The Haunting of Alma Fielding by Kate Summerscale

Kate Summerscale has previously written about one of the earliest detective-led crime cases in Britain, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (2008), but here turns her attention to a different type of investigation, in the world of between-the-wars paranormal research. Her “detective” is Nandor Fodor, a Jewish Hungarian journalist working for the International Institute for Psychical Research in London. As the book opens, he has come under flack from the psychic press for being too unsympathetic to spiritualism to properly investigate the mediums, poltergeists, and other phenomena (including Gef the Talking Mongoose) he’s looked into. Fodor hit back, launching a libel case against Psychic News, not just because his position at the International Institute required him to be impartial, but because he was genuinely open to belief in such things (having had some ghostly experiences as a child). The trouble was, he combined a willingness to believe, with the rigour and honesty necessary not be hoodwinked.

So, when some plausible-sounding and dramatic poltergeist activity at a house in Thornton Heath came up, he leapt at the chance to secure this as an exclusive for the Institute. Les and Alma Fielding were in bed, both under the weather (Les had had all his teeth removed, Alma had kidney trouble) when a glass threw itself across the room and shattered. This was but the first of many objects moving, often violently, in the house over the next few days, which had been witnessed by Alma, Les, their teenage son Don, and their lodger George. Fodor began investigating, and was soon convinced the poltergeist phenomena were genuine. If so, this was the chance he needed to prove he wasn’t simply intent on debunking psychic phenomena — and thereby win his case against the Psychic News and keep his job at the Institute.

Pretty soon, Alma Fielding — around whom the poltergeist activity centred — was paying regular visits to the Institute’s London offices, where she’d be thoroughly body-searched by female staff before entering a séance room and performing a variety of psychic stunts, all the time under the observation of witnesses. At first it was poltergeist phenomena — the sudden appearance of small, random objects, including live mice and an antique necklace, as well as the breakage of tea-cups, chairs suddenly falling over, and so on — but Fodor encouraged her in other directions, too. Alma proved to be a medium, able to go into a trance and let her spirit-guide Bremba talk through her. All the while, Fodor was wary of being tricked, and most of what Alma did smacked as much of stage magic as psychic ability. For instance, Fodor and some others took her on a trip to the seaside, during which they visited Woolworths and Alma tried on a ring at the jewellery counter. She gave it back and they all left the shop. But while walking along the road afterwards, an empty film tin Fodor had given Alma began to rattle, and when they opened it, they found the ring. Fodor wasn’t sure whether to be alarmed they’d just psychically shop-lifted, or amazed at what had happened.

Alma Fielding

One of the troubles with books about poltergeist phenomena, I find, is they often turn into protracted lists of random objects appearing, breaking, or flying across the room. It was no doubt fascinating, even frightening, to witness, but when read about it becomes tedious. Freud, who read and approved Fodor’s write-up of the Fielding case, nevertheless complained that “Some of the evidential detail was tiresome”, and I can’t help agreeing.

Inevitably, Fodor catches Alma in the act of throwing an object that was meant to be one of her poltergeist’s “apports”. An X-ray taken before a séance session reveals several objects hidden in her underwear. As though to keep one step ahead and remain interesting, Alma began exhibiting scratches on her skin caused by her spirit guide’s pet tiger. She tells Fodor of night visits by a vampire, and shows him the wounds…

The Haunting of Alma Fielding chimes in with some of the themes I’ve been looking at on this blog, though in fiction rather than fact. For instance, stories about psychic kids, in which children with unusual powers are chased, captured or held by unscrupulous scientific types, and studied in a lab, usually in a very dehumanising way. (Eleven in Stranger Things, for instance, or the boy in Stephen King’s The Institute.) Or the similar situation in ghost stories (The Stone Tape, for instance, and at least one episode of The Omega Factor), where investigators lay out every variety of measuring instrument to try and capture a haunting. Both of these situations come together in the real-life investigation of Alma Fielding and her unusual phenomena.

Nandor Fodor

Except that Nandor Fodor is nothing like those ruthless fictional scientists. Whereas, say, the psychic investigator in the 2011 film The Awakening is utterly intent on doing nothing but debunk all the mediums and ghosts she comes across, Fodor is not only all-too-willing to believe, but is capable of more than the black-and-white, imposture-or-not style of thinking you’d expect. When he catches Alma surreptitiously throwing a small gemstone and pretending it was a psychic “apport”, he doesn’t take this as immediate evidence that everything about her case is fake. He knows his “psychic” subjects are unusual people, at the mercy of strange drives, and that they might feel the need to add to their genuine phenomena with bursts of fakery and showmanship:

“In psychical science, one fraudulent act did not invalidate all of a medium’s claims. The transcendent and the tawdry were often united in one psyche.”

Fodor, in fact, is just as fascinated by the new science of psychoanalysis, and brought its ideas to bear on his psychic investigations. He was ready to believe the psychic phenomena he was investigating were real, but was also interested in finding out if they were driven by — and perhaps entirely explained by — the psychology of the people they centred on. He entertained the idea that certain kinds of intense psychological conditions might cause objects to move, break, even appear, without the need of an external “ghost” or poltergeist. Equally, he thought the whole thing could be imposture, but unconscious imposture, so that Alma might, for instance, really believe it was a poltergeist that caused her tea-cup to fling itself across the room, when it was simply herself — her unconscious self — flinging it, as the expression of some psychological drive or process hidden to her.

Fodor comes across, sometimes, as a little boy in wonderland. Confronted by one of Alma’s suddenly-appearing objects, he’s able to appreciate the wonder of what she’s just done, whether it’s a genuinely psychical event or a skilled magic trick she’s doing for his benefit. He is – unlike all those clipboard-wielding scientists who attach electrodes to Eleven and make her try to kill a cat with her mind-powers — genuinely concerned about Alma’s mental and physical health, going to the extent of recruiting her spirit guide, during a séance, to make sure she eats enough. When her experiences turn darker — when she starts telling tales of being visited by a vampire at night — he wonders if his investigation isn’t doing more harm than good, and that it may be uncovering something darker within Alma herself:

“Fodor believed that Alma’s apports and elaborations had stemmed from a feverish wish for change, escape, self-expression, but they had also ushered in unbidden experiences, such as the visits of the incubus and vampire, that were rooted in her past.”

The idea that traumatic memories could be so deeply buried as to be hidden from the conscious mind, yet come out in unusual and even violent ways, was new at the time. But Fodor began to suspect it was tied in with the cases of psychic phenomena he was investigating:

“A ghost was the sign of an unacknowledged horror… There were no words, so there was a haunting.”

Which sounds like it might have been taken from Bessel van der Kolk’s book on trauma, The Body Keeps the Score:

“Many traumatized children and adults simply cannot describe what they are feeling because they cannot identify what their physical sensations mean… Traumatic events are almost impossible to put into words.”

The Haunting of Hill House coverUltimately, Fodor moved to New York, trained as a psychoanalyst, and wrote on the paranormal cases he’d investigated from a psychoanalytical point of view. Because of this, he was brought in as a consultant when Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House was filmed by Robert Wise in 1963, and met Jackson, who told him she’d read his books. And this is another theme I’ve looked at in this blog: the ties between the early classics of modern horror and the discovery of the darker levels of the psyche in the work of early psychoanalysts. Fodor, it seems, was there, dealing with the actual real/not-real thing, and thinking about it in the same terms.

In The Haunting of Alma Fielding, Summerscale ties the rise of poltergeist activity in Britain between the World Wars (and there seems to have been a deluge of it) with growing tensions in Europe. In newspapers of the time, headlines about hauntings ran alongside images of the screaming face of Adolf Hitler on another rant. She also emphasises the intimate aspects of Fodor’s investigation of Alma, how often, for instance, his checking of her body for hidden objects, or the need to hold her hands to be sure she wasn’t throwing things, led to so much physical contact and attention. She also ties poltergeist phenomenon to another aspect of the age, Surrealist art, with its unexpected juxtapositions and inconsequentialities. The spirit world has its trends, too, it seems, and poltergeists, perhaps, were the Modernists of their kind, speaking as they did of trauma and fractured narratives (sudden breakages of objects, sudden eruptions into normality), the banality of modern life (focusing as it does on so many day-to-day objects like tea cups, spoons, plates), the apparent meaninglessness of human life (how all these bizarre breakages, bangs, and crashes ultimately mean nothing, and provide no message), all pointing to something deeply disturbing beneath it all, but unsayable in any other way — like The Waste Land, but written in broken crockery rather than fragments of verse.

Elric: The Stealer of Souls and Stormbringer by Michael Moorcock

Art by Jack Gaughan

I’d been meaning to re-read some Elric for a little while, but a sort of readerly paralysis set in whenever I contemplated actually doing it. Not only were there the standard long-running-series-with-a-messy-publication-history questions of where to start and what order to read the stories in (I went for publication order, as I like to see how the writer develops, rather than the character), but there was the equally important question of where I could pause for breath, because I didn’t want to be reading back-to-back Elric for however long it took me to get through the saga. I don’t think my sanity could stand it.

In the end, I found I could divide the stories up, roughly, into three phases. First, there was the initial run in Science Fantasy magazine, from “The Dreaming City” in June 1961 to “Dead Lord’s Passing” in April 1964. That made for nine stories, collected in The Stealer of Souls (1963) and Stormbringer (1965), that took Elric from his definitive first adventure, where he leads a bunch of sea-reavers in the sacking of his home city of Imrryr, to his (chronologically) last adventure, with the destruction of himself and his entire world. Phase two was made up of the later 60s and 70s stories and novels that went back and filled in gaps in the saga, from the ones anthologised in US sword & sorcery paperbacks such as The Fantastic Swordsmen (1967), and the Flashing Swords (1973) series, through to Elric at the End of Time (1981). Then, in what is increasingly looking like an arbitrary division based around the ones I read early on versus the ones I still haven’t, phase three consists of what I still think of as the “new Elric novels”, beginning with The Fortress of the Pearl (1989), and on till whenever Moorcock finally, definitely, stops writing new Elric stories.

Amra, May 1961, cover by Roy Krenkel

The series began when Ted Carnell asked the then-early-twenties Moorcock to write something in the vein of Conan for his UK Science Fantasy magazine. Moorcock was already interested in what he’d suggested calling “Epic fantasy” (a name he put forward in the Conan fanzine Amra, in May 1961) — to which Fritz Leiber countered with the winning formula, “sword-and-sorcery”.

Elric was conceived as a sort of antithesis to Conan. (In his introduction to the 2008 Del Rey collection, Elric: The Stealer of Souls, Moorcock said of these stories that they were “probably the first ‘interventions’ into the fantasy canon”, i.e., the first conscious attempts to deliberately play against genre conventions.) Where Conan was strong, Elric was weak. Where Conan lopped the heads off sorcerers, Elric was a sorcerer. Most of all, where Conan was a noble savage, and the embodiment of Robert E Howard’s beliefs in the vitality of the barbarian over the decadence of civilisation, Elric was a savage noble, decadent to the core. In my Mewsings on Conan, I put forward the idea that heroes like Howard’s are created to solve a problem: how to thrive in the worlds their creators made for them (and to answer the problems of the era the creator was living in). I thought of Conan as a sort of barbaric hit-back at Freud’s idea that, to live in modern times, people had to repress their savage id-born impulses and live in a state of constant, socialised repression. Conan (and Howard) had different ideas. The question, then, is what sort of a hero is Elric? What sort of a problem was he designed to solve, if any?

Art by Michael Whelan

The first thing to say, though, is that it’s not really a case of Conan being strong, Elric being weak. Elric is physically weak, yes, but he has sorcery — and he has Stormbringer. Stormbringer is the essence of what makes Elric who he is. In his early writing on the character, Moorcock several times says that Stormbringer is a symbol of the physical and mental crutches we rely on, but that seems an inadequate explanation for something so rich in dark meaning. At times, Stormbringer seems like a drug metaphor (Elric’s dependence on it), at others a metaphor for the atom bomb (at one point it’s called “one of the mightiest weapons”). But basically, what it comes down to is pure, naked power. (As I keep saying on this blog, fantasy so often comes down to the theme of power.) Without Stormbringer, Elric is weak, but we’re all weak, really, so in this Elric is just a slightly exaggerated everyman. With Stormbringer, Elric becomes a crazed demon, suddenly able to give in freely to feelings of pitiless vengeance, inhuman cruelty, and the utter selfishness of not just profiting from others’ deaths, but feeding off their souls. Whatever his ideals when he’s not wielding the runeblade, Elric is a monster when he takes it up — to the point of, all too often, becoming so battle-drunk he only stops when he finds he’s skewered one of his allies, if not his closest friend or the woman he loves. Is this a picture of all human beings when they get too much power?

Between-times, Elric is a troubled soul, “a doom-driven adventurer who bore a crooning runeblade that he loathed.” As he confesses to Shaarilla of the Dancing Mist, one of many hapless characters who come asking for his help:

“I should admit that I scream in my sleep sometimes and am often tortured by incommunicable self-loathing.”

Elric, a Melnibonéan, is heir to “ten thousand years of a cruel, brilliant and malicious culture”, and though Moorcock tells us that Melnibonéans aren’t strictly human, Elric is still an everyman. Melniboné’s history of slavery, cruelty, and exotic perversity is just a fantasy exaggeration of our own. (We just didn’t have the dragons, sorcery, and demon-gods to take it that far, but if we had…)

Elric’s melancholic, bitter brooding could be taken, then, as only a slight exaggeration of what (to the young Moorcock, anyway) is the human condition:

“To him, life was chaotic, chance-dominated, unpredictable. It was a trick, an illusion of the mind, to be able to see a pattern to it.”

“I am the eternal skeptic—never sure that my actions are my own, never certain that an ultimate entity is not guiding me.”

“Look at me, Zarozinia—it is Elric, poor white chosen plaything of the Gods of Time—Elric of Melniboné who causes his own gradual and terrible destruction.”

(Despite Moorcock being quite vocal in his dislike of both Tolkien and Lovecraft, I was constantly reminded, throughout this re-read, of both. Pointy-eared, ultra-refined and ancient-cultured Elric, in being the last representative of a fading people, is just like Tolkien’s elves who are departing Middle Earth now their time is over. And something about Elric’s finicky, occasionally self-righteous, occasionally self-humbling, gloomy character is a little like Lovecraft’s — aside from Elric’s love of women, of course.)

Elric as he first appeared on the cover of Science Fantasy, June 1961. Art by Brian Lewis. (From Andrew Darlington’s blog.)

The Elric stories (in this first phase, anyway), are pretty formulaic. Someone comes to Elric asking for help. He warns them not to get involved with him. They insist, and Elric finds something in it for himself, anyway. Then, the adventure underway, the air of creeping doom begins. Usually, at some point, Elric finds himself without his sword, reduced to a helpless weakling. Then he gets his sword back and the rebound launches him into ultra-violence mode, where he shears through metal, flesh, bone and brains, quite often invoking Arioch or some other demon-lord of Chaos for even greater depths of mayhem. Then, when the dust settles, the irony sets in. Whatever it was that was wanted turns out to be worthless, and the price paid for it in human lives too heavy for such a mocking return. Elric bemoans his condition, and the story ends.

Another thing to say about the stories is they have almost no narrative logic. They certainly have very little suspense or dramatic tension. Even when Elric is swordless and helpless in his enemy’s hands, those enemies can always be relied on to fail to deal with him properly — in one case (“The Stealer of Souls”) just letting him go after making him promise not to kill them. When Moorcock introduces a major series character — Moonglum, say, or Zarozinia — Elric just bumps into them, helps them out of a small scrape, then they join him for the rest of the series. There’s no attempt to merge their introduction into the main thrust of the story they’re in, or give them the sort of motive they’d really need to join forces with such a locus of doom. As the series progresses, Moorcock seems to get impatient with the need to move his characters around the world he’s created for them, and brings on magical horses who can just gallop anywhere — over sea, land, chaos, anything. (And, as I said about J K Rowling when opening my Harry Potter re-read, there’s no sense that Moorcock has worked out his “rules” for magic. The only rule for magic in the Elric stories is: the bigger, the weirder, the darker, the nastier, the stranger, the better.) Once the battle with chaos is really underway, Elric’s world increasingly turns into this roiling mass of chaotic stuff spewing out weird enemies for Elric to fight — which, in a sense, is what his world was all along.

James Cawthorn’s cover to the first HB of Stormbringer

What the stories do have, though, is an incredible capacity to deliver startling images, characters, creatures, entities, scenes, even entire worlds. The lack of narrative logic just doesn’t matter, because there’s always another weird, darkly poetic, or doom-ishly symbolic scene to witness. I was surprised to find out, first of all, how many characters, scenes, monsters and demons I remembered vividly (Meerclar of the Cats, Count Smiorgan Baldhead) who, on this re-read, proved to be there only briefly, or, in the case of what I thought were series characters, only for one story (as with Theleb K’aarna and Queen Yishana, though she has a brief return appearance).

Moorcock has this incredibly archetypal imagination — something underlined by how his characters prove to be, in the long run, avatars of archetypal forms such as the Eternal Champion, or the City of Tanelorn, which (if I remember rightly) has some sort of presence in every one of Moorcock’s multiversal worlds.

And this may be part of what made the Elric stories so successful. They make no sense, but they’re full of weird wonders. They’re so psychedelic, and arrived just in time for the countercultural 60s to kick off.

Art by Jack Gaughan

So what is the hero, Elric, doing, what problem is he solving? I don’t think, in the end, he’s like Conan in that sense. Elric doesn’t solve any problems, not by offering a viable counter-idea, anyway. He’s there to represent a state of mind, to bemoan his existential condition, to question the gods — to question if there are gods — to question fate — to question if there is a fate — and then to unleash insane levels of chaotic violence to wipe everything clean, as some ultimate expression of dissatisfaction with the whole setup. Only, with no sense that this is the end, merely a pause before it all starts again.

In a 1963 article, Moorcock called the Elric stories “sword-and-philosophy” tales, rather than sword-and-sorcery, but is this true? Yes, Moorcock presents us with what seems like an advance on the traditional good-versus-evil idea, with his eternal conflict between Law and Chaos — though he adds other forces, like the Balance, Fate, and Nature, too, which seem to be able to override Law and Chaos, or at least meet them with equal power. But in a sense the terms used don’t matter. What there is is conflict, raging above our human heads, and of its true nature, we cannot know:

“Who can know why the Cosmic Balance exists, why Fate exists and the Lords of the Higher Worlds? Why there must always be a champion to fight such battles? There seems to be an infinity of space and time and possibilities. There may be an infinite number of beings, one above the other, who see the final purpose, though, in infinity, there can be no final purpose. Perhaps all is cyclic and this same event will occur again and again until the universe is run down and fades away as the world we knew has faded. Meaning, Elric? Do not seek that, for madness lies in such a course.”

Moorcock, happy as Elric… NOT! (Image from The Stormbringer Fandom Page.)

Is Elric, then, a sort of Sisyphus, wiping out the whole confusing, doom-laden, mocking malarky — ending the conflict through the overriding power of his Black Blade — only to find it coming back, time and time again? Moorcock says he’d been reading the French existentialists around the time of writing the Elric stories, and to Camus’s idea that we must imagine Sisyphus to be happy, Moorcock might be saying, “Yeah, but just wait till you put a demonic runeblade in his hands, you’ll find out how happy he is.”

Elric, I think, isn’t (like Conan) the embodiment of a solution to the world’s problems. He’s more a protest against them. He’s an existential Everyman, and his lack of a viable worldview, his eternal search for ever-elusive peace (in Tanelorn, in the arms of Zarozinia, or in a sardonic acceptance of his doomed-laden fate) in a roiling world of turmoil, conflict, and uncertainty, is part of the picture. His only “solution” is to lash out at it all and silence the turmoil (only ever temporarily) with one screeching slash of a soul-sucking demon sword:

“The gods experiment, the Cosmic Balance guides the destiny of the Earth, men struggle and credit the gods with knowing why they struggle—but do the gods know?”

No, Elric, they don’t. But keep on slashing, all the same.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J K Rowling, Jack Thorne & Jack Tiffany

Is Harry Potter and the Cursed Child an essential part of the series? A long (two-part) play that premiered on 30th July 2016, it’s written by Jack Thorne, but based on a story by J K Rowling, Jack Thorne and director John Tiffany. I think they were trying to fulfil a number of expectations. First of all, it had to be a night out for Harry Potter fans, a sort of theatrical Harry Potter experience, offering up all your favourite characters, places, and even key scenes from the novels. Secondly, it would have to let us know a little of what happened next with the main characters. Thirdly, it would have to give us a new story that felt, somehow, equal in weight to the seven book series that spawned it, yet could be contained within a pair of plays watchable in a single day.

And I think if you view it this way, they did a pretty good job considering the heavy constraints. By a combination of dreams, talking portraits, time-travel (the plot revolves around the misuse of a time-turner, though one that’s far more powerful than the one Hermione used to attend so many lessons in The Prisoner of Azkaban) leading to alternate timelines, the play gives us scenes from the life of both the grown-up Harry Potter (its first scene is a restaging of the last chapter in Deathly Hallows) and the child Harry Potter, plus appearances from Dumbledore, Voldemort, Hagrid, Harry’s parents, Harry’s children, Severus Snape, Ron and Hermione and their children.

Music (by Imogen Heap) CD release

The main story is centred on Harry’s youngest son, Albus. As we meet him he’s weighed under by the pressure of having such a famous father — who defeated Voldemort and saved the wizarding world, no less — which results in his own attempts at magic being rather feeble. In addition, the first and only friend he makes on the train to Hogwarts is Scorpius Malfoy, son of his father’s schoolboy enemy Draco, and Scorpius is under his own sort of cloud, as rumours have begun to circulate he isn’t Draco’s, but Voldemort’s son. Albus finds himself sorted into Slytherin, and feels both the burden of letting his father down, and the rebelliousness of breaking free from his father’s past. Then, overhearing Amos Diggory’s plea to Harry one night to use a time-turner the Ministry has recently recovered (all the others were destroyed in Order of the Phoenix) to save the life of his son Cedric, Albus (encouraged by Amos’s niece Delphine) decides to steal it and, with Scorpius’s help, do what his father is refusing to do: go back in time to the Triwizard Tournament and save Amos’s boy. Things, of course, go wrong, and the pair find themselves caught in a number of alternate timelines, in one of which Voldemort has won.

There’s a thematic link with the novels. In the books, there was a lot about how memories and stories of the past can be changed or misrepresented, and the effect that can have on enabling evil on its way to power. Here, we get the past being actually changed, with often disastrous consequences (including the full-on victory of evil). But also we get the way children can struggle to be perceived as individuals thanks to their parents’ overshadowing reputations. And that’s the main thing this play is about, the relationship between children and parents, which is something the books (that so much focused on orphans like Harry and Tom Riddle, people who disowned their families like Sirius Black, or people like Hermione whose parents we never got to see) couldn’t deal with in the same way. Harry’s difficulties with his son he puts down to the fact of his having had no father present in his life, so he doesn’t know how to deal with his son on an emotional level.

Reading the play (I haven’t seen it), I did find some of the dialogue a lot more emotionally self-analytical than the books, as the characters diagnosed their relationship difficulties with one another in a way that smacked a little bit too much of self-help speak.

Theatrical poster

But, the main thing the play is designed for is to be fun. And another thing that reading it rather than seeing it did is to make me wonder how they managed it on stage. The scenes are often very short — more filmic than theatrical, I thought — and jump between locations and times in a way that must be pretty challenging for a theatre’s technical crew. And there’s a lot of magic: transformations, levitations, disarming and binding spells, and so on, which I can only guess must be a large part of the fun of going to see this play, to find out how they put these things on live.

Inevitably, fans have argued about whether Cursed Child is “canon” or not. The way it threatens to fiddle with major events in the book-series’ past (which the possibility of time-travel of course raises) does, perhaps, make it feel as though it’s treading on the series’ past a little too much. (Leading to the inevitable scene where some characters have an opportunity to prevent the terrible events that sparked it all off, and the writers have to give them a reason not to do it.) And the grown-up versions of the main characters can only, really, act as jokey versions of the children we got to know thanks to the books. (This may be true of adults generally, though.)

Overall, I think it’s best to see Cursed Child as a bit of fun added to the series, a sort of theatrical “Harry Potter’s Greatest Hits”, with some what-happened-next thrown in, rather than an essential continuation. Personally, I’d be happy to see a more comedic take on the day-to-day lives of adult Harry, Ron, and Hermione, without their having to save the world from ultimate evil, but I can’t imagine that happening — not for a while, anyway.