The haunting of Alma Fielding A true ghost story

Kate Summerscale, 1965-

Book - 2021

"London, 1938. In the suburbs of the city, a young housewife has become the eye in a storm of chaos. In Alma Fielding's modest home, china flies off the shelves and eggs fly through the air; stolen jewellery appears on her fingers, white mice crawl out of her handbag, beetles appear from under her gloves; in the middle of a car journey, a turtle materializes on her lap. The culprit is incorporeal. As Alma cannot call the police, she calls the papers instead. After the sensational story headlines the news, Nandor Fodor, a Hungarian ghost hunter for the International Institute for Psychical Research, arrives to investigate the poltergeist. But when he embarks on his scrupulous investigation, he discovers that the case is even than it seems. By unravelling Alma's peculiar history, Fodor finds a different and darker type of haunting, a tale of trauma, alienation, loss and revenge. He comes to believe that Alma's past has bled into her present, her mind into her body. There are no words for processing her experience, so it comes to possess her. As the threat of a world war looms, and as Fodor's obsession with the case deepens, Alma becomes ever more disturbed. With characteristic rigor and insight, Kate Summerscale brilliantly captures the rich atmosphere of a haunting that transforms into a very modern battle between the supernatural and the subconscious"--

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New York : Penguin Press 2021.
Main Author
Kate Summerscale, 1965- (author)
Physical Description
xv, 349 pages : illustrations ; 22 cm
Includes bibliographical references and index.
Contents unavailable.
Review by Booklist Review

In 1938, while London was terrorized by the looming threat of another world war, one suburban housewife began a public battle against an alleged supernatural enemy. Alma Fielding's account of flying crockery and mysteriously overturned furniture attracted ambitious ghost hunters from across the country who were hungry for a prominent case. None were hungrier than Nandor Fodor. Labeled cynical by the spiritualist press, Fodor was determined to prove the validity of Mrs. Fielding's pesky poltergeist and protect his precarious position at the International Institute of Psychical Research so he secured exclusive access to Fielding. Throughout the investigation, Fodor and others witnessed compelling evidence of a true haunting: jewelry would appear on Fielding's fingers, animals would materialize from nowhere, and inexplicable scratch marks would spring up on her body. Fodor observed each instance with a critical eye as Fielding's condition became increasingly disturbing. His intense scrutiny brought him closer to a truth that jeopardized them both. Using Fodor's original papers, Summerscale (The Wicked Boy, 2016) has produced a thoroughly engrossing tale about the power of trauma and how the past can haunt us all.

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Edgar winner Summerscale (The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer) illuminates the bizarre events that afflicted Alma Fielding, a suburban London housewife, in 1938, in this mind-bending historical investigation. In February of that year, the British press began covering the activities of an alleged poltergeist in the Fielding home. The spirit reportedly broke glasses, threw pots and coins, and even transported an unbroken light bulb from one part of a room to another. The occurrences attracted the interest of Nandor Fodor, the chief ghost-hunter for the International Institute for Psychical Research. Fodor gained the confidence of the Fieldings and spent months observing oddities and exploring rational explanations for them. Fodor's experiments and tests led him to conclude that Alma, who suffered from repressed trauma, faked the incidents. Fodor's analysis won the support of Sigmund Freud and his experiences influenced Shirley Jackson's writing of The Haunting of Hill House. Summerscale vividly recreates the four months in 1938 that fascinated a Britain seeking distraction from Hitler's ominous aggressions, and reconstructs the events and the secret inner torment that led to Alma's brief appearance in the spotlight with sensitivity and a novelist's gift for narrative. Readers will be riveted. Agent: Melanie Jackson, Melanie Jackson Agency. (Apr.)

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Review by Library Journal Review

What begins with the supernatural becomes a haunting of the subconscious in Summerscale's (The Wicked Boy) account of Nandor Fodor's 1938 investigation of paranormal events surrounding Alma Fielding. In an England on the brink of World War II, emotions (and spiritual disturbances) are running high. Fodor, a Hungarian ghost hunter with the International Institute for Psychical Research, sees the headlines in the Sunday paper and decides that Alma's experiences may be just what he needs to help him earn back his shaken credibility within the spiritualist community. As he investigates disappearing light bulbs, flying eggs, and more shattered crockery than you could possibly count, Fodor uncovers Alma's internal trauma a little at a time. It is ultimately left up to the reader to determine their own stance on Fodor's theory-that "repressed traumatic experiences could generate terrifying physical events." VERDICT Likely to appeal to readers of ghost stories and psychology alike, this well-researched chronicle pulls directly from firsthand accounts, interviews, news articles, séances, photographs, and other sources to provide as comprehensive a view as possible from this side of history.--Marissa Mace, Cumberland County P.L. & Information Ctr., Fayetteville, NC

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Review by Kirkus Book Review

An intriguing story of a man who vowed to find the truth within the murky world of psychical and paranormal research. In her 2008 book, The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, which won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Nonfiction, Summerscale chronicled the true story of a 19th-century detective who was devoted to solving a child's murder in an English country house and earned nothing but trouble for his efforts. In her latest, Summerscale, who has also won an Edgar and a Somerset Maugham Award, introduces us to a similar protagonist: Nandor Fodor (1895-1964), a Hungarian ghost hunter who worked for the International Institute for Psychical Research. In the 1930s, as England was mourning its dead from World War I and flinching at the possibility of a second, the practice of spiritualism, which was rapidly gaining in popularity, needed an honest man to investigate its claims. When Fodor heard about Alma Fielding, an English housewife who reportedly teleported objects and channeled spirits, he embarked on the difficult mission to prove Alma's claims while preserving his own integrity and reputation. Their relationship forms the heart of the book. Fodor, writes the author, "accepted that Alma might be both truthful and dishonest, gifted and fraudulent. As the pressure mounted for him to prove his case, he demanded ever more of Alma--e.g., stripping naked before a séance to prove she wasn't hiding anything. She resented his demands but kept accomplishing confounding feats. Fodor began to suspect that Alma's past was the key to the present. The narrative is an intimate portrayal of two people locked in a complicated relationship, and while some readers may tire of Summerscale's painstaking documentation of Alma's paranormal activities, her sense of humor and clear style keep the pages moving. Despite a lack of definitive answers, plenty of interesting questions linger at the end of this fascinating book. An astute psychological study enlivened by dry wit, eccentric characters, and informed analyses of 1930s England. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

one The crack in the teacup At his office in South Kensington on Monday 21 February 1938, Nandor Fodor opened a letter from an East End clergyman of his acquaintance. The Reverend Francis Nicolle wanted to alert him to a poltergeist attack in the suburb of Thornton Heath, just south of London, which had been the subject of a report in that weekend's Sunday Pictorial. 'I wonder whether you have seen it?' wrote Nicolle. 'Unfortunately the actual address is not given.' The minister thought that the haunting sounded even more remarkable than a similar case in east London that he had helped Fodor to investigate that month. Fodor, a Jewish-Hungarian journalist, had for four years been chief ghost hunter at the International Institute for Psychical Research. He loved his job, which required him to investigate and verify weird events, but the spiritualist press had recently turned against him. The bestselling weekly Psychic News accused him of being cynical about the supernatural and unkind to mediums, charges that were so damaging to his reputation as a psychical researcher - and his future in England - that in January he had sued for libel. He was now desperate to prove his sincerity and his aptitude: he needed to find a ghost. Fodor obtained a copy of the latest Pictorial. The paper had run the poltergeist story next to a giant cut-out photograph of Adolf Hitler, who was poised to invade Austria, so that the news of the haunting seemed to issue from the FYhrer's shouting mouth. '"GHOST" WRECKS HOME,' ran the headline, 'FAMILY TERRORISED.' According to the Pictorial's report, the disturbance emanated from Alma Fielding, a thirty-four-year-old housewife who lived in Thornton Heath, in the borough of Croydon, with her husband, their son and a lodger. A week earlier, on Sunday 13 February, Alma had been seized by a pain in her pelvis while she was visiting friends in the neighbourhood. She hurried home, trembling and burning, and took herself to bed. Having suffered from kidney complaints since she was a girl, she had a stock of antibacterial medicine to fight infection and sedatives to help her sleep. She dosed herself with both. As she shivered and sweated in her bedroom, a strong wind swept across south-east England, driving sheets of rain, sleet and snow through the streets of Croydon at eighty miles an hour. Alma was laid up for days. In the middle of the week, she was joined in bed by her husband, Leslie, who usually worked as a builder and decorator. His gums were bleeding heavily, his teeth having been pulled so that he could be fitted with dentures. Through Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, reported the Sunday Pictorial, Les and Alma lay together, his mouth leaking blood, her abdomen pulsing with pain, a bright frost lining the trees and walls outside their twin windows. The storms died down, but the air remained wintry and sharp. Alma noticed a peculiar, six-digit handprint on the mirror above the bedroom fireplace. Perhaps her fever or the drugs were inducing hallucinations. Towards midnight on Friday, Alma and Les were trying to sleep when they heard something shatter nearby. Alma turned on her bedside lamp. She and Les saw the shards of a broken tumbler on the floor and then, suddenly, another glass flew past and splintered against the wall. They waited, terrified. The room fell quiet. 'Put the light out,' said Les. 'Let's see what happens.' When Alma turned off her lamp a dank wind moved through the room, lifting the eiderdown so that it swam up at them and fell over their faces. 'Switch on the light,' said Les. 'Quickly.' Alma tried to turn on the lamp, but nothing happened. Nor did the light come on when Les reached over and pressed the switch himself. Alma shouted for help. Their sixteen-year-old son, Donald, crossed the landing from his bedroom, but as he opened the door he had to duck to dodge a flying pot of face cream. George, the lodger, edged in after him, and was hit by two coins - a shilling and a penny. The pair of them drew back, and Don hurried downstairs to fetch matches. When he returned he struck a match and made his way by its flame to the lamp at his mother's bedside. The bulb had vanished from the socket. It was found, unbroken and still hot to the touch, on a chair on the other side of the room. Everyone was shaken, but after half an hour things seemed to have calmed down. At about twenty to one Don and George went to their beds. They all eventually fell asleep. The next morning Alma was feeling well enough to go downstairs, but an egg smashed when she was in the kitchen; a saucer snapped. She didn't know what to do - a ghost hardly seemed a matter for the police - so she placed a call to the offices of the Sunday Pictorial. The newspaper was running a series on the supernatural and had invited readers to write in with their experiences. 'Come to my house,' Alma implored the Pictorial's news desk. 'There are things going on here I cannot explain.' The Sunday Pic, as it was known to its readers, despatched two reporters to Thornton Heath. As Alma opened the front door to the Pictorial men that afternoon, they saw an egg fly down the corridor to land a yard from their feet. As she led them to the kitchen, a pink china dog rattled to the floor and a sharp-bladed tin opener cut through the air at head height. In the front parlour, a teacup and saucer lifted out of Alma's hands as she sat with her guests, the saucer spinning and splintering as if shot in mid-air. She screamed as a second saucer exploded in her fingers and sliced into her thumb. While the gash was being bandaged, the reporters heard smashing in the kitchen: a wine glass had apparently escaped a locked cabinet and shattered on the floor. They saw an egg whirl in through the living-room door to crack against the sideboard. A giant chunk of coal rose from the grate, sailed across the room, inches from the head of one of the reporters, and smacked into the wall. The house seemed to be under siege from itself. Les, Don and George were at home but, as far as the Pictorial men could tell, none of them was responsible for the phenomena: the objects were propelled by an unseen force. A crowd had gathered in the street outside. Among the bystanders, the reporters found a palm reader who went by the name of Professor Morisone (otherwise Mr Morrison), and invited him in to the house. The clairvoyant advised Alma that she was a very strong 'carrier' of ectoplasm, the floating filmy substance with which some mediums materialised spirits. He said that the tumult in her home was a message of warning, and that her son was in danger. The Pictorial published its piece the next morning, under the slogan: 'This is the most curious front page story we have ever printed.' In an ordinary terrace in Thornton Heath, it declared, 'some malevolent, ghostly force is working miracles. PoltergeistÉ That's what the scientists call it. The Spiritualists? They say it's all caused by a mischievous earth-bound spirit.' On an inside page, the paper ran a photograph of Alma, Don and George - 'the occupants of the house of fear' - gazing warily at a large lump of coal. Fodor was gripped by the Pictorial's story. He hoped that this poltergeist would provide him with the proof of the supernatural that he needed. It might also help him to develop his more daring ideas about the occult. The word 'poltergeist', from the German for 'noisy spirit', had been popularised in Britain in the 1920s, but no one knew what poltergeists really were: hoaxes by the living; hauntings by the dead; spontaneous discharges of electrical energy. Fodor, having read the work of Sigmund Freud, wondered if they might be kinetic forces unleashed by the unconscious mind. He noticed that the Thornton Heath poltergeist centred on one woman. It had sparked into life in the bedroom, and seemed at first to direct its violence at the men of the house. Fodor knew that he must act quickly. The International Institute was one of several psychical research bodies in London, and other ghost hunters would be sure to take an interest in this haunting. Poltergeist attacks were in any case usually short-lived, sometimes lasting for only a few days. He composed a letter to the Sunday Pictorial's new editor, the twenty-four-year-old wunderkind Hugh Cudlipp, asking if he could 'come in' on the case. Would Cudlipp be good enough to give him the haunted family's address in Thornton Heath? Reminding Cudlipp that he had already submitted several articles about uncanny events to the Pictorial, Fodor promised to report back on anything that he found. Like everyone in Britain, Fodor was also following the political news with disquiet. The Pictorial reported that the prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, had called an emergency Cabinet meeting to address the threat posed by the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini; and that Adolf Hitler had massed 80,000 troops on the Austrian border, ready to invade. That Sunday, Hitler made a defiant three-hour speech in which he demanded the return of German land surrendered in the Treaty of Versailles. Britain was braced for war. Twenty-five million gas masks had been manufactured by late February, schools were being commandeered for air-raid training, and trial blackouts were being staged throughout the land. The town of Jarrow in north-eastern England was seized with panic when an oxygen works went up in flames that month, reported the Pictorial. As exploding metal canisters shot across the River Tyne, the residents fled their homes in terror, convinced that enemy planes were bombing the munitions factories. 'It was an amazing scene,' said the paper. 'Cripples, frantic women pushing prams, aged people, all scantily dressed, massed in a terrified throng.' Several war veterans collapsed, apparently with symptoms of shell shock. 'Ordinary chaps that I meet everywhere,' says the narrator of George Orwell's Coming Up For Air, 'chaps that I run across in pubs, bus drivers, and travelling salesmen for hardware firms, have a feeling that the world's gone wrong. They can feel things cracking and collapsing under their feet.' They have a 'kind of prophetic feeling', he says, 'that war's just around the corner and that war's the end of all things'. For many, the dread was sharpened with flashbacks - 'mental pictures of the shellbursts and the mud'. If the first world war of the century had been devastating, the next was expected to be apocalyptic. The ghosts of Britain, meanwhile, were livelier than ever. Almost a thousand people had written to the Pictorial in February to describe their encounters with wraiths and revenants, while other papers reported on a spirit vandalising a house in Stornoway, in the Outer Hebrides, and on a white-draped figure seen gliding through the Hawker aircraft factory in Kingston upon Thames. The nation's phantoms were distractions from anxiety, expressions of anxiety, symptoms of a nervous age. Fodor had been in Britain for less than a decade, but as a ghost hunter he had already become intimate with his new country's fantasies and fears. While Fodor waited he gleaned a few further details about the Thornton Heath poltergeist. The Daily Mirror, the Pictorial's weekday sister paper, disclosed that it had sent three men to the Fieldings' house on Sunday: they had seen a book slide from the bookcase when Alma was in the dining room, a glass leap from the table and a mirror drop from the wall. She was frail and hollow-eyed, the reporters observed, and no wonder. The Mirror also reported that Anthony Eden had resigned as foreign secretary of Chamberlain's coalition government, having failed to persuade the prime minister to stand up to Mussolini. When Eden emerged from 10 Downing Street after their meeting, said the Mirror, he looked like a ghost. On Wednesday, Hugh Cudlipp replied to Fodor with the Fieldings' address. Fodor couldn't make it to Croydon that afternoon, so he despatched his assistant, a young film technician called Laurence Evans, to check out the story. Laurie had been an investigator at the Institute for just three months, but he was keen, enterprising and personable. At only twenty-five, he had already squandered his inheritance in Hollywood and been married twice. He now had a day job as a sound recordist at Twickenham Studios, near London, and lived in Surrey with his girlfriend, a film actress. He was a 'brilliant young inventor', according to Fodor, as well as an enthusiastic ghost hunter. Fodor told Laurie to let him know at once if the Thornton Heath case seemed genuine, so that they could stake a claim before any of the other psychical research organisations in London. Laurie stayed late at Beverstone Road and reported back to Fodor early the next morning. He had witnessed amazing things, he told him. In the living room, he saw a wine glass jump from Alma Fielding's hand, shattering in mid-air and falling to the wooden floor. A second glass did the same, this time landing on a rug. A third hit the electric light fixture on the ceiling. Alma was shaking violently and her heart was racing, said Laurie. He put his fingers to her wrist and felt her pulse leap. Upstairs, he was shown a wardrobe that the poltergeist had thrown on the sixteen-year-old Don Fielding's bed. Luckily, Don had been sleeping at a neighbour's house at the time, being already so alarmed by the weird events that he had decided to stay away from home. Laurie noticed a broken white china cat lying between two blue vases on the far side of the boy's room. He was downstairs in the hall a few minutes later when he heard a smash, and turned to see the pieces of a blue vase lying by the grandfather clock at the foot of the stairs. He ran up to Don's room and saw that one of the pair had vanished. Laurie told Fodor that no one could have smuggled the vase out of the bedroom. Alma had been in the kitchen when it hit the hall floor. He had never known anything like it, he said. 'I unhesitatingly label it as supernormal.' Fodor couldn't wait to meet Alma. He immediately set out for Thornton Heath himself. Excerpted from The Haunting of Alma Fielding: A True Ghost Story by Kate Summerscale All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.