The verb “to haunt” can mean “to practice habitually, busy oneself with, take part in” and “to frequent a place,” but it isn’t entirely clear when it began to apply to supernatural phenomena like spirits or ghosts.
Etymology Online has it that this use “perhaps was in Proto-Germanic, but if so it was lost or buried” and that it was “revived by Shakespeare’s plays,” appearing first in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Merriam-Webster adds that “In the 1500s, haunt began to mean ‘to have a disquieting or harmful effect on,’ as in ‘that problem may come back to haunt you.’ The meaning here is simply the lingering presence of the problem, not the possibly scary nature of the problem itself; it is applied to thoughts, memories, and emotions.”
I bring all this up because Kate Summerscale’s newest book, The Haunting of Alma Fielding: A True Ghost Story, now out in the United States, has a particularly fitting title, one that — purposefully or not — ends up drawing on all these varied meanings of “haunting.”
In 1938, Alma Fielding, a 34-year-old housewife in Thornton Heath, a suburb of London, went to the press complaining of a poltergeist having invaded her home. A six-fingered handprint appeared on a mirror; glasses flew through the bedroom she shared with her husband, Les; their son, Don, had to dodge a pot of face cream when he came to investigate the commotion; and coins pinged across the room at the lodger, George, when he did the same. Knowing the police wouldn’t take any of this seriously, Fielding called the Sunday Pictorial, which had invited readers to share their experiences with the supernatural.
Nandor Fodor, an investigator for the International Institute for Psychical Research, learned about the event through a clergyman pal. He “knew that he must act quickly,” Summerscale writes. “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.” Not to mention that he had recently been accused in the psychical press of “being cynical about the supernatural and unkind to mediums,” and had sued for libel. But in order to amass evidence in his defense and prove that he was a sincere believer in spiritualism and psychic phenomena, he needed to find and champion a real medium or psychic event. Alma Fielding, he thought, might just be the genuine article.
Over the next several months, he investigated the phenomena and her relationship to it, as it was clear from the get-go that she was its locus. But Haunting isn’t just the narrative of Fodor’s investigation of Fielding — it’s also a narrative about women and power, about anxiety of the unknown and the fear of looming war, about the choices people make (consciously or unconsciously) in order to escape certain aspects of their lives.
“Many Britons had turned to spiritualism in the 1920s because of the losses of war,” Summerscale writes, “and many were turning to it now for fear of a conflict to come. Spiritualist seances offered a sense of wonder and intimacy rarely found in the Church of England…” At the same time, of course, as you might expect, supernatural swindles abounded: “The ‘futurity racket’, [the] Reynolds [News] observed, was typical of societies on the brink of chaos and destruction: the Italian magician Count Cagliostro flourished in Paris before the revolution of 1789, much as the faith healer Grigori Rasputin thrived in St. Petersburg before 1917.” Fielding, whose husband, Les, woke up with nightmares from his participation in the Great War, had her first appearance in the Pictorial run right next to a large photograph of Adolf Hitler. Fodor, whom she spent so much time with in the next few months, was a Jewish Hungarian immigrant who was well aware of the rising antisemitic tide all over Europe. Talk about fear-inducing times for all involved.
Alma Fielding’s experience both was and led to a haunting. She frequented the International Institute for Psychical Research’s headquarters for seances and experiments; she habitually appeared to manifest objects and even living beings like white mice; and she and Fodor certainly had, at times, disquieting or harmful effects on one another, even as he tried to understand her through the lens of past traumas, which were disquieting and harmful too. Was there a spirit, a ghost, something supernatural involved at all? It depends on how you look at it, what you decide to believe, and how fully you can hold more than one truth in your mind at the same time.
Summerscale’s writing is so inviting, the historical details folded into the narrative so well, that The Haunting of Alma Fielding reads like a novel you don’t want to put down. (The book design is also superb, the typeface somehow evoking something old and mysterious while also being easy on the eyes.) Best of all, it offers a variety of possibilities without definitively landing on one single answer; the book recognizes that, sometimes, the answer to the question “Was it real or was it fake?” is simply “Yes.”
Ilana Masad is an Israeli-American fiction writer, critic, and founder/host of the podcast The Other Stories. Her debut novel is All My Mother’s Lovers.