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.

The Centaur by Algernon Blackwood

Algernon Blackwood’s The Centaur (1911) begins in “the year of Halley’s comet” — 1910 — with Terence O’Malley aboard a coastal steamer heading for the Levant and the Black Sea. O’Malley is an outsider, out of joint with his age:

“Not my century! … why, it’s not even my world! And I loathe, loathe the spirit of today with its cheap-jack inventions, and smother of sham universal culture, its murderous superfluities and sordid vulgarity, without enough real sense of beauty left to see that a daisy is nearer heaven than an airship—”

But his outsiderism is not of the dark, existential Colin Wilson kind. O’Malley is an outsider because, as the ship’s medic Dr Stahl tells him, he has “retained an almost unbelievable simplicity of heart—an innocence singularly undefiled—a sort of primal, spontaneous innocence that has kept you clean and open”. O’Malley finds refuge in Nature, and has managed to make a living writing travel articles about his wanderings, but still feels the need for a greater sense of belonging to Nature, both more personal and more spiritual:

“He had always ‘dreamed’ the Earth alive, a mothering organism to humanity; and himself, via his love of Nature, in some sweet close relation to her that other men had forgotten or ignored.”

And on board the ship he finds it, or at least the first hint it’s possible. Two of his fellow passengers, a big, quiet man he thinks of as “the Russian”, and a young boy in the Russian’s charge, attract his attention in an odd way: “They appeared so much bigger than they actually were”, yet when he focuses on them, he can’t see what creates this impression. He realises it’s a mental image of their inner natures, somehow communicating to his eyes (the other passengers mostly ignore them). They seem to feel a kinship with O’Malley, too, and he comes to realise, as he spends time with them, that they are no ordinary people, but “cosmic beings”, “strayed down among men in a form outwardly human”. Not aliens, but:

“…a direct expression of cosmic life. A little bit, a fragment, of the Soul of the World, and in that sense a survival—a survival of her youth.”

Dr Stahl has also noticed something about these two, and notes O’Malley’s interest in them. They are, he tells the Irishman, beings whose nature is similar to O’Malley’s own, “only developed, enormously developed… whose influence acting upon you at close quarters could not fail to arouse the latent mind-storms… always brewing in you just below the horizon.”

Stahl at first encourages O’Malley to interact with them, but almost immediately steps in with warnings about getting too close. O’Malley himself feels the tug of entering these two mysterious beings’ world, and thus losing his worldly self, though he soon realises that the “loss of personality” he instinctively fears would be “merely an extinction of some phantasmal illusion of self into the only true life”. Stahl urges him not to submit to the temptation of letting go of this world entirely, urging O’Malley to remember the watchwords of “Humanity and Civilisation”, not realising how little those words mean to him.

Blackwood wanted his friend Walford Graham Robertson to illustrate the novel. In the end, only this endpaper illustration appeared.

Stahl and the Russian are, in effect, the angel and devil on O’Malley’s shoulders, each urging him in an opposite direction. O’Malley already feels the attraction to the Russian’s world of greater unity with the Soul of the Earth; it’s Stahl who has to use persuasion to make him stay in our world. Stahl wants to study O’Malley, sure he’ll understand something about the man’s strangely innocent power. Stahl serves a second function, too, as one of Blackwood’s theorisers, using the quasi-scientific language of early 20th century spiritualism — “fluid” or “etheric” selves, and so on — as well as his own theories of an “Urmensch” to explain in technical detail the ideas behind this novel:

“Beings,” the doctor corrected him, “not men. The prefix Ur-, moreover, I use in a deeper sense than is usually attached to it as in Urwald, Urwelt, and the like. An Urmensch in the world today must suggest a survival of an almost incredible kind—a kind, too, utterly inadmissible and inexplicable to the materialist perhaps—”

Stahl brings in the philosophy of Gustav Fechner — William James’s lecture on him, later published in A Pluralistic Universe (1909), is explicitly cited — who believed that the Earth had a collective consciousness, a sum total of all her inhabitants’, plus something extra of her own. For eyes, she has our eyes; for ears, she has our ears. And from her come not only life forms such as ourselves, but “the gods and fairies of olden time”, as “emanations of her mighty central soul”. (And Earth in turn is a “Mood in the Consciousness of the Universe, [and] that Universe again was mothered by another vaster one … and the total that included them all was not the gods—but God.”)

The rest of the novel chronicles O’Malley’s journey deeper into union with the collective consciousness of the Earth, and then his return to civilisation, to teach what he has learned, in “a crusade that should preach peace and happiness to every living creature” — though one that is, of course, doomed to failure, as are all such dreamers’ crusades.

Bocklin’s “Centaurs” (1873) is mentioned in the novel

The Centaur was, according to Mike Ashley’s biography Starlight Man, one of Blackwood’s favourite among his own novels, and “closest to his own personal outlook”. It was difficult for Blackwood to finish (he broke off halfway to write another novel, Julius LaVallon), as he wrote to a friend:

“The theme, of course, is far beyond my powers, but it flames in me with such pain that I MUST get it out as best I can.”

Blackwood’s sympathies in The Centaur are clearly with O’Malley and the Russian. While he uses Dr Stahl as a mouthpiece to explain the theory he’s propounding, he also uses him as an externalisation of that part of O’Malley that can’t quite let go of “Humanity and Civilisation”, and so is held back from complete union with that massive-souled collective consciousness, Nature.

The novel reads, in a way, like an expanded version of one of my favourite Blackwood stories, “The Touch of Pan” (1917), whose narrator is led into the woods by the simple-souled nature-loving daughter of rich parents, there to find themselves transformed before Pan. The girl in that story is called an “idiot” by her parents for her refusal to be interested in their social world. In The Centaur, Blackwood at one point mentions “Sally Beauchamp No. 4” among other examples of the mysteries of human consciousness, this being the fourth personality of a multiple-personality patient studied by Morton Prince and detailed in his The Dissociation of Personality (1906). This fourth personality of “Sally Beauchamp” was also termed “the idiot” for her unawareness of details of Sally’s everyday life. Blackwood seems to take this idea of multiple personalities, and other aspects of what would be now thought of as mental illness, as hints of the sort of “Extensions of Human Faculty” that so fascinated him.

In some ways the novel shares something with Machen’s The Hill of Dreams, both being about the inner life of an imaginative and unworldly young man that touches on the supernatural, and who ultimately comes to a sad end — unworldliness crushed by the unrelenting worldliness of the world. Mythical creatures being emanations of a collective consciousness also make me think of the mythagos as emanations of humanity’s collective unconscious in Robert Holdstock’s work. And Blackwood’s novel even has an odd sort of connection with C S Lewis’s Interplanetary Trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, etc.), in that both use the idea that (as Blackwood puts it) “if the heavens really are the home of angels, the heavenly bodies must be those very angels…”

The Centaur strays some way either side of the line between the sort of too-explicit occult technicalities that can spoil Blackwood’s stories for me, and the more successful poetic dreaminess of his shorter tales, like “The Dance of Death” or “The Old Man of Visions” (both from The Dance of Death, which also contains “The Touch of Pan”). His novels are not, really, standard weird fiction fare in the way some of his stories are. In his novels, the qualities that set him apart as a writer of the supernatural are much more evident: his belief in “the Extension of Human Faculty”, and the many strange directions it might take you.

The Haunted Island by E H Visiak

1946 reprint of The Haunted Island from publisher Peter Lunn. Illustratred by Jack Matthews.

Like his 1929 novel of “Mystery and Ecstasy and Strange Horror” Medusa, E H Visiak’s first novel, The Haunted Island (published in 1910), is a sea adventure that turns into weird fiction in its second half. But, although the Encyclopedia of Fantasy says it is “clearly fantasy” (“and engagingly deploys ghosts and magic in a tale of pirates set on a mysterious island”), most, perhaps all, of the fantasy elements are eventually explained in non-supernatural terms. Even then, the atmosphere of weirdness and menace remains, so you feel that you have been in the presence of something that at least hints at extra-human forces.

The narrator is young Francis Clayton, whose older brother Dick heads a mutiny among the crew of one of the King’s ships (this is 1668) so they can head off in search of a rumoured treasure of incredible wealth on a distant (but haunted) island. Finding himself caught up in the action, Francis insists on staying with his brother as the ship evades its pursuers and they set out on their quest.

On the way, among other mostly episodic adventures, they pick up two sailors adrift in a boat, an Englishman and a “Mosquito Indian”. The Englishman tells of a remote island presided over by the mad alchemist Doctor Copicus, and Francis realises this is the same island as his brother is trying to find.

When they eventually arrive at the island, they are greeted by a spectre of gigantic size. The petrified crew want to flee, but by this point the ship is in the grip of inescapable water currents, and they’re drawn in to the island to become captives of the mad alchemist.

Illustration from the first edition, by N W Physick (presumably Visiak’s cousin, Nino William Physick)

Doctor Copicus, it turns out, is totally focused on revenging himself on his homeland (England) for exiling him. To this end, he is seeking to create a “combustible”, “an explosive searching as lightning, [so] mighty that blasting gunpowder would be, compared to it, but a puny breath”. He seems able to command others through sheer force of will, and rules the seamen and pirates who work for him with no tolerance at all for the slightest mistake — when his loyal secretary Ambrose forgets to bring him the sulphur he asked for, Copicus orders his execution in twenty days (during which time Ambrose continues to work for him as faithfully as ever).

The island has its own volcano (or “volcan” as Visiak has it, in mock-17th century prose), and this is, in a way, an image of the burning desire for revenge within Copicus’s Satanic breast:

“I grow liker and liker to thee!” said he [Copicus, addressing the volcano], with passion in his shrill voice, “Liker to thy hollow heart! thy hollow, fiery heart! . . . I, too, am a volcan! On fire! On fire! Waiting!“

Because he can read and write Latin, Francis is given the task of copying the Doctor’s manuscripts, but has time enough to explore the island and learn some of its mysteries (including the mechanism behind that giant ghost). The strangest thing he finds there is the “skeleton antic lad”, a bone-thin boy who gibbers alchemical nonsense, and to whose speech Copicus pays great attention. Ambrose hints at what may be the book’s only truly supernatural element:

“The lad is a daemon, or familiar, of the Doctor,” answered Ambrose. “He is, as I may say, super-rational. He hath strange powers. He can see spirits.”

This was the element David Lindsay picked out from his reading of the book, as he says in a letter to Visiak early on in their correspondence, in 1921:

“At first I took you at your word and started reading the ‘Haunted Island’ as an adventure story, but then ends began refusing to fit in, and I saw it must be more than that. Does not the clue lie in that weirdly marvellous ‘skeleton antic lad’?”

To me, the “skeleton antic lad” feels like an image of Copicus’s tortured soul. However much he likes to think himself like the volcano, with its raging fires, destructive power, and “hollow heart”, he is nevertheless a human being, and the human part of him must have all the vulnerability of a child (and a malnourished child at that, as Copicus has not exactly been nurturing his human soul), and may well have been driven babblingly insane by his singleminded need for revenge.

There are a few points of similarity between The Haunted Island and Medusa. Both, for instance, have a character whose hobby is sculpture — Mr Falconer in Medusa, who carves weird figureheads on his model ships, and Copicus’s secretary Ambrose here — which recalls the fact that Visiak himself was the son, grandson, great-grandson, and great-great-grandson, of a line of sculptors. Both books feature a dangerous, piratical character among the crew of the ship the narrator sails on — Moon in Medusa, Ouvery here. (Both recalling Long John Silver.) One strange echo, shared not just with Medusa but the later short story “Medusan Madness”, is a weird-tinged vision the narrator has of a numinous sea landscape, fraught with awe and dread. Here is The Haunted Island’s version:

“I saw a vision of a boundless expanse: the heavens loaden with masses of cloud ebon black, the firmament illumined with a spectral light, and, beneath it all, the deep! That was black as the clouds above, and surging in billows (though without foam) so stupendous, that the tops of them might not be descried, and sweeping together with a shock and tumult such as no man could imagine. But that which held my gaze — yea, and nigh unseated my reason! — was the Thing, whether brute or demon, that seemed to be the sole denizen of the waters, swimming and wallowing there. Merciful God! may I never look upon the like of it again.”

This seems to be an encapsulation of Visiak’s entire cosmic vision, with the “spectral light” of the heavens blocked to us poor mortals by the black, shadow-like clouds of our fallen existence; and then the “surging billows” of the (emotionally and spiritually) turbulent material world, haunted by some unseen but menacing “Thing”— a “Thing” that more recalls the climax of Medusa than the present novel. As Francis reads in Doctor Copicus’s manuscripts:

“For the material universe… is the shadow cast by the spiritual universe… the light whereof proceedeth from the Deity, wherein all live and move and have their being. Wherein, rather, all sleep, or sleeping, dream; or dreaming, fitfully awake.”

The Haunted Island and Medusa are certainly both made from a similar mould. Medusa is the work of a better, and more experienced writer, but The Haunted Island is, in its second half at least, perhaps more conventionally satisfying than Medusa’s sudden descent into really mad weirdness. It certainly deserves to be read alongside Visiak’s later, more well-regarded novel — or on its own, by anyone who loves a 17th century Gothic-piratic sea-adventure.