This is the tale of Nandor Fodor, a paranormal investigator in 1930s Britain, and Alma Fielding, a housewife under poltergeist attack. As tensions mount throughout Europe on the cusp of WWII, ghosts and paranormal occurrences provide an otherworldly outlet for the chaos and lack of control that people feel. Fodor has debunked too many mediums and spiritualists, and is desperate to have a “true” case to work with, to show that he is a proper investigator. Fielding’s case appears genuine, and if faked, is highly elaborate and carefully orchestrated. As Fodor investigates and comes to know Fielding better, he begins to suspect that her case – whether truly paranormal or entirely under her control – is rooted in personal trauma. Summerscale weaves together wartime tension, spiritualism, and early psychology in the story of these two people whose lives were closely intertwined.
I’m in two minds about this book. On the one hand, I found the subject fascinating. Poltergeist hauntings are one of the most bizarre forms of ghost-phenomena, because they are so incredibly complex to pull off if faked. (Let me state up front that I don’t necessarily believe that any poltergeist activity is “real.” But the things that happen in poltergeist cases are so beyond my understanding that I can’t comprehend how they’re being pulled off. I feel the same way about really good magic shows as well, though.) I recently listened to the BBC multi-part podcast on the Battersea Poltergeist, and again just found it fascinating and inexplicable. Alma Fielding’s poltergeist – at least at the beginning – was much the same. Even later, when Fodor had subjected her to so much scrutiny and figured out 90% of how she was creating the phenomena around her, there were still things he couldn’t explain.
At that point, there’s a huge turn toward the psychological. Psychology was in its infancy back then, heavily influenced by Freud’s thoughts and ideas. However, despite this, there was some really interesting work being done on early childhood trauma, particularly sexual trauma, and how that affected the personality. Many of the ideas that certain psychologists put forth at the time – laying the groundwork for things we accept today, like Dissociative Identity Disorder and repressed memories – were laughed at and dismissed. Poltergeist activity is often associated with psychological distress – early traumas, lack of power/control, a manifested voice of a person (often adolescent) who has no other way of expressing their out-of-control feelings. Fodor came to believe that this repression and silencing of a person’s feelings combined with a lack of power or control could give birth to psychic phenomena via poltergeist – or, if not psychic phenomena, perhaps “faked” phenomena as the subconscious attempt to express what the conscious was not allowed to say.
All that was fascinating. I loved it. The part I didn’t love…that’s more complicated. Honestly, I can’t tell if the book was really, really dry, turning what should have been a great subject into one that kept putting me a sleep, or if the audiobook was doing that. The audio is read by David Morrissey. I’ve never listened to him as a narrator before, and I was not impressed. He has a quiet, whispery kind of voice that tended to make me feel very sleepy. He might have been fine to read a different kind of book – actually, I think his voice would have been great for certain kinds of dark fairy tales – but this one didn’t work for me. I couldn’t tell if I had to keep stopping the book to listen to other things because of him making me sleepy/bored, or if the book itself just droned on in places. The thing is, I listened to another book by Summerscale a few years ago, The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, and that one was great! She did much the same thing there – weaving together two stories set on a cultural background that played a big part in those stories – and it was exactly the kind of nonfiction that I love. That makes me lean toward the “I just didn’t like the audio version” side of things. A narrator can make or break a book, and I have a feeling this one kinda broke things for me. Still a good book, but…maybe not as good as it could have been.