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the sleep of reason

by Michael Swanwick

with illustrations by
Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes


9. [Plate 18]
Spontaneous Human Combustion

The Devil, that old drunkard, likes to nip down into the material world every now and then for a good old-fashioned bender. He doesn't come in person, of course — he is far too vain to abuse his own perfect physique with drink — but chooses rather to possess the body of somebody who is sure to have plenty of the strong stuff at hand. You might know one of his spirit horses personally. Perhaps you've commented, "The devil's in him tonight!"

Perhaps you spoke truer than you knew.

The Devil is no quiet drunk. He staggers about, smashing things. He likes to piss out the window. If you upbraid him for doing so, he'll curse you back with words so foul you won't believe your ears. He gets into fights.

Above all, he sets fires. Cigarettes fall carelessly from his hands onto mattresses, into wastepaper baskets, down the gullets of gas tanks. He shoves unfinished cigars under the cushions of the couch. He lights matches just so he can stare soddenly at the flames and when they burn his fingers swears and drops them on his waistcoat.

When the Devil's drunk so much he can no longer move, he falls back into a chair and smolders with the heat of his own evil. His touch is hot enough to set fire to a newspaper. If the ventilation is poor, the body he inhabits will eventually burst into flame.

That's the true cause of spontaneous human combustion.

When he's sober, of course, the Devil is a hard-working gentleman. He starts wars and riots, invents new and tyrannical forms of government, and perverts the most benevolent of inventions and the most altruistic of intentions to his own vile purposes. His hands are always busy. The angels in Heaven are not half so industrious as he.

It is for this reason that public drunkenness is to be encouraged.


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This is the 9th of 80 stories by Michael Swanwick written to accompany Francisco Goya's Los Caprichos. For a listing of the most recently available stories, go to The Sleep of Reason.

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