Influenced by psychoanalysis, Fodor comes to believe that other aspects of Fielding’s state – her night terrors, when she’s stalked by an incubus; her temporary paralyses – are genuine, in the sense that they are almost certainly the result of some previous trauma. Repression often results in the uncanny: the psyche may split and disassociate; a so-called poltergeist may be an external expression of deep internal rage. And herein lies the weight in what, at times, can feel like a pretty flimsy story. We are all of us haunted, I think: inhabited, to the end of our lives, by the painful ghosts of our past.
The Haunting of Alma Fielding lends itself to spoofing, though Summerscale lets the reader do the sniggering, allowing herself only the occasional dry aside. The Fieldings are also prime candidates for the kind of class condescension that inspired many humorists between the wars. Les is a tradesman with a cigarette tucked behind his ear; Alma, with her ‘Betty Lou’ velour powder puff and glamorous ‘Tattoo’ lipstick, fears being thought ‘common’. She gave up running a snack bar, not liking the tramps who lingered over their beverages. They live in an end of terrace Victorian house with three, not two, bedrooms (these distinctions matter) and, unlike the residents of an inner city slum, have a bathroom with a flush lavatory, electric and gas laid on. Les has a telephone and keeps a ledger for his business. There is also, which is handy given the breakages, insurance on the house. The Fieldings are not churchgoers or cranks, but lead respectable, even humdrum lives. Alma seems mystified by the unruliness around her.
Summerscale is the author of several previous real-life mysteries, among them The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, and one of the many great pleasures of The Haunting of Alma Fielding, as in all of her work, is her knack of recreating the feverish atmosphere of the time. Fielding and Fodor’s trip to Bognor Regis tread in the footsteps as Oswald Mosley, who had given a speech there the week before, telling the British Union of Fascists that the world had nothing to fear from Germany and Italy.
What a peculiar, shuffled book this is. Though based on archival transcripts, notes and photographs, it is as preposterous as fiction. As non-fiction, it lacks scepticism. When Summerscale says Alma’s case demonstrates how “repressed traumatic experiences could generate terrifying physical events” and that “the poltergeist was her surrogate”, are we meant to assume our author goes along with an ultimate belief in supernatural phenomena? Not even Fodor could explain away how Alma’s wardrobe kept falling over or why her doormat wrapped itself around a policeman’s head.
This is not really a story of the supernatural. It never is. It is one about a profoundly disturbed woman who had suffered terrible abuse in her past and repressed her violent emotions deeply. She needed expert psychiatric help; but that was unavailable, though Fodor consulted Sigmund Freud, who had no doubt about her mental and psychological state. Apart from the revealing of Alma Fielding’s past and its explanation of her condition, this is a largely a story of gullibility: the lure of the vaguely exotic in bored and lonely lives.
Summerscale revisits these strange events with her customary wide research and in lucid and unadorned prose. Like Fodor, she is reluctant to come to any conclusions as to what the haunting of Alma Fielding was all about, but she draws a convincing and compelling portrait of a moment of mass anxiety in which so deep was the longing to believe that anything could become believable.
In three previous books Summerscale has sewn accounts of her chosen crimes and misdemeanours tightly to particular literary contexts – the emergence of the detective novel in the 1860s, the publication of Madame Bovary in 1857, the proliferation of sensationalist “penny blood” magazines at the end of the 19th century – and the result has sometimes felt strained. Here, though, she has achieved the perfect balance between her central story and its cultural context. We hear about Freud, now in his dying months in Maresfield Gardens, Hampstead, who rouses himself to read Fodor’s psychoanalytic account of the Fielding case and announces himself broadly in agreement with its findings.
Fodor himself was an excitable and combative character and soon fell out with the Institute. Europe was moving rapidly towards war and fears for the future became more pressing than contact with the spiritual world. By the time hostilities ceased, the supernatural had gone out of fashion, relegated to the fringes of scientific debate, although ghosts, poltergeists and haunted houses continued to make their way into novels and films. Fodor’s final report on Alma was generous. She had been sick, damaged but ultimately not consciously fraudulent, her chaotic inner life finding expression in poltergeist activities. As Summerscale concludes, some past events are so dark that they lie between history and fiction. “Perhaps”, she writes, “there are still feelings for which only a ghost will do.”
Summerscale’s trademark skill, which she displayed to great acclaim in The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, is to home in on an obscure, true mystery story, examine every aspect of it in detail and, by setting it in the social context of its period, expose that period’s obsessions and hang-ups. We can imagine her excitement when she visited the Society for Psychical Research in Cambridge in 2017 to look up some references to Fodor and was presented in the university library with a folder stuffed with every document on the Alma Fielding case, not seen since it was confiscated from Fodor in the autumn of 1938.