11 July 2020

FLAMING MYSTERIES

Louis Proud. Borderland Phenomena. Volume One, Spontaneous Combustion, Poltergeistery and Anomalous Lights. August Night Books, 2019.

Louis Proud’s first book, Dark Intrusions, [reviewed here] examined the phenomenon of sleep paralysis, and the often alarming visions associated with them. In it he drew very much on his own experiences, and his attempts to find some sort of understanding that would allow him to come to terms with them.
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This book, as the title suggests, deals with a wider range of phenomena. It begins with an examination of human spontaneous combustion (SHC). This is a particularity odd paranormal phenomenon, in that it exist purely in the form of ‘physical evidence’, something which is regarded as the gold standard for other phenomena.

The conventional explanation, one usually relied on by coroners and others forced to deal with the physical evidence, is that the body in question was consumed through the ‘wick effect’, where supposedly the victim’s clothes, catching fire through a carelessly dropped match, cigarette or ember falling from the grate, act as in the manner of a candle wick, burning the fat from the cadaver as it melts through contact with the flame. This is held as an explanation for why combustion does not spread to other objects in the room, or even to the seat or bed in which the victim was lying.

Of course it is ethically impossible to conduct an experiment to confirm this, and the experience of people who actually do burn bodies – crematorium workers – does not offer much support to this hypothesis.

After leaving us rather baffled at the end of the first part of the book, Proud seems to go off on a tangent, discussing poltergeists. He considers the possibility of Spontaneous Psychokinesis as a possible way of explaining such cases, possibly connected with psychic disturbances in the person of the ‘focus’ of the phenomena, usually an adolescent, most often female. He gives a sad example of such a case from his own family history. However, he is well aware of the impossibility of explaining one unexplained phenomena by invoking another unexplained phenomena.

Then there seems to be another jump, as part three of the book looks at ‘anomalous lights’. But this starts off with examining more examples of SHC, then fish-falls, more polts and an excursion into a discussion of djinns. However the anomalous lights that are the core of his argument are phenomena such as ‘earth-lights’, earthquake lights, and ball lightning. And at this point he begins to bring the disparate phenomena together.

It is only comparatively recently that ball lightning has become a scientifically respectable phenomenon. Its behaviour can be incredibly strange, and Proud cites examples which still seem to be well within the concept of ‘borderland phenomena’, especially when one considers that even ‘regular’ lightning has many unexplained aspects.

Is there a link, Proud wonders, between the types of energies which are responsible for SHC, poltergeists and anomalous light phenomena? Is SHC the result of the same sort of energy which creates ball-lighting being attracted to, or even forming within, a human body?

Rightly, he does not try to draw any conclusions, and as in S D Tucker’s book on poltergeists, reviewed here, he is careful to point out that he is merely retelling and not reinvestigating, the individual cases described, which are taken mostly from secondary sources, although his references and reading lists are extensive. I am still not convinced that he has made a case for a link between the phenomena described in this book – nor, to be fair is he – but he provides a great deal of fascinating material for speculation in an interesting and perhaps rather macabrely entertaining volume. – John Rimmer.

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