In Elizabeth Bowen’s story The Demon Lover, set in London during the blitz, a middle-aged married woman climbs into a taxi. Her relief is palpable. She wants only to escape, to return as quickly as possible to the safety of the country. But then … horror. On seeing her driver’s face, she realises that he is her dead fiance, lost on the western front two decades before. The woman screams, and goes on doing so. As the cab pulls away, “accelerating without mercy”, she beats her gloved hands frantically on its windows.
“Our irrational, darker selves,” Bowen wrote, “demand familiars.” It’s in this world that Kate Summerscale’s The Haunting of Alma Fielding is set, the action taking place over a period of four months in 1938, in Thornton Heath, south London, and in a building inhabited by the International Institute for Psychical Research, behind Harrods in Knightsbridge. In the former, we find Alma Fielding, who lives with her husband, son and a lodger, and is being violently assailed by flying hairbrushes, splintering china, and toppling furniture. In the latter, we meet Nandor Fodor, a Hungarian-born journalist turned psychic investigator who is increasingly desperate to prove the existence of a spirit world – his living depends on it – even as he is growing ever more convinced that some manifestations, if not all, are the products of mental breakdown, repression, and abiding fear.
Naturally, the reader assumes Mrs Fielding is a fraud: that the beetles and bullfinches she is able to materialise even in “laboratory” conditions have somehow been secreted about her person; there were, after all, so many fakes around (some of the sheet-wearing, table-rattling phoneys Summerscale describes elsewhere are comical in their ineptitude) – and he or she is right to do so. However, the twist here comes in the form of Fodor’s conviction that while Alma wants to please her investigators, and finds the game thrilling, other things are going on beneath the surface.
First of all, there’s the question of power. Like Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace, another of Summerscale’s books, The Haunting of Alma Fielding is concerned with the limited freedom available to a woman of a certain class, at a certain time. When the second world war finally arrived, it said “boo!” to all the spooks not only because, as the author suggests, people had more terrifying things to think about. It also set many women free: to work, to have love affairs, to better be themselves.
Then there’s the looming presence of Dr Freud. Influenced by psychoanalysis, Fodor comes to believe that other aspects of Fielding’s state – her night terrors, when she’s stalked by an incubus; her temporary paralyses – are genuine, in the sense that they are almost certainly the result of some previous trauma. Repression often results in the uncanny: the psyche may split and disassociate; a so-called poltergeist may be an external expression of deep internal rage. And herein lies the weight in what, at times, can feel like a pretty flimsy story. We are all of us haunted, I think: inhabited, to the end of our lives, by the painful ghosts of our past.
• The Haunting of Alma Fielding by Kate Summerscale is published by Bloomsbury (£18.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15