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.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 256…

Episode 256

All you people who’ve been worried about my shrinking TBR can breathe a sigh of relief this week – it’s gone up 2 to 198! Still below the magic 200, though, and of course it wasn’t my fault. I tried to stop the postman delivering the box of books, but he insisted, so what could I do?? I’m sure I’ll be back on track soon…

Here are a few more that will be tripping my way soon…

Factual

The Haunting of Alma Fielding by Kate Summerscale

Courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing via NetGalley. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed several of Summerscale’s earlier books, loving her mix of true events and social commentary. This one sounds like a great way to kick off spooky season too…

The Blurb says: London, 1938. In the suburbs of the city, an ordinary young housewife has become the eye in a storm of chaos. In Alma Fielding’s modest home, china flies off the shelves, eggs fly through the air; stolen jewellery appears on her fingers, white mice crawl out of her handbag, beetles appear from under her gloves; in the middle of a car journey, a terrapin materialises on her lap. Nandor Fodor – a Jewish-Hungarian refugee and chief ghost hunter for the International Institute for Psychical Research – reads of the case, and hastens to the scene of the haunting. But when Fodor starts his scrupulous investigation, he discovers that the case is even stranger than it seems. By unravelling Alma’s peculiar history, he finds a different and darker type of haunting: trauma, alienation, loss – and the foreshadowing of a nation’s worst fears. As the spectre of Fascism lengthens over Europe, and as Fodor’s obsession with the case deepens, Alma becomes ever more disturbed. With rigour, daring and insight, the award-winning pioneer of non-fiction writing Kate Summerscale shadows Fodor’s enquiry, delving into long-hidden archives to find the human story behind a very modern haunting.

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American Classic

The American by Henry James

Courtesy of Oxford World’s Classics. One from my Classics Club list. I’ve only read a few of James’ ghostly novellas before, and am not at all convinced his style won’t drive me insane in a full-length book. But we book bloggers must sometimes suffer for our art, so I shall gird up my loins (do women have loins? I should have paid more attention in anatomy classes. I know men have them… and pigs…) and face him bravely!  

The Blurb says: During a trip to Europe, Christopher Newman, a wealthy American businessman, asks the charming Claire de Cintre to be his wife. To his dismay, he receives an icy reception from the heads of her family, who find Newman to be a vulgar example of the American privileged class. Brilliantly combining elements of comedy, tragedy, romance and melodrama, this tale of thwarted desire vividly contrasts nineteenth-century American and European manners. Oxford’s edition of The American, which was first published in 1877, is the only one that uses James’ revised 1907 text.

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Vintage Crime

Inspector French and the Mystery on Southampton Water by Freeman Wills Crofts

Courtesy of HarperCollins. To celebrate the publishing centenary of Freeman Wills Crofts, HarperCollins are reissuing three of his books and I was thrilled to receive a surprise box containing them all! I’ve only read one of the Inspector French books before, The 12:30 from Croydon, and loved it, and have been meaning to read more, so here’s the first. Couldn’t wait, so I’ve started it already…

The Blurb says: The Joymount Rapid Hardening Cement Manufacturing Company on the Solent is in serious financial trouble. Its rival, Chayle on the Isle of Wight, has a secret new manufacturing process and is underselling them. Having failed to crack the secret legitimately, two employees hatch a plot to break in and steal it. But the scheme does not go according to plan, resulting in damage and death, and Inspector French is brought in to solve one of the most dramatic and labyrinthine cases of his entire career. 

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Dalziel & Pascoe on Audio

Child’s Play by Reginald Hill read by Colin Buchanan

I enjoyed Colin Buchanan as narrator of these books more than I was expecting in Exit Lines (review soon), so decided to go for the audiobook again for the next one in my slow re-read of this great series… 

The Blurb says: Geraldine Lomas’s son went missing in Italy during World War Two, but the eccentric old lady never accepted his death.

Now she is dead, leaving the Lomas beer fortune to be divided between an animal rights organization, a fascist front and a services benevolent fund. As disgruntled relatives gather by the graveside, the funeral is interrupted by a middle-aged man in an Italian suit, who falls to his knees crying, ‘Mama!’

Andy Dalziel is preoccupied with the illegal book one of his sergeants is running on who is to be appointed as the new chief Constable. But when a dead Italian turns up in the police car park, Peter Pascoe and his bloated superior are plunged into an investigation that makes internal police politics look like child’s play…

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads, Amazon UK or Audible UK.

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?