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 to 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.


We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Cover by Thomas Ott

Shirley Jackson’s final novel (published in 1962) begins six years after an infamous poisoning case in rural Vermont. One night, all but three members of the wealthy Blackwood family were killed when they finished their evening meal with a dessert of blackberries sprinkled with sugar — and, it turned out, arsenic. Of the three who survived, twelve-year-old Mary Katherine (“Merricat”) had been sent, that evening, to bed without any supper (we never learn what for, only that she “was always in disgrace… a wicked, disobedient child”); 22-year-old Constance prepared the meal, but was known to never take sugar on her blackberries; and old Uncle Julian was poisoned but survived, though no longer with all his wits intact. Constance was put on trial, but with insufficient evidence that she intended to poison her family (which included her parents, Uncle Julian’s wife, and her ten-year-old brother Thomas), was acquitted. Shortly after that, following an unspecified incident in the local village, she has never since left the Blackwood family home and its grounds.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is narrated by Merricat, who, though now eighteen, seems stuck in her six-years-prior self. She’s still the irresponsible, petulant child she was back then, spending her days in imaginative games, and burying significant items (a box of silver dollars, a cache of blue marbles) about the grounds as magical protections. She has strict taboos — she can’t handle food, she can’t enter Uncle Julian’s room — which make her seem stuck in the initiation stage of adolescence (some traditional societies’ initiations involve taboos, such as not touching the ground, or not speaking, for a time). She, though, is the only member of the family who can leave the house and its grounds, and makes twice-weekly visits to the village to buy food, during which she’s only too aware of the stares and comments of the townsfolk, and the way children chant mocking rhymes as she passes:

Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?
Oh no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me.
Merricat, said Connie, would you like to go to sleep?
Down in the boneyard ten feet deep!

Popular Library cover, by William Teason

It’s obvious the Blackwood family are caught in a stasis. Uncle Julian talks of nothing but the poisoning, about which he’s compiling copious notes to write a history of that night. Constance devotes herself entirely to feeding and caring for the other two, and thinks of nothing beyond her limited domestic bounds. Merricat, an eternal twelve-year-old, is allowed to wander and play, indulging in fantasies of living on the moon. The Blackwood sisters are complimentary opposites, but share an unspoken understanding as though they’re the two halves of a single soul. Constance, for instance, is over-responsible, even blaming herself for Merricat’s misbehaviours — but never telling Merricat off or punishing her. (The last time Merricat was punished was when she was sent to bed without any supper on the night of the poisoning.) Merricat, on the other hand, is wilful and irresponsible in her moods. If she’s angry, she might deliberately shatter a jug or a mirror, and Constance just accepts this as a thing that had to happen and cleans up after her. Constance is utterly domestic, and blanks out every other part of life; Merricat is imaginative, witchy (she has a cat and casts spells), and is mostly lost in daydreams, existing in a world charged with magical forces, a little like the girl in Machen’s “The White People” or Du Maurier’s “The Pool”.

I wrote before about Jackson’s extreme ambivalence about the idea of home — how in her fiction it’s both a longed-for refuge from the world and a potential trap or prison — and in We Have Always Lived in the Castle that extends to other aspects of the home, with both family and food highly charged sources of nurture on the one hand, and suppression and control on the other.

1st edition cover, art by Paul Bacon

Food is particularly important in the novel, both as a symbol of everyday familial love, and of the consequences of love’s withdrawal or repression. Constance cooks for her charges, always providing exactly what they want, and always thinking of the next pie or plate of cookies she might bake; but it was through food — the poisoned sugar — that the rest of the family was killed. On that night, Merricat was sent to her room without food, a withdrawal of familial love (though she knew her sister would come up later with a tray — the two had a close connection even then). The one thing that takes Merricat out of the house and into the village — and so, the one way in which the family still relates to society — is to buy food. But she also has a taboo against eating in front of strangers — she will always buy a coffee at a certain café in the village, but if another customer enters, she leaves without drinking it — and doesn’t allow herself to touch food or prepare it. (And near the end of the novel, after the villagers have spent their violent antipathy towards the Blackwoods, that relationship turns to contrition, which is again expressed through food — the pies and other supplies left on the Blackwood porch.)

The most potent food symbol in the book is in the Blackwood cellar. Generations of Blackwood women have made jars of preserves, and they’re all stored there, in the dark, underground. These preserves, Constance says, have probably turned bad or even poisonous with age, like a battery of stored-up yet unused or suppressed-and-going-sour love, all the untapped potentials of generations of women. Family is, in the novel, freighted with an almost palpable historical weight, its traditions acting both as an anchor of solidity and a repressive burden:

“…as soon as a new Blackwood wife moved in, a place was found for her belongings, and so our house was built up with layers of Blackwood property weighting it, and keeping it steady against the world.”

To me, it feels as though the poisoning that occurred was waiting to happen, an upsurge from all that buried, preserved food-going-poisonous in the cellar, and so much locked-away and unspent, unexpressed familial love.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle reminds me of other stories of insular-and-gone-strange families, including 1970’s Mumsy, Sonny, Nanny, & Girly (which I mewsed on back in 2010), or the 2009 film Dogtooth, right back to Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher” and so many Gothic tales before that. The one essential element in all these stories is that, at some point, someone comes along to upset the family’s stasis, some outsider or agent of change.

Into this novel comes cousin Charles, whose father (the Blackwood sisters’ non-Julian uncle) has recently died, leaving him nothing. Charles knows the Blackwoods have money, and though we can’t be sure this is his motive for visiting, it’s certainly what our narrator Merricat suspects. Charles ensconces himself in the father’s room, starts wearing the father’s watch and sitting at the head of the dining room table. He clearly finds Uncle Julian’s messy way of eating disgusting (food and control, again), and feels the old man should be made to shut up about the only subject he ever talks about, the poisoning. Charles also thinks Merricat’s wildness needs to be tamed. Perhaps she should be sent away again, as she was after the poisoning (to an orphanage, because Charles’s father refused to take her in). Constance, so domestic and responsible, starts to be taken in by Charles’s arguments, but Merricat, of course, is not.

In both of the Jackson novels I’ve read — this one and The Haunting of Hill House — the ambivalence about home, how it can be both a refuge and a trap, a place to belong and a place to be imprisoned in, is never resolved, only transformed and intensified until it becomes a weird mix of fairy-tale fulfilment and hellish damnation. Eleanor, in The Haunting of Hill House, wants nothing more than a home she can belong to, but when she first sees Hill House she instantly knows it’s a nightmare. Nevertheless, she finds a home there, perhaps because she can find no other home, being the person she is (or feels she is). We Have Always Lived in the Castle begins with a family in self-protective retreat, whose home is both a castle-like defence against the world, and the stultifying bounds of a self-imposed prison. By the end, things have changed, but only by becoming more intensely the same. It’s a weirdly deranged ending that somehow makes total and irreversible retreat into a kind of fairy-tale fulfilment. The Blackwood sisters become, in the end, even more removed from reality, a final, fatal step away from Constance’s domestic sensibleness and into Merricat’s moon-mindedness. They become a fairy tale to scare local kids with — and scare them, of course, by saying they’ll eat them. Food again.


The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

The opening paragraph of Shirley Jackson’s haunted house novel is so good, everyone who writes about the book is statutorily obliged to quote it:

“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”

It’s that “not sane” that, for me, delivers the killer blow. Hill House isn’t insane. Insane is a technical term, a doctor’s diagnosis — a dismissal, and a pretence at understanding. “Not sane”, though, sounds like it has found a whole new way of being. It sounds like something we don’t know, and never can.

This is one of the great strengths of Shirley Jackson’s novel. After the pioneering days of the 1890s greats which found new ways to talk about the darkness that lurks in the human psyche — Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde, Dorian Gray, The Turn of the Screw, Dracula — the ghost story was effectively neutered by Freud and other psychoanalysts, who taxonomised and rubber-stamped all those areas of inner darkness. They were “understood”. What Shirley Jackson does in The Haunting of Hill House is write a ghost story that, far from being disempowered by the ideas of Freud and co., gains new power because of them, then goes on to transcend them. “No,” it seems to say, “you don’t understand.”

The Haunting of Hill House coverHill House begins with Dr John Montague, inspired by “the intrepid nineteenth-century ghost hunters”, deciding to carry out a proper scientific investigation of a genuinely haunted house. Having selected Hill House as his subject, he invites as many people with even the slightest hint of psychic ability as he can find to join him in a three-month stay. Two turn up — timid Eleanor Vance and sophisticated Theodora (so individualistic she only needs a first name) — and, together with Luke Sanderson, a representative from the owning family (who don’t live at the house), the quartet take up residence towards the end of June 1956.

Eleanor is only recently free of 11 years caring for her mother, a period of “small guilts and small reproaches, constant weariness and unending despair.” Reduced, now, to sleeping in a cot in the baby’s room at her married sister’s — who, along with her husband, talk about Eleanor in front of her as though she wasn’t there, and make decisions for her as though she were a child — when she receives Dr Montague’s invitation, she accepts because, at that point, she “would have gone anywhere”. She’s 32 years old and “Nothing of the least importance has ever belonged to me”. On the drive to Hill House, she fantasises about how this is the first day of the sort of life everybody else has been enjoying all this time and which she, at last, is now going to have too. “Journeys end in lovers meeting,” she keeps telling herself. And then she sees the house where she is to stay:

“The house was vile. She shivered and thought, the words coming freely into her mind, Hill House is vile, it is diseased; get away from here at once.”

But she doesn’t get away. She has no other chance at life but this.

The genius of Jackson’s novel comes from how the hauntings, when they begin, fit so perfectly with Eleanor’s fragile psyche. As an adolescent, shortly after the disappearance of her father, Eleanor seems to have produced a brief bout of poltergeist activity, hence her invitation to Dr Montague’s ghost-hunting party. So, when the increasingly insistent phenomena of Hill House begin to present themselves, it’s possible to see them as coming from Eleanor’s own pent-up frustrations, unconscious needs and self-persecutions. The night-time knocking at doors could be a reminder of Eleanor’s mother’s death (she later admits she heard her mother knocking on her bedroom wall, but refused to go to her); the chalk message that appears on a wall — “HELP ELEANOR COME HOME” — could be Eleanor’s need to make herself the long-denied centre of attention in this new circle of friends; the next message (in blood, on Theodora’s door) and the attack on Theodora’s clothes could be Eleanor’s unconscious aggression towards Theodora for suggesting Eleanor wrote that first message herself, as well as being a ploy to make Theo move into her own room, to own this new friend all the more.

Equally, these phenomena could be read as the intensely malignant, abominably wise Hill House manipulating Eleanor in the subtlest of ways. By naming Eleanor in that first message, it isolates her from the others, and starts to make her realise that the only true friend she has is the house itself. By attacking Theodora’s room and forcing Theo to wear Eleanor’s clothes, the house could be playing with Eleanor’s fragile sense of identity, making her seem less and less needed as she sees how Theo continues to shine, even in Nell’s drab clothes. Eleanor begins increasingly to haunt the others, listening unseen to their conversations, hungry to hear herself mentioned (which she never is). She’s halfway to being a ghost already.

That initial message — “HELP ELEANOR COME HOME” — is itself wonderfully ambiguous. Is this a cry from Eleanor’s dead mother’s spirit, warning her away from Hill House, or is it a cry from the house itself, inviting Eleanor to become a fuller part of it? What does “COMING HOME” mean? Leaving Hill House, or being part of it forever?

Jackson’s characters — and Jackson herself — are part of a generation that would have grown up with the ideas of Freud, have become cynically used to questioning their own motives and reading their unconscious slips as the symptoms of a Freudian psyche, chock full of childhood anxieties, veiled narcissisms, hostilities and frustrations. The nonsensical, self-conscious fantasising of the main trio’s banter sounds simultaneously like an attempt to not admit how scared they are, while also acting as the perfect word-association-style carrier for letting out unconscious fantasies and frustrations, for fencing with one another and judging one another without having to admit that’s what they’re doing. In the end, it’s nothing but nonsensical babbling compared to the vast unknowability of un-sane Hill House.

At the book’s conclusion, two details from that superlative first paragraph magnify the horror, despite the ambiguity over whether it’s Eleanor’s troubled psyche playing out its most dangerous impulses, or Hill House as a real and active supernatural force.

The first is the idea that what drove Hill House “not sane” are “conditions of absolute reality”. What’s going on here is not contact with a removed and abstract netherworld, but something far more real than our everyday lives, too real to be faced. At one point, Dr Montague says: “I think we are only afraid of ourselves,” to which Luke says, “No… of seeing ourselves clearly and without disguise.” Is this, then, what happens to Eleanor? Hill House’s “masterpiece of architectural misdirection” so perfectly mirrors her own disordered psyche that it brings it out for her to see, in all its nasty, infantile purity? And, faced with this horrific but unavoidable self-judgement, she has only one course open to her.

Then there’s that phrase: “whatever walked there, walked alone.” It’s repeated at the end of the novel, and it seems to add a further twist to Eleanor’s inevitable fate. Because we know, by then, that Eleanor has come to feel that joining with Hill House might be joining with “HOME”, might be a kind of belonging, even if it is of a twisted kind. But that final phrase — “whatever walked there, walked alone” — implies that she never achieves any sort of belonging. Perhaps she dies completely, victim of a Hill House that continues to exist alone in its isolated malignancy; perhaps she finds herself a ghost in Hill House, but just as isolated as before; worse, perhaps even in the afterlife Hill House continues to play its psychological games with her, keeping her unbalanced, isolated, afraid; or perhaps it absorbs Eleanor into itself, overpowering what little precious individuality she once had.

Jackson’s novel — like Aickman’s “Strange Stories”, which belong to the same era — escaped the fate of early 20th century ghost stories by confronting and transcending the new psychoanalytical thinking about the darkness that lurks within. By doing so, Jackson regained, for the supernatural tale, the power to depict that inner darkness with so much more force than any mere technical jargon ever could. Freudian terminology, overused and “understood”, quickly ceases to capture the very powerful, and highly dramatic reality of what lurks within the depths of the human psyche. In The Haunting of Hill House, Jackson restores the ghost story’s power to terrify, overwhelm and overpower; she restores its ambiguity and deceptiveness, the way it can play with us and prove that, far from us “knowing” it, it in fact knows us — and all our weaknesses — which it can then proceed to prey on mercilessly.