Eastern Blocks/Concrete Siberia, by Zupagrafika

I suspect it has been a source of some bemusement to travelling companions that I am as interested in the byways of cities as I am in seeing the sights.  Even as a child in a car I would look down roads we were passing and wonder what was at the other end, what it looked like round the corner.  There is a poignance in fleeting contact with places as one passes through them, knowing life continues in our absence.  When I was in Minsk, I travelled to the end of a random metro line merely to see what was there, and was happy to find myself among suburban blocks of flats and the residents going about their business.

Sometimes I come to grief, for example realising too late the impossibility of a peaceful riverside stroll in St Petersburg because of the urban motorway built alongside, but I feel one gets to know something of the essence of a city better for seeing the parts that tend not to be discussed in tourist brochures.  I had much the same feeling looking through these two books from Zupagrafika (a publisher comprising David Navarro and Martyna Sobecka) which present photographs, taken in the last decade, of housing and public buildings made from precast concrete panel blocks during the Soviet era to address housing shortages and lack of communal facilities.

In Eastern Blocks (2019) the peripheries of six cities are covered: what was East Berlin, Budapest, Kyiv, Moscow, St Petersburg and Warsaw.  A brief general introduction by Christopher Beanland, author of Concrete Concept, outlines ‘the show’ of these ‘ballsy concoctions’ as he terms it, ‘gutsy grandeur meeting the realities of maintenance budgets.’  While during the Cold War this style of architecture was considered in the West to be quintessentially Soviet, he notes that those same countries had their fair share of similar constructions.

Each of the cities has an outline map showing the districts covered, where the buildings photographed are within them. and a paragraph to set the scene, but text is strictly subservient to images.  The photographs can present surprises to the reader expecting rigid uniformity because these basic elements are capable of producing a great deal of variety in design: not all are built in a basic rectangular style, and the Ukrainian examples in particular exhibit curves and decoration far from the utilitarian look eastern European mass housing is assumed to possess.

‘Eastern Blocks’ is a great pun, and these are atmospheric photographs.  However, there are some issues.  For a start, an aesthetic choice was made to photograph in winter, so snow and grey skies are much in evidence.  The result is a reinforcement of stereotypes, bleak estates in which the inhabitants lead equally dispiriting lives (at least the photographs are in colour – not black and white for added drabness).  Surely some could have been taken in other seasons to provide a more rounded view.

Many of the buildings have fallen on hard times, and it would have been instructive to be able to contrast them with architects’ photographs taken shortly after completion to get some idea of the vision as opposed to the outcome.  Sometimes pedestrians are shown, but the majority of the photographs are without people, pushing a sense of abandonment.  The lack of commentary is frustrating: what is their future; are they fit for the 21st century (think Grenfell Tower); what plans, if any, do the cities have to restore them?  The other significant omission is the views of the occupants about living in these blocks.  We gaze at the structures, but there is no dialogue with those who call them home.

Several photographs show buildings erected after the fall of the Soviet Union, which does indicate a continuity in housing policy, but the title suggests the editors’ intention was to restrict the book to pre-1992 structures.  It is not as if they were stuck for content as there would have been many earlier examples they could have included.  And why this particular selection of cities?  The Zupagrafika duo are responsible for the chapters on Berlin, Kyiv and Warsaw, and hired photographers to shoot Moscow, St Petersburg and Budapest.  They could have included other cities by using local talent, but no rationale is given for showing these cities and not say Prague or Bucharest.

If the omnipresence of snow in Eastern Blocks is problematic, it is less so in Zupagrafika’s follow-up, Concrete Siberia (2020), where it is rather to be expected.  The format is the same as its predecessor: a brief general introduction, here by Konstantin Budarin discussing the push towards Siberian urbanisation during the Soviet period, then a focus on several cities in that vast region, each accompanied by an outline map showing the locations of the buildings photographed.  As with the first book, it is divided into six chapters, covering Omsk, Norilsk, Krasnoyarsk, Irkutsk, Yakutsk and Novosibirsk.  Also similar to the first volume is the style of the photographs, taken by St Petersburg-based Alexander Veryovkin, which focus on the buildings, mostly residential with some public.  The passers-by are of secondary importance, there to show scale, and are anonymous figures passing through the landscape.

To house large numbers of people in such harsh conditions required substantial investment in housing.  The use of concrete panels, which allowed a high degree of standardisation across the country, was employed to good effect in Siberia, though adapted for local conditions, such as the use of piles in the permafrost to prevent it warming and damaging the buildings through subsidence.  As the relationship between Moscow and regional authorities gradually gave the latter more control, local design in municipal buildings became more common, increasing the variety of styles.  Whatever the design, the comment about maintenance budgets in Eastern Blocks is applicable here too, with some of the buildings in a sorry state.  It must be dispiriting to live in the relentlessly grubby surroundings shown in some of the images.

Again, it is frustrating that there is little contextualisation of these settlements within the history of the strategic uses to which Russian governments have put Siberia, both as a place of confinement for undesirables and of exploitation.  The need to open up the region to tap its resources required a stable population, and Budarin notes that the populations of the cities included in the book doubled in the period from the beginning of the Khrushchev era to the dissolution of the USSR.  But even more than in Eastern Blocks, input from the residents would have been welcome, discussing what it is like to live in these blocks, and what future they see for their children in this inhospitable environment.

While both volumes are beautifully presented and enjoyable to flip through, they are aimed at a general audience, and more information would have enhanced their value as reference books (Eastern Blocks contains a list of architects but Concrete Siberia has no information on the buildings other than the basic picture captions).  At the same time, photography in such cold weather is not easy, so the photographers are to be complimented for turning in such excellent, and evocative, results.  There is substantial interest in the Soviet era, so further volumes from the publisher on the its architectural heritage would be welcome.

American Hauntings, by Robert E Bartholomew and Joe Nickell

Robert E Bartholomew and Joe Nickell’s 2015 American Hauntings: The True Stories behind Hollywood’s Scariest Movies – from The Exorcist to The Conjuring looks at a number of films and a couple of television programmes that claim to be based on true paranormal stories.  These are An American Haunting, The Exorcist, Poltergeist, The Conjuring, The Amityville Horror, Don Decker, who allegedly caused rain indoors, as depicted in Unsolved Mysteries and Paranormal Witness, and The Haunting in Connecticut.  Bartholomew and Nickell analyse the cases on which they are based, finding that in each the evidence does not support the depiction, often containing a mix of exaggeration and falsehood which make a mockery of the ‘based on fact’ tag.  The print media, concerned with circulation, are complicit, amplifying what sells (i.e., the paranormal) and damping sceptical voices.

Feature films claiming to have their roots in real events gain an extra interest as viewers either attempt to determine how much is true, or assume they are watching a dramatised documentary and marvel at how weird the world is.  Any exaggeration therefore presents a distorted view to those who fail to verify the accuracy of what they are watching.  That is where Bartholomew and Nickell have done a service in untangling the films and showing how depictions so often diverge radically from what happened, both in terms of witness accounts and then as exploited by filmmakers who take the material and shape it for their own artistic and commercial purposes.

By contrast, Bartholomew and Nickell break down the accounts and formulate more reasonable hypotheses.  They are both fellows of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, so it is no surprise what their conclusions will be: time and again they find cases dissolve when inspected, with credulity, misperception and fraud damaging what seemed on the surface to be sound examples of paranormal activity.  Parapsychologists are frequently shown to lack objectivity, with those who raise legitimate concerns marginalised.  Bartholomew and Nickell make the point that in many instances dramatic activity was said to have carried on for an extended period, yet nobody bothered to pick up a camera to record it, leaving only verbal accounts.  Judging by general photographic evidence of the paranormal, even if they had, undoubtedly the results would have been fuzzy and ambiguous, but the lack of documentation, as they say, suggests there was nothing worth documenting in the first place.

Film directors’ primary aims are to make money, entertain and build careers, and accuracy comes a dim last.  If it helps the story’s dramatic structure and shock value, they will massage the facts until what you see is a long way from what happened – if anything happened at all.  Unfortunately, the historical record becomes muddied and the credulous and ill-informed may assume that what they have seen bears a close resemblance to the reality, go away with a wildly erroneous view of the case, and believe that if such events can happen in this situation, they can happen anywhere and to anyone. Life seems dramatic, when actually the reality was mundane.  The implication is that programmes like Unsolved Mysteries, Paranormal Witness, and similar shows, need to be treated with the same degree of caution as the films, perhaps more so as they are explicit in using documentary credentials to claim they are telling the truth, when they are as unreliable as films which might be forgiven for some ‘dramatic licence’.

The authors have no time for Ed and Lorraine Warren (who pop up in the chapters devoted to The Conjuring, The Amityville Horror and The Haunting in Connecticut), their disgraceful willingness to fictionalise and their knee-jerk propensity to attribute any hint of paranormal activity to demons: their brand of Catholicism is repeatedly referred to as ‘medieval’.  Unfortunately, the industry based on the Warrens’ unwarranted interpretations has proved profitable, further distorting the reality of what went on in the cases into which they muscled.  Bartholomew and Nickell link a belief in demons to support for a belief in God (and Catholics are disproportionately represented in the book).  They are correct up to a point, though belief in demons in American society has spread well beyond the religiously-inclined.

The book appears to have been written in haste and the chapters are repetitious and poorly structured.  The authors sometimes rely on conjecture, rendering a comment about participants seeing what they want to see a little ironic, though they are generally plausible in their assumptions.  Despite its flaws, American Hauntings’ analyses are valuable in disentangling fact from fiction, and the book is fully referenced.  There are other films and television programmes they could have included, but they have amply made their point.  Where I would disagree with them is the claim in their conclusions that:

‘We chose seven of the best cases we could find: cases that were so compelling that they inspired Hollywood directors to invest large sums of money so as to bring these stories to wider public attention; cases that researchers point to for their meticulous documentation; cases that witnesses have attested to as being genuine and truly inexplicable.’

The authors selected films which are well-known, not because they are based on the best cases, and the fact a case was made into a successful film does not mean it was one of the best.  There are other factors at play when companies decide to base a film on a real-life event, including the potential for transforming incidents into coherent plot points; a case already being well-known and therefore easier to sell, and here the presence of the Warrens providing an enthusiastic fan base has been a factor; rights negotiations; and potential for franchise development.  The muddled focus is evident in the subtitle’s claim that these are ‘Hollywood’s scariest movies’ (a rather subjective criterion), and the scariest films and the best cases are not necessarily going to be identical.

It is doubtful any reputable researcher would point to these cases as the best the field has to offer (and the authors present no evidence to back the assertion they are).  However, Bartholomew and Nickell imply that as these cases were chosen to be the basis for films because they are ‘the best’, and they clearly aren’t actually very good, then all the others can be dismissed without further consideration.  It is a dubious end to a balanced study of cases which were not as strong as initially presented, but still formed the basis of big budget films or segments in successful television series.  And while Bartholomew and Nickell can be sniffy about the lazy research of others, nowhere do they credit Tobe Hooper as the director of Poltergeist, erroneously assigning total credit to Steven Spielberg.

The Red House Mystery, by A.A. Milne

So linked to Winne the Pooh is A A Milne that it may come as a surprise to discover that before he created the series with which he is so closely associated in the popular mind he wrote a detective novel.  His only one, it was published in 1922 while he was contributing to Punch (a magazine that famously was never as funny as it used to be).  While its mechanism creaks, it still entertains, though it is less a whodunit than a howdunit as the identity of the murderer is in little doubt from an early stage, there being no other serious contenders for the role.

The story is set in the handsome Red House, an attractive rural residence surrounded by extensive grounds – the sort of pile that would be reduced in number post-Second World War by lack of domestic staff and swingeing inheritance tax – owned by Mark Ablett.  He is a wealthy bachelor who enjoys entertaining, but is rather an autocrat who likes to plan his guests’ activities and dislikes spontaneity.  Enjoying his hospitality comes with strings attached, but fall in with his wishes and a pleasant time is guaranteed.  Milne depicts the kind of house guest who rotated round various such houses and lived at others’ expense, though they are not cast as parasites.

Anthony Gillingham, an independent soul who studies people by taking a variety of jobs, always on a short-term basis, while cushioned by an inheritance, happens to be in the neighbourhood and learns by chance that a friend, Bill Beverley, such a permanent guest, is staying at Red House.  Strolling over to see Bill, he arrives to find a man has been shot moments earlier in a locked room.  He is informed by Cayley, Mark’s cousin and general manager, that the dead man is Ablett’s dissolute and long-estranged brother Robert, freshly arrived from Australia.  Mark himself is nowhere to be found, so naturally suspicion falls on him.

The guests had been playing golf together so are not suspects and, apart from Bill, they are quickly packed off back to London, while Anthony is asked to stay in the house until the inquest.  On the spur of the moment he decides on a new career, as a detective.  With himself as the self-proclaimed Holmes and Bill as his Watson, Anthony sets out to solve the mystery, Bill’s enthusiasm allied to slowness of thought making him the perfect foil.  Unlike Holmes, Anthony vows not to withhold information from Bill in order to clear up the mystery in a grand denouement, though eventually even he cannot help himself and keeps his deductions to himself, so seductive is the Holmesian method.

Mark and his brother had been heard rowing in the office, so was it murder or self-defence, and how could Mark have disappeared so completely?  Anthony quickly fastens on a chief suspect, and using his retentive memory and ability to reconstruct details merely glanced at and stored subconsciously, develops hypotheses, amending them as new facts come to light.  It is extremely fortunate that Cayley allows Anthony to stay despite it not being in his best interest, as this facilitates the investigation.

Also conveniently, the police fail to pursue the case with much vigour, and Anthony has no qualms about keeping information from them until he has the answers.  While not enjoying the authority of the police when interviewing witnesses, he manages to gather evidence and generally be intrusive enough to an extent that in the real world would earn a swift reprimand from the constabulary, rather than their indulgence.  In fact, one wonders for much of the book what, apart from a fruitless search of the pond conducted more for form’s sake than in the expectation of finding something, they are actually doing.

The amateur sleuth shining over the local plod is hardly novel, and can be forgiven while enjoying Anthony’s investigation and his good-natured banter with Bill; while the war is never mentioned, there is a comradely affection that would have arisen from a shared experience.  The novel’s major weakness is the creaky device of the murderer obligingly providing a lengthy confession in the form of a 12-page letter, including dialogue, confirming Anthony’s suspicions and adding previously unknown information, one which while ploughing through it the reader suspects the murderer would not have bothered to write.

[Spoiler alert] The solution hinges on Mark, accomplished at am-dram, masquerading as Robert (dead in Australia, something the police would have worked out, as well as realising that Mark had simply shaved off his beard).  Mark thought he was playing a practical joke on a guest who had displeased him by giving him a scare, Cayley had a more sinister motive.  The convoluted explanation stretches credibility, and as Anthony notes, eventually suspicion would have fallen on Cayley as Mark’s disappearance lengthened (assuming the police had shown more energy than hitherto).

The ending hints at further instalments, and Anthony would have made an engaging series detective, but Milne contributed an introduction to a new edition in 1926, by which time he had become established as a children’s author, and suggests that another detective novel might have been considered in poor taste.  An alternative possibility, one he would be unlikely to confess to, is that he found plotting a detective story hard work, writing stories for children more remunerative and less effort.

Either way, he might not have been pleased by Raymond Chandler’s negative view of The Red House Mystery, to which he devotes several pages in his 1944 essay ‘The Simple Art of Murder’: remove the puzzle element upon which it stands or falls (and in this instance definitely falls) and it is not really much of a novel.  Chandler uses it as a prime example of what is essentially an artificial form, albeit not the least implausible example of the type (fingering Trent’s Last Case and novels by Freeman Wills Crofts, Dorothy L Sayers and Agatha Christie as greater offenders).

He lists various elements in The Red House Mystery that could not translate to the real world, Milne smoothing over the difficulties by working ‘like a switch engine’ to convince the reader it all makes sense and simply ignoring any aspect which given a moment’s consideration would sink his plot.  The result is that this, and others in the ‘classic’ contrived detective story mould, ‘do not really come off intellectually as problems, and they do not come off artistically as fiction.’  Chandler calls The Red House Mystery ‘an agreeable book, light, amusing in the Punch style, written with a deceptive smoothness that is not so easy as it looks.’  His verdict definitely looks like damning with faint praise.

The Brave Mortal’s Guide to Ghost Hunting, by Alex Matsuo

Despite its curious title, Alex Matsuo’s 2019 The Brave Mortal’s Guide to Ghost Hunting is better than many ghost-hunting books aimed at a general audience whose interest has mostly been sparked by watching television shows.  Her intention is to give the novice an understanding of the subject, covering all the facets of ghost hunting from initial preparation through to data presentation.  Matuso has a team, the Association of Paranormal Study, though it may not be as well-known as some higher-profile groups, and her advice is based on a decade’s experience.

The chapters cover theories of ghosts and possible reasons for hauntings, the process of investigation, the need for careful historical research, practical aspects such as safety, equipment, the use of mediums, talking to ghosts in order to build a relationship, what happens after the expedition, and ghost tourism.  While stating we have no firm evidence ghosts exist, she generally takes their existence as a given; it is their constitution which is at present unknown.

She is not a fan of the term ‘ghost hunting’ on the grounds that ghosts, if they exist, are still people and deserve respect, not be ‘hunted’, because ‘ghosts are people too’ (an expression also used by Amy Bruni in her 2020 Life with the Afterlife): the ‘hunting’ element reaches its most unpleasant in attempts at provocation to elicit a response, a disrespectful tactic Matsuo decries.  Instead, she substitutes a more empathetic approach.  That raises the issue of ghost hunting appearing in her title, but she notes its popularity, and the image it evokes which is clearer than general terms like paranormal investigation or research.  It is a fair point in marketing terms, though if people keep using ghost hunting it will become ever harder to adopt something more neutral.

The emphasis is on ghost investigation as a broad spectrum of activity, including participants with widely diverging motives and levels of interest, from a casual desire to have a spooky experience on a ghost tour to carefully-controlled research based on a rigorous understanding of the literature, a history of which many TV-influenced aficionados are unaware.  She sees the field’s strength in its diversity, encompassing people from all walks of life, perspectives and levels of knowledge, sharing more in common than divides them.

She notes that as we do not know what ghosts are, and lack agreed definitions, we cannot say technology will be able to help in answering questions about them.  Much of the instrumentation aimed at ghosthunters is wildly overpriced for what it is, and is largely designed to part the gullible from their money.  However, she argues it helps to raise the profile of the subject and attract interest, while pointing out it is not necessary to spend a great deal on kit, and it is possible to be active armed with no more than a notebook and pen.  She does caution against the use of the mobile phone as a tool because of its technical limitations, and says that given a choice between a piece of dedicated equipment and the phone app designed to replace it, she would go for the former.

Stressing the need for scepticism, and citing Ben Radford, in a book like this is unusual, but it only goes so far.  Critics will certainly consider her assumption that mediums can be useful in acquiring worthwhile information to be optimistic, and EVP recordings are discussed with no warnings about potential pitfalls in interpretation.  She points to the dangers of extreme belief in demons (referring to the dreadful death of Anneliese Michel), but treads carefully, presumably in order not to alienate the constituency of believers, hedging her bets by claiming that ‘truly demonic activity is rare’ despite saying elsewhere she is not sure if they even exist.  It seems doubtful her mild caveats will do much to deter the macho belief in demons.

Matsuo concludes by discussing ways to improve the field in terms of consistent guidelines and standards, to give those calling on the services of investigators confidence in their approach and abilities.  Quality standards for ghost tours and public ghost hunts would ensure they provided a satisfactory experience.  She emphasises the need for training at all stages, building on and harnessing the enthusiasm generated by media exposure to obtain worthwhile results.  The process involves study, experimenting with different approaches, thinking critically, and developing a feel for what characterises the charlatans in the paranormal community.

The title may be overblown but any brave, or for that matter cowardly, mortal with limited knowledge but a desire to find out more will pick up a few useful things, and perhaps be enthused to dig deeper.  Its emphasis on a serious and respectful attitude, allied to a willingness to learn (and not just watch TV), will go a long way to helping novices understand the wider context of their newfound interest and get the most from it.  The inclusion of a bibliography or links to reliable sources of information to guide the newcomer would have been of assistance in that regard.

One final point.  Recently I was watching a webinar the Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena had organised in which researcher John Sabol was giving a presentation, and I noticed Matsuo was in the audience (participants could see each other).  I was struck that of the numerous books I had read in the ghost-hunting genre, it seemed unlikely many of the authors would bother to tune in to an ASSAP webinar.  Shortly afterwards, one of her blog posts referred to Sabol in positive terms.

The Ghost Hunter’s Checklist: 20 Brilliant Things You Can Do to Have a Successful Paranormal Investigation

People signing up to Alex Matsuo’s website are offered a free eight-page PDF compiled to help the inexperienced individual who wishes to try ghost hunting.  It is designed for public investigations rather than residential cases and covers the necessary steps in list form: preparation, what to do on arrival, the investigation itself, review of data, and debrief.  Presented in bullet points, the easy-to-follow checklist will help the aspiring ghost hunter take a methodical approach, and there are links to Matsuo’s books and social media outlets.

The Black Country, by Alex Grecian

Set in 1890, Alex Grecian’s The Black Country (2013) is the second in a series featuring London Murder Squad detectives Inspector Walter Day and his sidekick Sergeant Nevil Hammersmith.  They travel to Blackhampton, a Midlands mining village, at the request of the local bobby to investigate the disappearance of a man, his second wife and one of their children, and the finding by a local child of an eyeball in a nest up a tree.  Day and Hammersmith arrive, with only two days to solve the case, just as the weather turns unseasonably cold.  To their surprise, instead of being welcomed they are met by indifference and evasiveness by the inhabitants.  They also find that the buildings in the village have a marked tendency to sink into the ground at key plot points, as they are above old mine workings which are collapsing.  On top of everything else most of the villagers are falling sick with some kind of plague, necessitating turning the church into a makeshift field hospital.  Blackhampton is not a happy place, and Day and Hammersmith are up against heavy odds.  Fortunately, the other series regular Dr Kingsley arrives to lend invaluable medical assistance. 

Mixed in the busy narrative is a disappeared first wife, possibly done away by her husband, an American Civil War subplot that lingers on the appalling conditions in the Andersonville prison camp, a mysterious visitor who is being stalked by an American missing a large chunk of his face and with a powerful rifle,  the disappearance of the local PC, about which nobody seems too bothered, a rotting dead piglet with shallow stab wounds, and the surprise appearance of Day’s heavily-pregnant wife Claire and Kingsley’s daughter Fiona who have popped in for a quick chat while en route to Manchester.  Day, Hammersmith and Kingsley do manage to get to the bottom of the mystery, and discover that the disease sweeping the community is sadly, but unsurprisingly, linked to the disappearances.

Having only two days to crack the case is supposed to add tension, but merely makes the reader wonder how it could possibly facilitate careful police work.  Mind you, the London detectives get right to it as soon as they arrive, not even stopping for a hot drink.  Drinking presents a problem because of contaminated water, but fortunately Day has a spirit flask of apparently limitless dimensions, as brandy is all he imbibes during his stay, ensuring his ability to avoid the general malaise (though it raises the suspicion he is a high-functioning alcoholic).  Hammersmith is not so lucky, on top of being given a Mickey Finn by the superstitious pub landlord who is convinced some malevolent force lurks in the forest and wants to save him from its clutches, not to mention being kicked in the head by a steel-toe-capped boot.  Fortunately, his stubbornness keeps him on his feet, at least most of the time.

There is a lot of nonsense here, not least Grecian seeming to think there were wolves still wild in England in 1890.  Day considers three people searching the woods in the dark with just lanterns to be a good plan (though remarkably they do find a clue).  The American has been able to track his quarry from America and across England, despite a singular facial deformity and toting a long-barrelled rifle, without anybody challenging him.  The miners appear to be self-employed rather than working for a pit owner, and there cannot have been many in real life who had the means to employ a housekeeper.  After the destruction of the inn the survivors do not go to the safety of the church but tramp through the snow to the railway station on the off chance the train is running in the dreadful conditions.  Fortunately, this allows Day to fall into a hole in the ground, find Hammersmith, and tie up the plot.

This is a Black Country bearing little relation to the one that actually existed, though the superstitions, grimness and rudimentary healthcare seem plausible.  Grecian is not concerned to convey a sense of authenticity, prioritising the creaky, and often gory, plot over characterisation and the development of a believable late-Victorian world.  Day finally chugs away back to London thankfully leaving the West Midlands behind him but with Blackhampton still in chaos, not to mention no sign of the missing PC (a murder case left to someone else to sort out).  One might expect a police officer doing his duty to wait until reinforcements arrive to take charge of the situation, but with the mystery which brought him hither solved, the fate of the village and its inhabitants is none of his concern.

The Haunting of Alma Fielding, by Kate Summerscale

Kate Summerscale’s 2020 nonfiction book The Haunting of Alma Fielding: A True Ghost Story tells the strange story of Alma Fielding and her poltergeist.  In February 1938 Alma was a 34-year-old housewife living in Beverstone Road, Thornton Heath, south London.  Married to Les, a builder, they enjoyed a comfortable suburban lifestyle (aspirationally, they owned a telephone).  Also living with them were their son Don and a lodger, George Saunders, who worked as a cobbler.  After a bout of illness confined her to bed for some days with kidney pain, and Les with severe bleeding after having had his teeth removed, peculiar events characteristic of poltergeist activity started happening in their cluttered home.

Initially, Alma saw a six-fingered handprint on a mirror and wondered if she was hallucinating, but proceedings quickly escalated.  Their eiderdown moved of its own volition, there was flying and shattering china and glassware and foodstuffs, a mysterious breeze, lights switching on and off, moving furniture, coal rising out of the grate, and flying money and household objects.  She contacted the Sunday Pictorial, which had been running a series on the paranormal and the paper sent two reporters round who witnessed eggs and other items flying towards them.  Unsurprisingly the story made the front page, and its fame was assured.  News spread and generated further media interest.  Neighbours heard what was going on and rubberneckers gathered outside.

The other major player in this drama was Nandor Fodor.  He was a Hungarian who had come to England from the United States, where he had been working as a journalist, to act as a specialist on Hungarian affairs advising Lord Rothermere, who owned Associated Newspapers (including the Sunday Pictorial).  However, Fodor was not cut out for it; his primary interest was psychical research, and he found little interest from Rothermere in articles he wrote on the paranormal.  He published the mammoth Encyclopaedia of Psychic Science in 1934, and the same year he found a niche as research officer at the International Institute for Psychical Research, based in Kensington.  The work at the Institute brought in far less than Rothermere had paid him, but it was better suited to his temperament.  He had studied law in Budapest so was capable of sifting evidence, and he threw himself energetically into the work, assessing psychic claims and investigating haunted houses.

Over time he gained a reputation as a debunker because of his exposures of hoaxes.  As a result, he was keen to find a strong case, and preferably proof of psychical phenomena.  On 21 February 1938, Fodor was alerted to the Sunday Pictorial’s account of goings-on in the Fielding household.  At the time he was suing Psychic News for libel as they had criticised his methods exposing fakes in what he considered maliciously untrue terms, and he hoped a genuine case would both strengthen his hand against the paper and dampen disquiet at the Institute (in the end he won two of the four charges but received only a small sum in damages).

Fodor visited Alma and managed to beat off approaches by fellow investigators Harry Price, Harold Chibbett (later to become best known in connection with the Battersea poltergeist), and C V C Herbert of the Society for Psychical Research.  Visiting the house, he interviewed Alma and witnessed phenomena first-hand, though he marked most, but not all, as ‘not evidential’.  With a view to putting Alma in a more controlled environment, he invited her to the Institute.

The business turned from a poltergeist case to one of physical mediumship when Alma began giving seances at the Institute, acting as the medium, with a Persian spirit called Bremba as her guide.  During these sessions further phenomena were witnessed, with a variety of objects materialising in Spiritualist style, as well as outside the séance room – rhubarb, goldfish, a terrapin, a beetle, a bird, and white mice.  Jewellery was ‘apported’ from shops and into her possession, which was (to put it in neutral terms), potentially embarrassing.

At the Institute she was searched and sewn into a one-piece suit, but could still produce objects, and Bremba conveyed information it seemed unlikely Alma could have known.  Fodor wanted to believe she was sincere, but weaknesses in the phenomena became apparent.  As controls were tightened, it became plain she was hiding objects on, and in, her body, using bodily contortions while in ‘trance’ to manipulate them.  Fodor was surprised to learn Alma had had training from her uncle in circus skills and dancing, and at one time had aspirations to be an actress.  She was agile despite her physical complaints.

Fodor insisted on increasingly invasive controls.  Realising that suspicions about her phenomena had been aroused, Alma’s behaviour became erratic as her desperation to convince the investigators of her genuineness intensified.  Scratches appeared on her body, her stomach expanded and pulsed in a kind of phantom pregnancy, terrible smells occurred.  Fodor was in a quandary.  Yet another exposure would prove embarrassing to everybody involved, especially after the Institute had sunk considerable resources into the investigation.  He had tried to be even-handed but failed because of his desperation to get results, affecting his judgement.  Even when Alma looked on course for a breakdown, he was unable to let go.

He gradually lost his objectivity, becoming obsessed, both with the case and with Alma, oscillating between counsel for the defence and prosecutor.  Because of the legal issues with Psychic News, he gave Alma more slack than he might otherwise have done, repeatedly letting her off the hook.  He was so far in that it would be difficult to extricate himself and the Institute by classifying Alma as a fraud without looking foolish.  But was it all fraud, or the old issue of possible genuine phenomena being helped along to make it more interesting, raising the risk of throwing out one with the other? 

He turned to ideas about the unconscious in an attempt to square the evidence of fraud and a desire to see Alma as innocent.  Adopting a psychoanalytic approach, he looked for signs of trauma in her neurotic behaviour, considering the possibility she had experienced sexual abuse in childhood which she had repressed.  There were other issues that could have had a bearing on her complex psyche, such as bereavement, the loss of a child and miscarriage on top of severe health issues requiring numerous operations, including a mastectomy.  Fodor sent his report to Sigmund Freud, by then resident in London, who agreed the poltergeist phenomena could be the result of a repressed part of Alma.  Her phenomena bore out Freud’s theories of the unconscious.

In addition, Alma gained from the attention.  Her association with upper- and upper-middle class people at the Institute provided an opening out of her constrained domestic life.  And there is an erotic, even masochistic, component also found in other females involved in the paranormal as the objects of male investigation, with bodily contact and invasive body searches.  Les may have been impotent, and there are hints she had a higher sex drive that may have been sublimated by her involvement with the IIPR and was expressed in later life when she split her time between Les in Devon and a car salesman in Croydon.  George may have been in love with her and while Les was thought to be jealous and wanted him out of the house, when events were at their height George slept in their room.  Fodor wondered if the phenomena were feeding off Alma’s feelings for George.

Such sex-based speculations increasingly alarmed and then alienated his colleagues at the IIPR (which had never escaped its rather staid Spiritualist roots).  Concern with his theories and his methods eventually led to his dismissal.  He moved to the US and trained as a psychoanalyst.  His 1958 On the Trail of the Poltergeist contains an account of his study of Alma, with the identities disguised.  Eventually Alma faded from the scene and the family moved to a prefab house Les had built at Branscombe in Devon, where she occasionally held séances. 

Summerscale sets Fodor’s work with Alma into the wider context of his career, his growing interest in psychical research, and crucially his focus not only on the phenomena but also the individuals involved, their psychology and the group dynamics.  Poltergeists could be seen as expressions of stress, blending psychical research and abnormal psychology and moving the focus inwards, emphasising mechanisms of repression.  Investigating Alma was a staging point on Fodor’s journey from psychical researcher to psychoanalyst facilitating the recovery of memories and the easing of psychic pain, and a staging post on the poltergeist’s journey from being an external force tormenting the living to being a product of the psyche, a manifestation of unconscious stresses.

Thus as well as a valuable record of this case it is a nuanced portrait of Fodor’s strengths and weaknesses.  He deserves greater recognition for his work, and Summerscale has established a sound foundation for further research.  At the same time she opens out the narrative to situate Alma’s story in the uncertainties of the interwar period, a society recovering from the trauma of one war (Les still carried shrapnel from a grenade) and severe economic depression while about to be plunged into yet another war.  There is too a social history aspect: for example, it is notable how often lodgers are mentioned, speaking to a housing shortage.  Oblique light is shed on the growth of consumerism, with Marks & Spencer, Woolworths and British Home Stores playing walk-on parts, along with suburban cinemas, the Lyons corner house, the entertainment and propaganda role of newspapers, and the growth of radio.

Deftly utilising the Society for Psychical Research’s archive at Cambridge University Library, which holds Fodor’s IIPR papers on the case, Summerscale’s book puts flesh on the bones of the primary documentation to make a very human story.  The subtitle is curious, partly because it was a poltergeist, not a ghost, and partly because ‘true’ suggests the activity was genuine when it was ambiguous at best.  Presumably Fielding is indicating this is a true story, as opposed to fiction, but it is misleading.  She leaves open the issue of whether there was paranormal activity, though at points she seems to take paranormal explanations at face value, and it is true that among the fraud were incidents difficult to explain.  What is certain is that one finishes with a sense of compassion for the Fielding household, and relieved medicine has advanced greatly since the 1930s.

Hombre, by Elmore Leonard

Elmore Leonard is best known for crime novels, but he began his career writing westerns, of which Hombre (1961) was the fifth.  Told in a stripped-back style, the setting is Arizona in August 1884.*  The story is narrated artlessly by Carl Allen, a 21-year old clerk in the town of Sweetmary who worked for a stagecoach company line that has just closed down because it has been superseded by the railways.  Sweetmary appears to have been superseded too, as Carl is ready to move on and others also want to leave town.

Dr Favor, an Indian agent who had a contract to sell beef to the Indians, is particularly keen, and hires the company’s mud wagon, a form of stagecoach, to make the trip to Bisbee.  Travelling with him and his wife is an assortment of passengers, including the 17-year old ‘McLaren girl’, as Carl insists on calling her, and the title character, John Russell, also known as Tres Hombres among other names.

About the same age as Carl, Russell is far more self-assured.  He was born in Mexico of mixed American-Mexican heritage, but had been abducted by Apaches and lived among them for several years before being adopted by an American farmer whose property he has just inherited, foregrounding tensions in his identity.  Russell has worked for the Indian police, and knows how to handle himself.

The McLaren girl (whose name we eventually learn is Kathleen) had also been abducted by Apaches for a few weeks and as a result is the object of prurient speculation among several of the passengers.  Having been rescued, she is on her way back to her family.  She possesses an admirable sense of justice, but one that proves impractical, even hazardous, in the unforgiving circumstances the passengers will find themselves.

Also on board is a tough cowboy named Braden who bullies his way to possession of a ticket.  The coach is held up by bandits and it transpires Braden is a member of the gang.  They are after the $12,000 Favor has embezzled from a beef-selling scam on the reservation.  The holdup goes wrong when Russell kills one of the thieves, leaving them without the money but in possession of the surviving horses, and Mrs Favor as a hostage.

There follows a chase, with Braden and his gang trying to retrieve the money and finish the group as they follow Russell on foot back to safety, the conflict becoming as much about water as it is about banknotes.  Russell is self-contained, unsentimental, and not particularly bothered if the others follow him or not.  He had been obliged to sit on top of the coach, but now demonstrates his undoubted superiority in surviving both the terrain and their pursuers.  The others may not always agree with his actions, but have no viable alternative to offer.

Added to the external threat.  Russell is holding the cash, which creates internal tension as Favor is keen to retrieve it, proving more concerned about it than he is about his wife’s fate.  After playing cat and mouse across the arid landscape, the two parties confront each other at an abandoned mine, where Russell acts to save Mrs Favor despite the racist remarks she had made in the coach.

Russell has experienced discrimination because he is perceived to be Indian, yet he moves from self-containment to self-sacrifice, and as Carl concedes, without him the group would have died in the desert.  Perhaps his final heroism is a way of showing himself better than the others, doing what they would not.  Ultimately, though, he proves unknowable to his companions.  There is an enigmatic quality to his character, a central stillness in harmony with the landscape they have travelled through.

*While I was halfway through Hombre I attended a two-day online webinar, A Celebration of Stereoscopic 3D — Part the Second (20/21 February 2021).  The very first presentation was by Dr Jeremy Rowe, entitled Early Stereoscopic Documentation of Territorial Arizona.  It contained photographs from around the period Leonard’s novel is set, and was a window into a world about which I was reading a fictional account.

Reaching Down the Rabbit Hole, by Allan H. Ropper and Brian David Burrell

In Reaching Down the Rabbit Hole: Extraordinary Journeys into the Human Brain (2014), Allan Ropper and Brian Burrell detail snippets from Ropper’s life as a Boston neurologist who has to make life and death decisions every day.  A series of case studies, told in non-technical language and sprinkled with dialogue and pen-portraits to help the reader feel engaged, convey a sense of the range of things that can go wrong with the brain as a result of trauma or disease, how they can manifest in behaviour, and what the limits of medical science are in treating them.

Ropper warns against easy assumptions based on premature diagnoses which can lead down the wrong path, at times with dire consequences.  Throughout he stresses the value of listening to what patients are saying, careful observation linked to deep hands-on experience, plus the ability to act decisively.  Combining all these elements, and the requisite interpersonal skills, for the family as well as the patient, gives the best chance of arriving at the correct assessment.

While the selection of cases indicates the range of problems a neurologist has to deal with, the best chapters are on ALS – better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease – and Parkinson’s (he treated Michael J Fox, who appears in the book under his own name).  Ropper tends to focus not on the sorts of exotic brain (t)issues one finds in Oliver Sacks’ books but on ailments that could quite easily strike the reader, making the book all the more unsettling.

Scenarios can be gory: for example drilling a hole in a skull to relieve pressure and a jet of spinal fluid shooting past Ropper’s ear and up the wall; and the man’s spinal column filled with pus which was turning the cord to mush.  Such accounts make the reader feel the fragility of the body, the vulnerability of life, and particularly how quickly one can go from apparently healthy to deeply damaged, or dead.

Although he is rarely overtly critical, in passing one gets a sense of how bureaucratic the US health care system is, how it is still split along racial lines, to the detriment of ethnic minorities, and the extent to which getting patients care often relies on favours between clinicians at different hospitals.  The idea of daily ‘speed rounds’ (exactly what it says, a couple of minutes allotted to each patient) sounds antithetical to the proper care of the sick.

Ropper is rather full of himself, but to do this demanding a job must require bags of self-confidence and one can only admire someone who has to make these decisions day in day out.*   He does concede when he gets things wrong, but in general he succeeds where others fail.  He also has a good eye for the fakers, who can be convincing, though one wonders how often such judgements turn out to be wrong, or seeming psychiatric symptoms are masking physical illness.

While it is impossible to know how representative these cases are of a neurologist’s workload, they feel typical, and demonstrate the remarkable intricacy of the brain’s architecture.  The general reader will come away with a greater understanding of what can go wrong with it, the amazing advances neurology has made in recent years, but how limited medicine still is when confronting its mysteries.  And perhaps wishing there had been a little more neuroscience and a little less Dr Ropper.

*Shortly after publication the subtitle was wisely changed to ‘Extraordinary Journeys into the Human Brain’ from ‘A Renowned Neurologist Explains the Mystery and Drama of Brain Disease’.

Life with the Afterlife, by Amy Bruni

Amy Bruni is a well-known media ghosthunter, having worked on the Ghost Hunters show with Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson and now co-star of another show called Kindred Spirits with Adam Berry.  She also runs a ghost hunting-themed travel company, Strange Escapes.  Her 2020 Life with the Afterlife: 13 Truths I Learned about Ghosts, co-authored with Julie Tremaine, begins as an autobiography, tracing her fascination with the spooky back to childhood and a personal experience, her early reading of books by the likes of Hans Holzer and Ed and Lorraine Warren, and the influence of her family, before moving on to her career as a ghosthunter.  This was a hectic one involving a great deal of travel, slowed down only by the birth of her daughter.

Bruni has some valid insights, having thought more deeply about what she does than have some of the other TV ghost hunters, though the reality of post-mortem entities is taken as read.  Her approach to handling children is certainly enlightened compared to Hawes and Wilson’s, asking parents who say their child is experiencing a ghost, ‘have you spoken to your pediatrician?’  She notes that sometimes the turmoil of a case is generated within the family rather than from outside it, but where it is external her concern is to balance the need of both the haunted and the haunter, and sometimes she finds achieving an equilibrium between the two sides takes the heat out of the situation.

She does not subscribe to the standard post-Poltergeist mantra of moving ghosts on to ‘the light’, believing that to do so is presumptuous and the choice should be the spirits’.  The ghost investigator’s job is to listen and ascertain what they want then try to facilitate it, helping them to see their situation while acknowledging their agency and right to self-determination.  As she says, ‘Ghosts are people too,’ which makes the macho term ghost hunter, one I personally dislike, unfortunate (though surprisingly, considering her stance, she still uses it throughout).

Where ghosts ask for help, assistance should be rendered wherever possible, making her role akin to a therapist.  Unlike the Ghost Hunters approach, which does not allow an extended period of research for a case, in line with her collaborative approach she likes to revisit locations, sometimes over a period of years, in order to conduct an in-depth study.  This enables her and Berry to build a relationship with the ghosts and to experiment with different investigatory techniques.  Although she does not say so specifically, one gets the impression she is not a proponent of demons as a possible cause, a refreshing stance among American ghost hunters.

A new term to me, and I have no idea where Bruni found it, is aggregor.  Presumably sharing the same root as aggregate, an aggregor is an entity generated by the cumulative visits of those searching for a supposedly ghostly presence at a site.  Their combined efforts over time create a phenomenon which feeds on the energy of the living and is modified as more and more people visit the spot.  It mirrors their emotions (fear for example) and mimics a ghost but is not the spirit of a deceased person, though is easily mistaken for one.  It sounds similar to a tulpa, but Bruni compares it to the Toronto Society for Psychical Research’s Philip experiment (leaving aside the issue of whether ‘Philip’ was a drop-in communicator).

Life with the Afterlife shares a weakness with other books written by people involved in television shows: the criteria for the acceptance of paranormal activity are set low because otherwise viewers would switch off.  Despite a chapter titled ‘There’s no such thing as a ghost detector’ she uses the standard ghost hunting equipment and relies heavily on EVP (electronic voice phenomena) sessions to communicate with ghosts, without acknowledging the problematic nature of EVP as a method of gathering evidence.  She is too ready to believe in paranormal explanations despite agreeing that alternative explanations need to be discounted first.

Because of this credulousness, the book is only going to satisfy fans of Bruni and personality-driven ghost hunting.  The chapters are loosely structured, and the 13 truths of the subtitle are random assertions used as headings, including ‘If ghosts are real, Bigfoot is probably real too.’  Despite her enthusiasm for other investigators there is no bibliography to help readers explore the issues further.  In a rambling final section she discusses the current (at the time of writing) Covid pandemic and feels it will increase engagement with the paranormal, just as the release of negative energy during previous social upheavals did: trauma leading to increased interest in these profound questions.  She may be correct, but I doubt television ghost-hunting programmes will provide the answers.

Update 11 March 2021

Sharon A Hill, author of Scientifical Americans, has drawn my attention to the likelihood that when Bruni used the term aggregor she probably had in mind the equally new to me egregore.  This is an esoteric term for the generation of a psychic manifestation by a group of people sharing a common motivation or focus, which in turn influences the group.  This can be created either intentionally (say by occult practitioners) or unintentionally, so those involved are not necessarily aware of their role in its formation.

Egregore definitely chimes with Bruni’s idea of the cumulative visits of ghost hunters to a particular spot creating an entity which develops an independent existence and affects later visitors.  Sharon wondered how the spelling had morphed from egregore to aggregor; I assume it was either simply a casual misremembering on Bruni’s part or, as Sharon suggested, miscommunication between Bruni and Tremaine.  The clarification puts paid to my supposition that the term is linked to aggregate, as egregore actually derives, via the French égrégore, from the Ancient Greek egrḗgoros, meaning ‘wakeful’.

Ghost Hunting, by Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson

Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson of The Atlantic Paranormal Society (TAPS) are best known from the SciFi Channel (now Syfy) television show Ghost Hunters which first aired in 2004, a credential noted on the cover of their Ghost Hunting: True Stories of Unexplained Phenomena from The Atlantic Paranormal Society (2007).  This is a cash-in recounting some of their adventures, a couple of sections on wider considerations of investigation occupying only half a dozen pages.

The bulk of the contents comprises short chapters devoted to the pair’s activities, a mix of private cases and vigils in larger buildings, plus human-interest snippets on the people in the team and the problems of personnel management Hawes had to deal with.  Much of it is in Hawes’s words, with Wilson, not much of a writer it seems, adding a few random thoughts at the end of each chapter.  Anyone hoping to read about the cases in detail, with a full examination of the evidence, will be disappointed by the anecdotal presentation.

Hawes comes across as a strange character, and not particularly likeable.  He openly criticises team members for not being professional then plays practical jokes.  His difficulties with one volunteer, Brian, are documented in detail, but airing of such issues in public itself looks unprofessional, as well as being completely uninteresting to the outsider.  It’s unclear who, apart from Hawes and Wilson, is getting paid for the considerable efforts the group puts in.  Presumably being in Hawes and Wilson’s company plus media exposure are considered payment enough.

Weirdly, Hawes reports how about six months after beginning Reiki he started to be plagued by visions, including full-form human apparitions.  He had no idea how to stop them, and nobody could help him to deal with his ‘sensitivity’, until one day when he was at an aquarium in Connecticut an unknown woman approached and advised him to eat green olives.  Sure enough, eating a bottle a day kept them away, and when he stopped the visions returned so he resumed consumption.  This does not read like a leg-pull, so the therapeutic benefits of green olives are clearly underappreciated.

Along with the eccentricities the partners do have some useful things to say which should be obvious but possibly aren’t for the book and show’s target audience, such as attempting to find a normal explanation for phenomena before jumping to the conclusion they are paranormal.  It is heartening to learn that TAPS are not great fans of orbs, which is useful bearing in mind how many people erroneously think they are spirit beings.

They stress their scientific approach, but employ the strategy of claiming that 80% of what is put forward as paranormal is actually not, simultaneously implying 20% is, even though their criteria for determining that percentage are weak: they find an environmental origin in some instances, but faced with less obvious phenomena are quick to decide it was caused by a discarnate entity.  Many of their assertions are underpinned by unsupported assumptions about the behaviour of paranormal phenomena – for example that evil spirits can enter a house because of something an occupant did (for example using a Ouija board).

It is amusing when they criticise Ed and Lorraine Warren for being unscientific, the implication being that there is clear water between them because TAPS do more than go on their ‘feelings’ as the Warrens did.  However, it is easy to proclaim one is being scientific, harder to put it into practice, especially when TV ratings are a factor and the show has to entertain.  Unsurprisingly in a US book the reality of demons is taken as gospel, so they do have one thing at least in common with the Warrens.

Anyone not invested in the media-driven ghost-hunting ethos and basing an assessment of TAPS on this volume alone will probably be puzzled by their popularity.  They certainly have a great deal of equipment and even a command vehicle, which is possibly one reason they have a following as they fulfil the stereotype of the ghost hunter gadget geek admirably.  A lot of groups would like to enjoy media exposure, and seeing the TAPS approach encourages them to imagine it is possible for them too.  Without alternative perspectives it is easy to assume Hawes and Wilson really are finding what they say they are.

Whether they are good role models is open to debate.  Their cavalier attitude to interviewing when children are present is certainly not best practice, and the appalling account of participating in the exorcism of a nine-year old, with four men holding the writhing child down, should at the very least have got them, the Catholic priest who presided over this nonsense, and the parents who went along with it, investigated by social services.  I’d be surprised if the priest had permission from his bishop to perform the ceremony in collaboration with a ghost-hunting group.

This is a book for fans of the show only (and as should be obvious, I’m not one of them).  Non-fans are likely to find it dull and self-indulgent, tediousness only avoided by the brevity of the accounts.  Anyone wanting to engage in paranormal investigation with a view to contributing something worthwhile to the field will find it of little value.  Unfortunately, a lot of people will read it, believe this is how it is done, and suppose they themselves will achieve something worthwhile by attempting to emulate its approach.

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