Kate Summerscale is the author of the bestselling book The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, which was turned into a telly series. I haven’t read the book or seen the series. But after reading The Haunting of Alma Fielding, I’ll certainly need to add her work to my (growing) reading list.
The beginning, middle and end—part 1, the ghost hunter, part 2, the ghost and part 3, the ghost—brings the reader from the pre-second-world-war offices of the Society for Psychical Research (London) to the offices of the Society for Psychical Research (Oxford) January 2017, which the author Kate Summerscale visits.
She wants to look at their back catalogue, and in particular finds Nandor Fodor. A Jewish-Hungarian émigré and former journalist. His job at the Institute for Psychical Research is to sift through the chaff and provide evidence of supernatural events—that can’t be conventionally explained. He’s the ghost hunter (part 1) investigating claims of supernatural events in the interregnum period between world wars. It’s a competitive field in which Alma and her poltergeist is a prized asset. He has to, for example, steer her away from Harold Chibbett https://odonnellgrunting.wordpress.com/2021/02/13/the-battersea-poltergeist-bbc-sounds-investigated-by-danny-robins/ and Harry Price (The Haunting at Borley Rectory. He was later found to have falsified evidence of supernatural events). And C.V.C Herbert a fellow researcher in the Society for Psychical Research.
‘There has not been a greater or truer ghost story than this one for many years,’ Fodor wrote in The Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research.
Alma married Les at a Croydon register office in March 1921. He was twenty-one. She was seventeen and pregnant with their son, Don. Les benefits from the house-building boom in southern England, even during the great Depression. A paying lodger, George lives with them when Fodor’s investigation takes place.
Alma claimed to be in constant pain from kidney abscesses and she had a mastectomy. Fodor’s working hypothesis is that this allows her to transcend her body. Psychic phenomena are interconnected.
In 1929, for example, Alma claimed she went blind, but she could still, for example, ride a bike or play cards. An optician confirmed her blindness and said it was a case for the hospital.
‘I could play cards by the feel of the cards.’
Alma also claimed to have cancer with radium needles implanted in her chest. This coincided with poltergeist activity.
‘My father [who had died of tuberculosis] leant across and drew a cross with his fingers on my breast.’
The next morning, she found a cross-shaped scar on her breast.
Their house suffered from poltergeist activity, banging sounds, mysterious crashes and broken dishes. Fodor linked haunted objects to the emotional disturbances of the living.
Charles Fort, an American writing in the 1930s, identified groups associated with poltergeist activity—with the exception of ‘servants’ remains contemporary.
What he suggested they have in common is a lack of direct power.
Fodor’s associate, Countess Wassolki-Serecki also believed a haunting of the inner world manifested itself in the outer world.
‘Perhaps her [Alma’s] poltergeist was a chunk of herself so damaged that it had been torn off and expelled.’
In other words, poltergeist activity was a manifestation of not only a lack of direct power to influence events, but also the malign in vampirism, for example, where sexual attacks and violence were interchangeable.
5) sexually/physically assaulted with no voice, including incestuous activity.
The celebrated escapologist Harry Houdini suggested ‘it takes a flimflammer to catch a flimflammer’.
But Dick Woodward, for example, who initially convinced Fodor that he could levitate flowers, complained that he’d opened the psychic door and attracted malign presences.
‘Success as a physical medium is like a drug. In my queer mental state I wanted more and more. Having once taken the step of cheating, it became easier and easier.’
Being a medium was part of his identity. In Alma Fielding’s case, it was who she was. Fodor felt a duty of care, not to just abandon her, even though he too had caught her cheating.
‘A traumatised child becomes amoral.’
Not only did Alma seem traumatised, but she her actions seemed dictated not by her conscious self, but unconscious self. She wasn’t cheating. She displayed preternatural survival instincts to give him the type of behaviour he required. She was an expert ghost of herself, both a liar and a victim of lies.
6) Fodor noticed many mediums were bereaved mothers.
Alma had lost a son in childhood.
‘My mummy, my mummy,’ said the spirit child through Alma 17th May 1938.
Fodor took a different viewpoint.
‘The poltergeist is not a spirit, it has no identity, it brings no message from the dead; it is a bundle of projected repressions bent on mischief and destruction because it is born out of rage and frustration.’
Fodor consulted with Sigmund Freud, a fellow refugee from Nazi Austria and living in London about Alma Fielding’s case. Fodor became a successful psychotherapist in New York. Alma Fielding was haunted by herself he concluded. Her assault or assaults had caused a kind of ‘psychic lobotomy’. She wasn’t lying, she just couldn’t find the truth within her without destroying her fragile sense of self that never matured.
Kate Summerscale, A True Ghost Story, is suitably complex to make sense of the senseless. But like many others, I’m still looking over my shoulder for outliers which makes you shiver in recognition, not what I know, but what I don’t know. Read on.