Laying off the Rice and Fish: A Summer of Spontaneous Combustion

On a bright spring morning in 1731 a maid knocked, to no avail, on the bedroom door of the Italian countess Cornelia Zangari, grandmother to the future Pope Pius VI. Receiving no answer, the maid pushed open the door to discover an alarming scene. In between the lady’s bed and the window were the bottom halves of two legs, a few pieces of skull, a small pile of ashes, and some yellowish goo.

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photo credit: Lynn Friedman Dept of Spontaneous Combustion via photopin (license)

The countess was no more, but what happened was anyone’s guess. There were several theories put forward, but the one that carried the day was that of the Reverend Giuseppe Bianchini, who theorized that the vapors from the alcohol bath she had taken before bed combined with the gases in the countess’s system and caught fire. Since she apparently liked to get her drink on, this explanation seemed pretty legit, and by the time Bianchini’s report of the event was translated into English and reached a wider audience, quite a few scientists looking at similarly odd cases, were willing to think he was more or less right.

If the good reverend were correct, then one could avoid spontaneous combustion by living a more temperate and careful life. That was good news for the 18th century masses, which would rather not die in a burst of flames. It’d be good news, too, for us here in the Midwestern US, because we’re in the middle of a good ol’ fashioned Midwestern summer in which the heat index is regularly well over a hundred degrees and if, God forbid, we have to get into our cars after they’ve been parked for an hour on a blacktop parking lot, we are pretty sure we’ll burst into flames.

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Pretty much what it feels like to live in the Midwest in July. Image by geralt, via Pixabay

Of course maybe we will, because even nearly three hundred years later, the scientific community isn’t in agreement about the causes, or even the reality, of spontaneous combustion. Over the years there have been numerous explanations for the phenomenon, from the ridiculous notion that such fires likely came from a nearby external source, to the claim that the fires result from a diet too high in rice and fish.

Regardless of whether we need to worry about suddenly disappearing in a flame of glory, events that fire investigators and nosy neighbors can’t figure out how to explain are few and far between. In fact we might not even know much about them at all if the case of the Italian countess hadn’t been made famous by Charles Dickens, who used the event as inspiration for the death of Mr. Krook in Bleak House.

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No way is this man going to let the truth get in the way of good fiction. Charles Dickens by Antoine Claudet, 1852. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Dickens’s readers bought the scene, trusting the author who gave it to them, but at least one critic did not. Amateur physiologist, as well as literary critic and friend of Dickens, George Henry Lewes was highly vocal in his insistence that the author’s use of spontaneous combustion as a means to an end was “beyond the limits of acceptable fiction.”

And this is where I take Dickens’s side, because fiction is fiction and fire is fire. When the two meet, anything can happen. A drunken rag and bottle merchant can dissolve into a puddle of ash and goo. Or a Midwestern writer can burst into flames in the middle of the grocery store parking lot. Fortunately, truth has higher standards than fiction. It turns out cases of “spontaneous” combustion take place more often in winter, when people tend to keep closer company with fire. So I suspect I’ll be okay. As long as I don’t go too crazy with the rice and fish.

What the Cool Kids are up to this Christmas Season

There’s a strange thing happening in my house this holiday season. The delightfully tacky, lighted, multi-colored star that has topped my Christmas tree for more than a decade has been blinking. It never used to do that.

But this year, about a week into Christmas tree season (which for us begins the day after Thanksgiving), the thing began to develop a personality. Every night we plug it in to discover what color it’s going to be. Sometimes two colors switch on, sometimes only one. Other times all the colors come on or the star blinks for a while in a seemingly random pattern.

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Today it’s orange, which is not a very Christmas-y color. I think it wants to tell us a story that would be more fitting for Halloween.

Of course I realize the star must have a short and we need to replace it before our house burns down, but I jokingly said the other day that I thought it must be possessed. And that’s when my nearly thirteen-year-old son said, “Maybe someone from another dimension is trying to tell us something.”

He was making a reference to the Netflix series, Stranger Things, that you either recently binge watched, or you’ve heard your friends talking about how they did. My husband and I fell under the spell of the series shortly after the second season dropped at the end of October this year, when all the cool kids wouldn’t stop talking about it.

In case you’re not familiar with the show, the basic premise is that something has gone wrong at a secretive government lab near a small town in 1980s Indiana, opening up a gate into another dimension. A boy goes mysteriously missing in the first episode. Trapped in the alternate dimension, the boy manages to communicate with his mother through surges in electricity and she eventually figures out that she can paint her walls with the alphabet and string Christmas lights so he can signal words to her. Oh, and the other dimension contains an insatiable, terrifying, virtually indestructible beast that likes to dimension hop and hunt.

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This could be yours. https://www.ebay.com/i/382304200890?chn=ps

I probably don’t have to tell you that it’s scary. Or that it’s not especially Christmas-y. But that hasn’t stopped Christmastime marketing geniuses from taking advantage of its popularity. Among the racks of ugly sweaters this season, you can find one that includes lights strung above crooked letters of the alphabet, with three that really light up to signal: R-U-N.

Yikes! Merry Christmas.

I suppose the concept of scary stories (and marketing genius) at Christmas aren’t particular to 2017. If you turn on the television at any given time in the month of December, I’m pretty sure you can find at least one version of A Christmas Carol to watch, filled with ghosts, and if you’re lucky, Muppets.

Charles Dickens wrote the original novella in 1843. It took him about six weeks to do it, and his publisher managed to release it December 19th. By Christmas Eve, the first run had sold out.

Dickens was already known as a writer of novels generally published in serial fashion, and with A Christmas Carol, he struck just the right cord with his audience. He rode Victorian surges in both the popularity of frightening stories and in newly imagined secular celebrations of Christmas. He captured people with his project, one that would provide him with a great deal of income through the rest of his life, and in some ways would shape the way Christmas is celebrated even in 2017.

I did (briefly) attempt to determine just how many adaptations of this Christmas ghost story have been made into movies, television specials, operas, radio plays, sitcom episodes, etc. As you can probably imagine, that’s a hard number to tally and I’m not that dedicated, so let’s just agree it’s somewhere around a whole bunch.

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Charles Dickens, penning strange holiday traditions. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

When Dickens wrote his book, it wasn’t exactly a new thing, this telling of ghost stories and scary yarns in wintertime when the nights are long and the cold wind howls through barren trees. Such tales are referenced by playwright Christopher Marlowe in the late 16th century. But it may have been Dickens who so expertly associated the frightening winter tale with the cheery celebration of Christmas.

So I am going to choose to believe that it’s not unusual at all that my son is spending time this Christmas season binge-watching Stranger Things, because all the cool kids have been talking about it, and fortunately he’s much less susceptible to nightmares than I am. But I do think I’m going to take a little time out of my busy Christmas schedule to shop for a new, less blinky and more consistent, star for the top of our tree.