerscale couldn’t have predicted the national mood into which her fifth non-fiction title would be published, but there are striking similarities with the current atmosphere of fear. Theirs was a population gripped by dread of apparitions, a country still recovering from war and a flu pandemic. These malevolent spirits could not be seen or touched, but could cause great harm. Ghosts were “distractions from anxiety, expressions of anxiety, symptoms of a nervous age.” In its focus on the psychological, Summerscale’s unsettling story offers her most nuanced, empathetic work to date—a bright and engrossing tale of the grey space between hoax and haunting.
The Haunting of Alma Fielding: A True Ghost Story by Kate Summerscale (Bloomsbury, £18.99)