In the fantastic (in both senses of the world) The Haunting of Alma Fielding, Kate Summerscale brings us a strange case from the past. (I really liked The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher). This book sees Summerscale diving into the archives of Britain’s interwar spiritualist and paranormal societies and the news to tell the story of Alma Fielding. In 1938, Fielding called the police to report that something was throwing and breaking things in the London apartment she shared with her husband and son. The police couldn’t help. There wasn’t anyone to arrest. But Nandor Fodor wanted to investigate. Fodor was not a detective—at least not a police detective. At the time of Alma’s haunting, Fodor worked for the International Institute for Psychical Research. He believed that the culprit was a poltergeist.
In another example of the serendipity that seems to dog my reading choices, I recently listened to a series of episodes of You’re Wrong About, a podcast that debunks moral panics and fraud. In the relevant episodes, hosts Michael Hobbs and Sarah Marshall do a very deep dive into Michelle Remembers, by Lawrence Pazder and Michelle Smith. That book, which helped spark the American Satanic panic of the 1980s, shows a troubling, unethically close relationship between a patient and a therapist in which both parties encourage each other in creating a series of false memories. The relationship between Fodor and Fielding is not that close, but there are some very interesting similarities. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Shortly after Fielding and Fodor met, Fodor invited her to the Institute so that he and other “psychical researchers” could figure out if Fielding had a genuine poltergeist or if she was just a very good fraud. In the 1920s and 1930s, spiritualists popped up across Great Britain like mushrooms after a rain. The appalling losses of World War I lead many surviving relatives to seek out mediums who could help them talk to their dead. Fodor did a fair amount of debunking for the Institute, but he truly wanted to believe that Fielding and others represented real evidence of the supernatural and life after death. At first, there is no sign—as far as Fodor can see—that Fielding is using any of the known tricks that fake use to making objects appear to fly and break, rap at tables, etc. It’s only several months into the investigation that Fodor sees slight signs that Fielding is doing all of the weird poltergeist-y behavior, although it was hard for me to wrap my brain around how some of the events were achieved.
Which brings me back to Michelle Remembers. Fodor does, in spite of his desire to believe, begin to understand that Fielding wants the investigators to keep their attention firmly fixed on her and the “manifestations.” The investigators try increasingly elaborate methods to catch Fielding red-handed and her poltergeist’s actions escalate from flying crockery to visits from rapacious ghosts over the course of months. When Fielding appears to slip up, Fodor reluctantly turns from paranormal explanations to psychoanalytic ones. (Sigmund Freud makes a brief cameo late in The Haunting of Alma Fielding.) Instead of diving wholeheartedly into the supernatural, Fodor starts to ask questions that make everyone uncomfortable. He also starts to ask himself questions about whether he, Fielding, and the other investigators were just committing a big folie à deux (or whatever is the right number in French for everyone).
Just like The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, The Haunting of Alma Fielding reads like I was dropped into another place and time. With a light hand, Summerscale shares the fruits of her research to recreate the intellectual and emotional settings of the cases she delves into. I have learned so much from reading Summerscale’s books. As a bonus, there is a lot of humor in this book. More than once I would laugh out loud at the absurd situations Fodor would find himself in in his quest to find proof of the paranormal. Summerscale is one of my absolute favorite nonfiction authors.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.