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Piers Plowright admires Kate Summerscale’s spirited – but unconventional – tale of ghost hunting

12 November, 2020 — By Piers Plowright

Kate Summerscale. Photo: Fran Monks

FEBRUARY 1938. Dangerous political clouds loom and Europe is on the brink of another war, but in Beverstone Road, Thornton Heath, home to Les and Alma Fielding, their son Don and lodger George, a much more local battle was raging: eggs were flying, saucers splintering, wine glasses whirling, tin-openers terrorising, and clocks careering downstairs. The February 20 edition of the Sunday Pictorial made a meal of it and a crowd gathered.

Thornton Heath wasn’t the only place to mirror the national nervousness with strange goings on: poltergeists [noisy spirits] were at work from Kingston upon Thames to Stornoway. But it was the spirit – later known as “Jimmie” – creating chaos in this Croydon suburb that drew the headlines. And a handsome middle-aged Jewish Hungarian ghost hunter working for the International Institute for Psychical Research in Kensington.

Nandor Fodor had a particular reason for being attracted to the case: he was suing the best-selling weekly journal Psychic News for libel, after they’d attacked him for what they called his cynicism about the supernatural and his unkindness to mediums, suggesting that he was unfit to be a psychical researcher.

If the turbulence in Beverstone Road and the experiences of the chief “victim”, Alma Fielding, could be examined by Fodor and his team and found to be “genuine”, his reputation in the psychic world would be restored. He needed, in other words, to find a ghost.

Kate Summerscale has done it again: armed with all Fodor’s papers and reports on the case kept in a Cambridge library she’s turned a forensic eye worthy of the real-life detective hero of her prize-winning second book, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, onto the painful story of a suburban housewife and her demons. The result is as enthralling as her account of Mr Whicher’s search for the murderer, or the fate of a 13-year-old Victorian mother-killer in her last book, The Wicked Boy, or a victim of the double standards of Victorian Divorce Laws in Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace, her third book.

In all her work, including her crime-free first publication about the crossdressing, 1920s speed-boat queen Marion “Joe” Carstairs, Kate Summerscale joins meticulous research to a novelist’s ear to produce almost a new genre of literature – let’s call it “a summerscale” – that keeps the reader hooked. The technique is the same: a concentration on a single case or story to illuminate, and often condemn, a whole society.

The Haunting of Alma Fielding covers a short period between Fodor’s first visit to Beverstone Road in February 1938 and his settling in New York a little over a year later. The months in between are a sometimes grim, sometimes unexpectedly hilarious, account of Fodor’s attempts to get at the truth about Alma.

Does he find his ghost? Yes. But not the kind that goes bump in the night. Is Alma a fake? Not exactly. The figure of Sigmund Freud, just arrived in Hampstead, looms over the story – Fodor actually meets the great man who reads his account of the case and is impressed – and a new term, “psychoanalysis”, shatters the simplicities of 19th and early 20th century psychic research. Alma turns out to be far more complicated than the victim of flying tea cups.

And does Fodor win his libel case? Read the book.

The Haunting of Alma Fielding. By Kate Summerscale, Bloomsbury, £18.99.

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