I’ve had mixed experiences with Kate Summerscale’s books so far: I loved The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, liked The Wicked Boy and gave up on Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace after a few chapters. I didn’t know what to expect from The Haunting of Alma Fielding, then, but I hoped it would be another good one!
Like Summerscale’s others, this is a non-fiction book based on a true story, in this case the story of an ordinary thirty-four-year-old woman, Alma Fielding, who becomes the centre of paranormal activity in her London home. The book follows Nandor Fodor of the International Institute for Psychical Research as he investigates Alma’s claims, desperately hoping that this time – after being disappointed by a long line of frauds – he has finally come across a genuine haunting.
At first, having witnessed for himself the smashed glasses, spinning teacups, moving furniture and broken eggs, Fodor is convinced that a poltergeist is at work in the Fielding household. The more he learns about Alma’s abilities, which include producing live animals out of thin air and transporting herself from one area of London to another, the more intrigued he becomes…until, eventually, he begins to have doubts. Is this a real paranormal phenomenon he is investigating or is Alma haunted by something very different?
I found some parts of this book fascinating. Although I was sure Alma must have been involved in some sort of elaborate hoax and that there must have been logical explanations for the things she claimed were happening to her, I didn’t know exactly what she was doing or how she was doing it. I was amazed to see the lengths Alma went to in her efforts to prove that her psychic abilities were real and the lengths Fodor and the other ghost hunters went to in their efforts to verify them. Some of the methods they used to investigate Alma’s claims were quite harmless, such as conducting word association tests, but others were intrusive and cruel, and although I didn’t like Alma it made me uncomfortable to read about the way she was treated – particularly as Fodor believed that her powers were the products of various traumas she had suffered earlier in life.
At times, Summerscale widens the scope of the book to put Alma’s story into historical context, to discuss the influence of novels and films of that period, and to look at some of the other things going on in society at that time. The ‘haunting’ and the investigation took place in 1938, when the world was on the brink of war and Summerscale suggests that people were turning to spiritualism as a distraction:
The ghosts of Britain, meanwhile, were livelier than ever. Almost a thousand people had written to the Pictorial to describe their encounters with wraiths and revenants, while other papers reported on a spirit vandalising a house in Stornoway in the Outer Hebrides, and on a white-draped figure seen gliding through the Hawker aircraft factory in Kingston upon Thames. The nation’s phantoms were distractions from anxiety, expressions of anxiety, symptoms of a nervous age.
However, although I found plenty of things to interest me in this book, I did have some problems with it. I felt that it became very repetitive, with endless descriptions of Alma’s various manifestations and detailed accounts of the researchers’ experiments. I thought Summerscale also devoted too much time to anecdotes about other alleged psychics and spiritualists, which didn’t really have much to do with Alma. It seemed that Alma’s story on its own wasn’t really enough to fill a whole book, so a lot of padding was needed.
I didn’t like this book as much as Mr Whicher or The Wicked Boy, but Kate Summerscale does pick intriguing topics and I’ll look forward to seeing what she writes about next.