The Haunting of Alma Fielding: A True Ghost Story, by Kate Summerscale
Some events are so dark that to find them is an act of imagination as much as memory.
In 1938, as a storm gathered on the continent and Europe braced for something coming, yet unknown but surely terrible, in England a 34-year-old housewife named Alma Fielding began to experience strange and supernatural phenomena.
Alma lived a quiet life in Thornton Heath, a London suburb, with her son, husband, and a lodger. Seemingly out of nowhere the phenomena began — animals appeared in her clothes and handbag, objects flew violently around the house, handprints appeared on mirrors and mysterious antique objects manifested themselves from the folds of her clothing.
Alma went to the media with her story of these disturbances, and it eventually reached Nandor Fodor, a Hungarian investigator and researcher into otherworldly happenings, who was then working with the International Institute for Psychical Research.
Fodor quickly realized that Alma herself was the key to all the goings-on. And as much as Fodor believed in the research he did, he was also surprisingly grounded for his day: “He was learning that the golden age of psychical study was also the heyday of supernatural hustle, and to verify his subjects’ claims he would have to turn sleuth himself.”
Alma’s days were a repetitive round of domestic chores, relieved only by forays to the shops and cups of tea with friends. She had to dust and polish the many objects in her house, to darn, sew and knit, launder and iron, cook meals for her family, sweep hearths and floors, fetch coal and lay fires, scrub dishes, pots and pans. British women had enjoyed a spell of freedom during and immediately after the war, when many of them went out to work, but the popular press now encourage them to keep to the home. […] the ideal woman was contained, composed, restrained. But for a woman with psychic powers, different rules applied.
I’m going to go ahead and spoiler alert something that shouldn’t actually require a spoiler alert: Alma is what’s haunting Alma. The more interesting story here — and one much deeper and darker than anything supernatural — is why she’s doing it.
Once Fodor is on to her, this becomes the most pertinent question. “To find the origin of her phenomena, Fodor realised, he would have to take her dreams and inventions as seriously as if they had been real.”
Alma makes many visits to the London Institute where Fodor and others in the field of psychical research — each an interesting character in their own right — can observe her during seances. Slowly, Fodor unravels the tricks she uses, while learning from the “spirits” that possess and speak through her what the roots of the problems may be.
Summerscale fills in the narrative of events with Fodor’s biography and a wealth of historical and cultural context, including women’s roles at the time, the stifling anxiety of the brewing international conflict, and, most importantly, the lingering effects of untreated trauma. She also weaves in cultural touchpoints that help to further illuminate this era, like that Daphne du Maurier’s beloved Gothic novel Rebecca — also concerning a young housewife eerily haunted by the past — was published in 1938 as well.
Sigmund Freud’s work on the concept of the uncanny — “that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar,” is key in the events here, as are the exact same ideas that even today lead people to give credence to the supernatural, and psychics, or the belief that you can “manifest” what you most want.
The more powerless people felt, the more liable they were to find significance in ordinary events, to attribute magical meaning to a mislaid utensil, a startled animal or a burst of rain.
Yep. It pretty much amounts to that.
Summerscale’s writing is excellent, which pleasantly surprised me because I’ve often heard her other books, as well as early reviews of this one, called a bit dry. I didn’t find that to be the case at all — for as much information as this packed in, both about Alma’s narrative, the peripheral characters, and the history and context of supernatural investigation, psychology and trauma, and the era’s current events, it was incredibly well told and organized. Not to mention how hard it is to structure that when so much subterfuge is at play. When Fodor and his assistants are finally beginning to solve the puzzling mystery of Alma’s tricks, and always trying to stay one step ahead of her, I found it unbelievably compelling.
And also greatly to her credit, Summerscale constantly treats Alma with compassion and respect, because she did suffer from immense mental strain and what seems like untreated mental illness, while still being very much a product of her times.
If you really want a “true ghost story” as the subtitle indicates, this isn’t it. But neither is anything else that promises to be. This was an excellent and detailed account of how and why haunting stories arise in the first place, and how their thrilling supernatural elements tend to be remembered better than the sad and dark truths that underlie them. We humans are far worse to each other than any imagined otherworldly monsters could be, but we don’t like to remember that. Better to imagine something beyond this world as the culprit for too-common pain instead of a loved one, or our own inability to cope.
Summerscale gives perhaps the best explanation like this: “A ghost was the sign of an unacknowledged horror. It indicated a gap opened by trauma, an event that because it had not been assimilated must be perpetually relieved. There were no words, so there was a haunting.”
The Haunting of Alma Fielding: A True Ghost Story
by Kate Summerscale
published April 27, 2021 by Penguin
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.