In 1938 Alma Fielding, a housewife from Thornton Heath in south London, apparently became possessed by a violent spirit, said Lucy Lethbridge in the Literary Review. A six-fingered handprint appeared on a mirror; a glass spontaneously shattered; visiting reporters saw eggs fly through the air and a fender tumble down the stairs. Kate Summerscale’s great coup is to have discovered the notebooks of Nandor Fodor, a Hungarian journalist sent to investigate these events by the International Institute for Psychical Research. Months of rigorous tests led Fodor to believe that while Fielding had certainly faked some of the manifestations, she was indeed possessed by some kind of uncanny force. Summerscale, the author of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, has “an enviable nose for events, once briefly notorious, that are still singular and disturbing”. She places this story in its historical context: the craze for spiritualism brought about by the memory of the First World War and the threat of renewed conflict. “All over Britain,” she observes, “domestic furniture seemed to be bristling into life.”
This “riveting” book splendidly recreates the “feverish” atmosphere of the age, agreed Daisy Goodwin in The Sunday Times. A week before Hitler invaded Austria, 2,000 people attended a séance in London to hear a Native American spirit pronounce on the likelihood of war. In Bethnal Green, the ghost of a landlady emptied her lodger’s jar of Bovril; on the Isle of Man, a ghostly talking mongoose was sighted. Fodor paid Fielding £4 per week to subject her to close examination, under which her psychic feats became “baroque”, with mice and sparrows materialising apparently from thin air – until X-rays revealed that she had been hiding items in her underwear, and even her bodily orifices. Yet some phenomena, such as her fits of paralysis, remained unexplained, said Rachel Cooke in The Observer. Fodor – influenced by Sigmund Freud, who had just fled Vienna for London – concluded that they stemmed from a mental breakdown brought on by past trauma and deep internal rage. It’s this recognition that gives weight to a potentially flimsy story. Indeed, said Rebecca Willis in The Tablet: the book’s fascination lies not so much in the minutiae of the hauntings as in Fodor’s growing awareness of the subconscious’s role in them. It tells the story of the 20th century mind and its shift to a Freudian consciousness. It also reminds us what a nation will believe when it is stressed by global events – which makes it “spookily” topical.