The Haunting of Alma Fielding by Kate Summerscale

Flying teacups…

😀 😀 🙂

It’s 1938, a peak time for fake spiritualists and psychical research. When poltergeist activity starts happening in her house, Alma Fielding contacts the Sunday Pictorial newspaper. Nandor Fodor is a Jewish refugee from Hungary, a psychical researcher who has worked with the paper in the past, so he gets in on the case from the beginning. The book tells the story of Alma’s “haunting” and of Fodor’s attempts to prove her story either true or false.

I have enjoyed some of Summerscale’s previous books, but I fear this one is the exception. It’s rambly and repetitive, with far too many descriptions of various frauds perpetrated on gullible “experts” like Fodor by Alma and other mediums. I also felt that Summerscale’s research wasn’t as sound as usual – her casual mention that Alma was taking antibiotics (in 1938) set up warning flags at an early point. She also lists the many breakages of glasses and cups flying through the air at Alma’s home – I found the concept of poltergeist activity marginally less unbelievable than the idea that a working class household in the 1930s would have possessed twenty-four wine glasses and thirty-six tumblers. Not impossible, but unlikely, and I was surprised that Summerscale seemed to accept these figures without question, or even comment.

In her usual style, Summerscale ranges beyond the mere facts of Alma’s case to look more widely at the society in which they happened. She discusses the anxiety the country was experiencing as they waited for the now inevitable war to begin; the rise of spiritualism at a time when traditional religion was on the wane; poltergeist activity as a means for women to be transgressive in a restrictive society, consciously or unconsciously. Fodor, she tells us, was intrigued by Freud’s ideas, and thought that such hauntings as Alma’s may be physical manifestations of psychological frustrations. To bolster this, Summerscale suggests that the earlier death of one of her children may have been at the root of Alma’s “manifestations”. The problem with this theory is that Alma was so clearly not having manifestations, nor could her actions have been subconscious since she was deliberately making elaborate physical preparations in advance of meetings with the researchers in order to fool them. Alma was not a deluded woman, however much her loss may have affected her mental state – she was a deliberate fraud, making money out of her deception. I felt that if Summerscale wanted to make the not unreasonable case that some “hauntings” may be the result of psychological stresses, then she picked the wrong subject.

Kate Summerscale

Where it is rather more interesting is in the description of the lengths gone to by the researchers to prove that manifestations were indeed true. While they would probably have argued that they were unbiased, in fact Summerscale makes it clear that they were strongly incentivised to find “real” cases – continuing publicity and contributions to funding, and hence, in Fodor’s case, his income, depended on ensuring the public remained gullible and enthusiastic about such stories, and a constant stream of proof that it was all nonsense wouldn’t have helped with this. Therefore, the researchers themselves were motivated, whether they realised it or not, to make allowances for subjects even when they caught them out in deliberate cheating. I felt the physical lengths to which the researchers went, strip-searching subjects, investigating their intimate orifices for hidden objects, pinioning their arms during sessions and so on, had a direct kinship with the old ways of testing women to see if they were witches; and I found myself angry that Fodor could believe that Alma’s case was caused by mental trauma and yet treat her so inhumanely. The fact that Alma was so clearly a fraud still didn’t justify the circus that they allowed to develop around her.

In the end, I didn’t feel there had been enough of interest in it to justify the time taken to read through the repetitive descriptions of manifestations and research methods. It might have made an interesting essay, but it needed far more substance and less waffle to make a worthwhile book. A disappointment, I’m afraid.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Bloomsbury Publishing.

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33 thoughts on “The Haunting of Alma Fielding by Kate Summerscale

    • Likewise glad to know I’m not alone! I sometimes think with a non-fiction that maybe the author invests so much time in research they don’t like to admit to themselves that they’ve picked the wrong subject…

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  1. What I find interesting, FictionFan, is the point you make about how far people would go to prove that these manifestations were real. They so desperately wanted them to be true, and it makes me think about how often people believe things that much. At any rate, I’m sorry to hear that there wasn’t more to appeal to you in this one. I do agree with you, though, that if a story isn’t credible, it’s hard to really engage with it. Funny that she let those things pass, and even more that an editor or someone didn’t catch them.

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    • Yes, it made me think of all these recent TV shows about haunted buildings, and how all the people involved in making them desperately need to believe (or pretend to) that there’s something to it. But it goes wider than haunted houses – cults of all kinds are full of people making money or holding power by feeding other people’s gullibility. With this one, I wondered if she’d maybe just invested so much time in research she felt unable to see that there wasn’t enough there to justify her argument.

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    • Haha, yes, poor Geraldo! That’s exactly what I felt like with this one – all that research, all that work, but really there was nothing of value there in the end… 😀

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  2. It doesn’t sound good. I would be annoyed by antibiotics too, only recently I ranted about a 19th century relatively wealthy woman living on her own without at least a maid. Any kind of historical book should attempt to be as accurate as possible. Also… dozens of glasses? Oh dear. I fully understand your frustration with the book.

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    • Yes, whether fiction or fact, these kinds of inaccuracies throw me right out, and make me start questioning everything else. The never-ending supplies of breakables in Alma’s home would have made me start thinking “fraud” right away – Fodor had a vested interest in not seeing the fraud, but Summerscale should have come down on it harder…

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  3. So much of what bothered you about this would bother me, as well. And intimate orifice searches? Forget the poltergeists… that sounds downright terrifying! 🙀

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    • Haha, I know! I’ll never watch a ghostly séance in quite the same way again, knowing where mediums used to hide things! All kinda sordid, I’m afraid – and the investigators sounded even more revolting than the mediums! 😀

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    • Not many! I think it possibly annoys me even more in non-fiction than in fiction – the author should realise at some point that her research isn’t proving what she wanted it to prove…

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  4. That’s a shame! I’ve got a copy of this book and haven’t read it yet because I went off the idea of reading it almost as soon as I received it…so I was hoping you would say it was wonderful! I might still give it a try, but I think the inaccuracies will bother me too.

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    • I’ve loved a couple of her books and not loved a couple of others – it seems to depend on the subject matter. But this is the first time I’ve begun to doubt her research, which is a real pity. Hopefully her next one will be back on form!

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  5. When I saw ‘flying teacups’ I thought of Disneyland, was on the right wavelength obviously.
    Psychics (or sidekicks as we say in our household) annoy me enormously, as there always seems to be either a victim who loses their cash/home/mental health over their frauds.

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    • You could probably tell from the review that I didn’t have a lot of sympathy with Alma either, nor the rest of the psychics that appeared. But if anything the researchers were even worse – and kinda weird. Ugh! The whole thing is creepy, and not in a supernatural way…

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      • Agreed! Creepy, and not in a supernatural way is a terrific description.
        Years ago I lived in a small town and had several elderly customers who were constantly falling victim to scams and sending money to win millions or get their inheritances. I feel as if most of the people in your review were on a par with the scammers. Preying on people is a horrible thing to do, regardless of how the scam is perpetuated.

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        • I hate these people who scam elderly or vulnerable people. One of the things that I’ve most disliked about the way we handed the pandemic was that the govt compiled a list of “shielded” people – i.e., those so much at risk they were told to stay home completely for months – and gave the list to supermarkets so they could get priority for grocery deliveries. Good intentions, but the idea of issuing lists of the most vulnerable people in our society complete with their addresses appalled me – a kind of telephone directory for scammers! But the ones who use people’s grief over the death of a relative to scam them are the worst…

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  6. Oh this is disappointing, because the premise of the book sounds so promising! It’s funny, speaking about witches, and the way women were treated as if they were witches or we were ‘testing’ them for their witchy abilities, I’m so glad things have changed, because I think it really reflected how afraid people were of mental illness in general back then…and basically any sort of difference in one’s personality

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  7. I was partway through this book when all reading got hijacked and I never went back to it. It was a strange choice for me but I found myself pulled in more than I anticipated, I think by the insights into the wider society at the time than by Alma and her manifestations. On balance though, I think this is one I can move on from without regret.

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    • I always like when these kinds of books expand out to look at the wider society, but this one got bogged down in the frauds and investigators too much. I loved The Wicked Boy, her book about a child murderer (or was he?) in the Victorian era. It had much more to say about society, I felt, and it was fundamentally a more interesting story.

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