Spontaneous Human Combustion, by Nigel Watson

SHC Unexplained Rapid Reads-1

A new venture by Brown Bear Books, UneXplained Rapid Reads is a series of short ebooks, modestly priced at £1.99, on various topics that fall under the broad umbrella of ‘unexplained phenomena’, which in practice means the sorts of things one would expect to see in an issue of Fortean Times.  As the name suggests, these are short, clearly written books, designed to be read in an hour or so.  They are divided into categories: ‘Powers of the Mind’, ‘Secrets and Conspiracies’, ‘Life after Death’, ‘Aliens and UFOs’, ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’, and ‘Science and Civilisation’.  The authors are well-respected in the field, though they are bound to be limited by the restricted number of e-pages at their disposal in how much they can cover.

The volume on Spontaneous Human Combustion (SHC) – categorised under ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ – is currently being given away free on the publisher’s website as a taster, and presumably it is typical of the series as a whole.  Nigel Watson, more associated with UFOs and phantom airships, tackles the bizarre phenomenon of people who are said to burst into flames for no apparent reason.  The trunk of the body is mostly consumed yet limbs are often relatively unscathed, and the surroundings, even small rooms, while damaged by smoke and greasy residues, do not catch fire.  The lack of frantic action by the victim once alight suggests some kind of trance state during the conflagration.

Watson begins with some examples, both historical and fictional, such as the death of Countess Cornelia di Bandi, detailed by the Rev Giuseppe Bianchini, which appeared in the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions; a story by Jules Verne, who lays the blame thoroughly at the door of excessive alcohol consumption; and of course the most famous depiction of all, that of Krook in Dickens’s Bleak House.  A couple of cases are taken from the writings of Charles Fort, and there are some famous twentieth-century instances, such as Phyllis Newcombe in 1938 and Mary Reeser in 1951, plus a number that are less well known.

Also included are dissenting verdicts, noting where a probable natural cause has been exaggerated to create mystification, or even outright fabrication has occurred.  As well as the alcohol theory, Watson looks at various conjectures put forward, from the superficially plausible to the far-fetched,  These include the hypothetical ‘fire leynes’, analogous to ley lines, on which patterns of mysterious burning can be discerned; bacterial action that can generate heat; methane produced by diet (that would have to be a lot of cabbage, and sadly there have no reports of people charmingly setting their flatulence on fire burning to death); static electricity; chemical processes at the cellular level; acetone produced in the body; ball lightning; the wick effect, with the body’s fat soaking into clothing once ignited by say a dropped cigarette; a cover for criminal acts, such as abuse or murder; even aliens.  That such varied ideas could be discussed with no consensus being formed indicates just how peculiar SHC is.

The mental state of victims could also be relevant, and Watson ponders the suggestion that SHC could be a form of ‘psychic suicide’ in those who are old, ill, depressed, alcoholic, lonely, or generally without hope.  These psychological factors could perhaps interact with geophysical variables, such as geomagnetic activity (which has also been implicated as a factor in extra-sensory perception).  Or perhaps they don’t – who knows.

As the book concludes, it is remarkable that SHC is so rare.  Any given explanation should apply to huge numbers of people, but there is something that marks those specific individuals out.  It is not surprising then that there is scepticism in some quarters whether SHC exists at all.  There is clearly a lot of misreporting of one kind or another, and it would be easy to dismiss written accounts as journalistic exaggeration, but when faced with photographs of the tragic results it is difficult to dismiss such deaths as merely the result of drunken pensioners dropping lighted fags down the sides of armchairs which set them on fire while they blissfully sleep on.

Watson does a useful job in outlining some of the complex issues for a lay audience in under 8,000 words, and is even-handed in discussing all shades of opinion, but suggestions for further reading would have been useful for those whose interest has been kindled.

More information on the series can be found at: http://www.unexplainedrapidreads.com/

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