Review Blog

Oct 05 2020

The haunting of Alma Fielding, a true ghost story by Kate Summerscale

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Bloomsbury, 2020. ISBN: 9781408895443.
(Age: Adult) Recommended. This account of the investigation into the Alma Fielding poltergeist case of the late 1930's is not historical fiction, it is a meticulous examination of the extensive records of ghost hunter Nandor Fodor, which author Summerscale had the good fortune to recover from the Society for Psychical Research archive in Cambridge in 2017. She recreates the events of Fodor's investigation, in the context of the time just before World War II, where the public imagination was seized by stories of ghosts and demonic possession along with seances seeking messages from lost loved ones after the first war.
Nandor Fodor, a Jewish-Hungarian refugee, wanting to affirm his reputation as a psychical researcher, became obsessed with the case of Alma Fielding, sensationally reported in the newspapers as a young housewife who with her husband, son and lodger, had become the centre of a maelstrom of flying household objects, a smashing wardrobe and other strange disturbances. Fodor, open to the idea of spirits and mediums, yearned for proof of another realm, and wanted to establish scientific evidence for the spiritual world. Many times he was disappointed, with his research exposing hoaxes and fraudulence, but with Alma Fielding he hoped to have at last found the genuine thing.
The story moves through three sections, the ghost hunter, the ghost hunt, and then the ghost herself, as Fodor moves from hauntings to gradually develop a theory of psychological disturbance and buried memories of loss and abuse.
In continually wanting to establish scientific evidence, in the determination to remove any chance of artifice, with the tests of Alma's truthfulness and searches of her body, Fodor finds himself facing the same dilemma as the protagonist of The wonder by Emma Donoghue (2016) - is he complicit in contributing to the young woman's psychic disturbance? Is he also causing her harm and compounding her distress?
However, unlike Donoghue's work of historical fiction, with Summerscale's non-fiction approach, we are just presented with the known facts, and are left to imagine the rest for ourselves. It is an intriguing story nonetheless, of the ideas at the time of Freud's notion of female hysteria, and would appeal to readers who like a fact-based approach.
Themes: Poltergeists, Ghosts, Spiritualism, Mental trauma, Psyche.
Helen Eddy

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