‘An Indian chieftain jingled along beside her as she made her way to the butcher’s shop; a stick of rhubarb perched on her dog; a mouse issued from her arm; a soap dish chased her down the stairs.’ – The Haunting of Alma Fielding by Kate Summerscale

June 21, 2021 at 3:52 pm (Book review, books)

  What? thought I. A book about seances,  ghosts, spirits, poltergeists, etc. etc. Who would want to read about such silly stuff? What serious author would even write about it?

Kate Summerscale would. And in fact, she’s the reason I obtained this book in the first place. Summerscale’s nonfiction is excellent; I’ve read Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace, The Wicked Boy, and most especially her true crime masterpiece, The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher.

Kate Summerscale

So, on the strength of  my great liking for this author’s previous work, I determined to give The Haunting of Alma Fielding a try. I picked it up…

And of course, I couldn’t put it down.

The year was 1938. The place was Croydon, a borough in South London. Alma Fielding lived there with her husband, son, and a lodger. Alma was a thoroughly unremarkable young woman who was, apparently, tired of being unremarkable. Suddenly, in her house, all sorts of bizarre things began to happen, along the lines of what I quoted in the title of this post.

An article about these strange occurrences appeared in a local paper; this brought the situation to the attention  of a striving psychical researcher, a refugee from Hungary named Nandor Fodor. Fodor worked for the International Institute for Psychical Research, an organization whose specialty was researching reports of supernatural phenomena. Fodor, a true believer, prevailed on Alma to become a subject for his research under the auspices of the Institute. She assented.

And so the strange tale began.

Alma and her family were not the only Londoners having these disquieting experiences. Similar instances were being reported by a number of other people, including one who claimed he was being bedeviled by a talking mongoose. Summerscale illuminates the zeitgeist that informs the background of all this:

Many Britons had turned to spiritualism in the 1920s because of the losses of war, and many were turning to it now for fear of a conflict to come. Spiritualist seances offered a sense of wonder and intimacy rarely found in the Church of England, where attendances were falling so fast that the Archbishop of Canterbury had appointed  a committee to investigate the allure of the rival faith.

Naturally the times were rife  with charlatans looking for ways to fleece the gullible. As a news organ of the time reported,

‘Never have fortune-tellers, horoscope-casters, crystal ball gazers, teacup-twisters and fakers had so many mugs or made so much money.’

If this sounds as though it would make a lively retelling, it does.

Summerscale makes note of the number of literary works that, in subsequent years, took up the theme of ghostly goings-on, sometimes to great effect. Among them were The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, Carrie by Stephen King, The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters, and Don’t Look Now by Daphne Du Maurier. (That last one was particularly scary; it was made into a movie with Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland, that intermixed sex and death in a way that made me want to run screaming from the premises.)

My recommendation? Read it, but during the daytime, in a well lit room.

Alma Fielding

 

1 Comment

  1. whatsnonfiction said,

    I loved this one too and could hardly put it down either! I think she handled this story beautifully, and it was so fascinating.

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