It's best to avoid reading The Haunting of Alma Fielding before bed. Kate Summerscale's atmospheric and insightful investigation based on an actual suburban haunting in 1930s London dives headfirst into the disturbing connection between the supernatural and the subconscious. In particular, this spooky historical tale examines how loss, trauma, heartache and even boredom can manifest as "poltergeists" that terrorize the afflicted in shocking and sometimes violent ways. The narrative follows Hungarian ghost hunter and reporter Nandor Fodor as he checks out the case of Alma Fielding, a 34-year-old housewife whose family is being terrorized by an aggressive spectral being that throws glasses against the wall, overturns furniture and even causes bugs and reptiles to materialize at seemingly impossible times.
Summerscale's in-depth look at Fodor's journey from spiritualist to skeptic and the origin of Alma's otherworldly oddness is underscored by the trusting relationship that develops between the two. Alma's apparitions also heighten Fodor's belief that ghosts are a type of "spectral automaton... living on life borrowed from human wrecks." During one investigation of a particularly miserable couple, he observes, "The ghost had been used as a distancing element, a sort of tranquilizer, which helped hold the family together without bringing their true frustrations into the open." After spending a significant amount of time with Alma and her family, Fodor learns more about her devastating experiences with isolation, chronic illness, grief and regret in her cold and loveless marriage. Given these challenges, Alma seems almost ingenious for finding a way to escape her largely gender-based confines. --Angela Lutz, freelance reviewer