BUILDING A FORTEAN LIBRARY
The UFO Experience
There is certainly a touch of madness about the late Michael Harrison’s Fire from Heaven (1976), the first full-length treatment of the subject. Harrison was convinced that spontaneous human combustion (SHC) is real, and is a manifestation of “the paranormal”; and that all paranormal phenomena are somehow connected, aspects of one another. This led him to adduce such heterogeneous matters as the Egryn Lights of 1905, cattle mutilations, the ‘slow vaulting’ of dancerVaslav Nijinsky, dowsing, the séance-room exploits of Nina Kulagina, Florence Cook and Eusapia Palladino, the 1908 Tunguska fireball, the prophets Ezekiel, Jeremiah and Elijah, poltergeists, telekinesis and psychokinesis, idiot savants, the ‘etheric body’, and the human aura as detected by Kirlian photography. He even manages to squeeze in a passing mention of UFOs and another of astrology. A certain “Mr Robert Rickard” is severely ticked off for “unscientific arrogance” for having questioned Harrison’s claim that certain SHC sites are linked by the sound of the first syllable of their names. Harrison continually rails, even rages, against the arrogance, closedmindedness and blindness of science throughout, by the way, and it gets old real fast. Devotees of ‘ley lines’ should be pissed off that ‘earth energies’ don’t get a look in.
Chakras and kundalini energy are likewise ignored, though yoga features briefly.
We first read this strange book some decades ago in its original edition, and before re-reading the 1990 revision for this piece had forgotten almost everything about it except the description of Nijinsky’s ‘slow vaulting’. Apparently, the dancer would (as ballet dancers do) leap high into the air – but then float slow and stately down. Whether illusion or reality (Harrison has a long footnote ascribing the feat to others as well), the phenomenon is indubitably intriguing, and it’s left unexplained – as is its connection to SHC. Anyone know more?
The scatter-brained, prolix mishmash that is Fire from Heaven is certainly entertaining – gripping, even, if you buy his premisses – and has a good sample of the usual suspects among SHC victims. But it’s not what we’d call authoritative. Nor is another full-length book on SHC, Larry Arnold’s Ablaze! (1995). While this introduces us to some new alleged cases, Arnold rather lets himself down by inventing – he might call it deducing – a hitherto (and since) unheard-of subatomic particle, the ‘pyrotron’, that vaporises people through a sub-atomic chain reaction. Jenny Randles’s and Peter Hough’s earlier Spontaneous Human
Combustion (1992) indulges too in half a dozen chapters of theorising. These – not always best focused – cover body chemistry, body electricity, lightning strikes, balls of fire (which perhaps inevitably veers into UFOs, including the Cash-Landrum case), force fields (which lures them into the well-debunked Philadelphia experiment) and kundalini energy. The relevance of some of this isn’t always obvious, and they apply the term SHC to cows and rabbits – which is confusing, to say the least. But wisely they refrain from plumping for any particular mechanism behind SHC. The book’s great virtues are that it’s packed with case histories, many the result of the authors’ original and industrious research, and they are – available information permitting – scrupulously analysed. A prime example is their treatment of the apparent survivor of SHC, Jack Angel; a case which, on examination, turns out to be more than somewhat ambiguous.
The outstanding book on SHC is John E Heymer’s The Entrancing Flame (1996). Heymer was, as he says, the first author on the subject who “had the double advantage of having witnessed the aftermath of such an occurrence while also being a forensically trained investigator.” He was also an autodidact of encyclopædic erudition. With some vehemence he trundles out the standard SHC author’s denunciations of the wilful obtuseness of coroners, and the incompetence or cowardice of scientists. But he balances that by explaining exactly where coroners have dishonestly ignored awkward evidence and limits his criticism of science to the scientists who reject the notion of SHC out of hand, and who’ve tried, and generally failed, to demonstrate their beloved ‘wick effect’. And he rejects (you can almost hear his eyes rolling) paranormal and ‘supernatural’ approaches to SHC, insisting that any eventual explanation for it will be entirely with the bounds of natural laws. He arrived at this outlook by an idiosyncratic route: he says that in his early teens he read the Bible
right through, didn’t believe a word of it, and became an atheist. From that position he rejects all things supernatural and, one suspects, immaterial. Not sure Aristotle would approve the logic of this, but it saves Heymer’s readers from Michael-Harrisonstyle panoplies of quasi-mystical relations among everything and nothing.
Heymer spent a quarter-century in the Gwent (Wales) police, and a fair proportion of those years as a scenes-of-crime officer. In 1980, he concluded he’d seen his first case of SHC after he was called to look over the corpse of Henry Thomas, or what was left of it. The salient points of the scene were that the room was virtually airtight, some plastic fittings were melted, and only the chair in which Thomas had sat was burned. Henry Thomas himself was essentially a mass of ash – including the bones, which had turned to white powder. His skull was a shrunken, blackened mass. And: “Lying on the carpet between the ashes and the shoes was a pair of male
human feet clothed in socks [his emphasis]. The undamaged feet protruded from short lengths of trouser leg bottoms… The remains of the trouser legs had a thin, charred edge, as if cut by a laser beam. The transition from undamaged cloth to ash was immediate…” Fresh kindling had been placed in the hearth, suggesting the fire hadn’t been lit when Thomas burst into flame – and he was anyway a couple of feet from it. And Thomas didn’t smoke. There was a greasy, glutinous deposit all over the room. It was a classic SHC scene.
There was one humorous aspect: forensic scientists found a bit of skin on the grate, which they reckoned had been scraped off Thomas’s forehead when he fell into the fire and caught light. It turned out, on analysis, to be bovine skin. Hearing this, Heymer’s superintendent remarked wryly: “So, it seems, John, that there was this passing cow…” Adding to the general bemusement was the discovery on postmortem examination that the state of some of his tissues showed that Henry Thomas was still alive when he started to burn. Which raises the question: why didn’t he do something about it? Heymer’s conclusion, after examining the literature, is that SHC victims fall into a trance before the fire takes hold – hence the title of his book. The classic explanation was that SHC favoured persons who were not exactly strangers to the grape (Dickens uses the trope in Bleak House), and were consequently too besotted to know what was happening to them. Heymer debunks this one along the way, as well as the oft-repeated claim that SHC victims are always fat, elderly females.
If apparent SHC victims aren’t in a trance, or habitually slewed, and the famous ‘wick effect’ is the true cause of their demise, this lack of reaction is peculiar. Brian Dunning (‘The Skeptoid’) explains the wick effect thus: “The flame on a candle’s wick is small, but its temperature is very hot; thus it has a powerful melting effect within its tiny sphere of influence. This melts the wax into liquid, which is drawn up the wick, where it vaporises and burns. The wick itself does not burn due to the cooling effect of the vaporisation; but once the wax is gone, the wick burns away as well.” This assumes that the victim’s clothing is set on fire by an external source, such as a hot coal (and the victim snoozes on). The fire heats the body, the body fat melts and drips out of the body onto the clothing, which then acts like the wick of a candle, until the body fat is consumed. This should also explain why the surroundings remain unburned, although the heat is intense enough to melt plastic fittings. And there is the whole problem of how victims’ bones are reduced to white ash, which is more than crematoria can manage. Even if one has a less than committed view of the reality of SHC, debunkers ought to have addressed these little local difficulties with their blanket explanations. And they haven’t. As Heymer takes some pleasure in pointing out, the demonstrations of the wick effect for various television documentaries have been dismal failures (he reserves as much exasperated ire for TV producers as he does for intransigent coroners).
Perhaps the most compelling case Heymer makes for SHC is that of a character known only as “the tramp Bailey” (pictured above). Bailey was found at the bottom of the stairs in a derelict house in Lambeth, south London, with a jet of blue flame issuing “at force” from a 4in (10cm)-wide slit in his abdomen. Bailey had reacted to that: his jaws were sunk into the newel post from the pain. His right hand was burnt away. He was known to be a meths drinker, but no trace of any possible source of ignition was nearby – only grand houses have fireplaces in the hall, and anyway gas and electricity supplies had been cut off – or on his person; and he was known not to smoke. Floor, stairs, and newel post were scorched. It seems Bailey died from asphyxiation from his own fire fumes. As Heymer notes, sceptics dedicated to the ‘wick effect’ are most careful to avoid this case.
Heymer produces an hypothesis that SHC – which by definition starts within the body – is caused by malfunctioning mitochondria. We’re not competent to judge that, but it’s also noticeable that debunkers haven’t either. Not that debunkers are always implausible, even if they can be snobs, for instance about Larry Arnold’s day-job as a bus driver. The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry website (www.csicop.com) has plenty of their own objections to SHC. John Heymer’s book remains a fine monument to the proposition that there’s something – just something very odd and unexplained – to these gruesome conflagrations. _____________________________
Michael Harrison, Fire from Heaven, Sidwick & Jackson, 1976; Skoob Books, revised and expanded edition, 1990.
Larry Arnold, Ablaze!, M Evans & Co, 1995.
Jenny Randles and Peter Hough, Spontaneous Human Combustion, Robert Hale, 1992.
John E Heymer, The Entrancing Flame, Little, Brown & Co, 1996.
“GENERALLY SPEAKING, BOOKS DON’T CAUSE MUCH HARM. EXCEPT WHEN YOU READ THEM, THAT IS. THEN THEY CAUSE ALL KINDS OF PROBLEMS.” Pseudonymous Bosch