Reviewed by Basil Ransome-Davies
Believe it or not, the occult is always a source of fascination. For the persuaded, it offers an expanded view of reality, free from the constraints of the known, workaday grind, explicable only by a resort to the supernatural. For the sceptic, it invites a probing investigation to uncover deluded fantasy, the quirks of the human mind under pressure, or trickery to fool the gullible. For cultists such as David Icke it can support a lucrative career marketing a paranormal conspiracy. For Kate Summerscale it entails analysing a case of poltergeist activity and associated attempts to contact the spirit world in the context of social disturbance and anxiety, featuring serial appearances by, among others, Adolf Hitler, that historical bogeyman who will never go away. It is not a new story, but the author tells it with an arresting depth of detail, thanks to her discovery of a treasure trove of documents in the Cambridge archives of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR).
The slick subtitle of Summerscale’s book is ‘A True Ghost Story’, but which is true, the ghost or the story? If ‘true’ means ‘factual’ or ‘real-world’, then the latter, which is painstakingly supported by a 14-page bibliography. An actual ghost is another matter. What would that be – a disembodied spirit like Hamlet’s father, returning with sombre grace and dignity to acquaint his son with the scandalous truth of his own murder, or a noisy, invisible gatecrasher causing household objects to fly around and crash in a London suburb?
You guessed it. The borough of Croydon tends to be associated with Sarf London lifestyles and fashion rather than outbreaks of paranormal energy (hence the slur ‘Croydon facelift’ for an ultra-tight ponytail), and perhaps for that reason the prospect of ghostly visitations there has added piquancy. Amelia Fielding had no great public profile until the arrival of a hectic poltergeist that interrupted the normality of her life as a Thornton Heath helpmeet, mother and domestic drudge and reconstituted her as a minor celebrity, a newspaper headline (a ‘housewife possessed’ according to a local rag), a figure either supernaturally gifted or fraudulent, an experimental case study.
It’s a woman’s story, then, a tale of identity, role and control, ‘concerned,’ as the Guardian reviewer put it, ‘with the limited freedom available to a woman of a certain class, at a certain time’. But it’s also in important respects a man’s story. The man is Dr Nandor Fodor, a Hungarian exile with a varied personal history, who oversaw Alma Fielding’s four-month sequence of tests in 1938 at the SPR’s house in Kensington. She was paid for her attendance, and soon produced effects more startling than the mysterious vandalism of a domestic poltergeist. Under séance conditions, she announced the presence of exotic spirit guides, mentioned that a phantom tiger had scratched her flesh and ‘apported’ as if from the air a miscellany of small objects and creatures including jewellery, coins, mice and birds. Fodor, sceptical but open-minded rather than dismissive, was not always in accord with the Society’s band of committed true believers. The record of his attempts to create experimental conditions that would verify or disprove Mrs Fielding’s authenticity was bound to have comical aspects as well as bringing conflict. Nonetheless he withheld judgement until science came to his aid in the shape of an x-ray apparatus.
Summerscale throughout parallels Mrs Fielding’s story with the march of time on the political front, particularly war scares around and after the shameful Munich agreement. Sometimes in creating a penumbra of contextual events she goes a little wordily off-track, suggesting, for example, that Mrs Fielding’s ‘spirit tiger’ might relate to ‘the pet leopard in Bringing Up Baby, a screwball romantic comedy starring Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant that had recently opened in London’. Overall, she has a comfortable journalistic style and a broad range of human sympathies, though she’s perhaps a touch hard on Dr Fodor. Motivated by a search for the truth among the convoluted myths and mystifications of spiritualism, he was increasingly led to focus on childhood trauma rather than either the dear departed or Nazi shenanigans as the fundamental source of disturbance. He had met and been commended by Freud. His interest in the uncanny was objectively based. He eventually found his vocation as a psychoanalyst in the US (insert your own joke here, but he was no fraudster).
One thing is certain: extreme stress, whether the source is external or within, boosts the appeal of magical ideologies. Too often, as T. S. Eliot gloomily pontificated, ‘humankind cannot bear very much reality’. Given a lunatic dictator threatening another great war, a troubled family history and the female insecurities of a fissured, anthropocentric society, Mrs Fielding already had a lot on her plate. Occultism, plus the glow of fame, helped her digest it. Spooks, revenants, disembodied souls messaging from the Other Side, why not? They clarify what might appear to stump reason. Even as I write, in the age of Covid-19 and Brexit, Trump. Johnson and Putin, QAnon and the Twittering machine, David Icke can fill arenas peddling antirational deep-state fantasies that offer imaginary relief to the perplexed. Do you wonder?
Before retirement Dr Basil Ransome-Davies taught American Literature & Film Studies at a number of institutions, finally at Edge Hill University. He is also a prizewinning poet & prose author & a recidivist crime fiction addict. He lives in Lancaster, walks for physical & mental health & visits France & Spain as often as possible.
Kate Summerscale, The Haunting of Alma Fielding (Bloomsbury, 2020). 978-1408895450, 358 pp., hardback.