Charles Dickens pulled off a literary first when he gave a detailed account of the aftereffects of spontaneous human combustion in his epic novel Bleak House. The recounting went like this: While sitting and dozing in his cluttered room, Mr. Krook — a grizzled, alcohol-steeped rag merchant — abruptly burst into flames, leaving just a rancid smell and a gruesome pile of skeletal ash in his wake.
Dickens, a writer of keen detail and authenticity was always taken at his word by the public. And so one of the most horrifying images from the 19th Century claimed a spot in the collective imagination.
Even today, tales of spontaneous combustion continue to flare up (sorry) in the tabloids. And if those are not genuine, still, the impression of a human being inadvertently bursting into flames is a striking symbol — both mythic and alchemic.
I recalled Dickens and Mr. Krook while contemplating an illustration to mark Saturn’s entry into Capricorn on December 19. The image is fitting while Saturn closes in behind Pluto’s smoldering trail; a path that appeared like a flash fire after the tiny dynamo entered Capricorn in 2008.
The two planets will conjoin in January of 2020. Take this as an alert from the solar system’s public warning system.