😀 😀 🙂
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.
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.