Winter is a time for stories of the strange, the supernatural, and the ghostly. With long dark evenings, what better way to pass the time than to gather round the fire and tell tales of the mysterious things that are abroad? And if we have swapped the fire for a television or tablet these days, and our stories are those of Strictly Come Dancing or The X-Factor, how far have we really come? We still worry about noises outside in the darkness, and there is little more ghoulish a spectacle than the wringer The X-Factor’s poor contestants are put through.
So, get comfortable, reach for your glass of sherry/mug of hot chocolate, warm your feet by the fire/radiator, and settle in for perhaps the greatest transport ghost story of them all: Charles Dickens’ The Signalman.
First published in 1866, the plot is reasonably well-known, though this short story is nowhere near as famous as any of Dickens’ novels. Nevertheless, if you don’t want to be spoiled (can you really have spoilers for 151-year-old plot twists?) best look away for the next two paragraphs.
The story involves an unnamed narrator coming upon a deep railway cutting and seeing a signalman in his signal box, far below. The narrator makes his way to the signal box, only to find the signalman a haunted man. He hears phantom bell rings on his telegraph equipment and has twice seen an apparition at the mouth of the nearby tunnel. The first time, the apparition covered its face with one arm and waved the other arm violently as if to say ‘clear the way’. Its appearance was followed by a fatal train crash nearby. The second time, the apparition covered its face with its hands, Weeping Angel-style, and that appearance was followed by the discovery of dead young woman in a train that passed the signal box.
Now, with the narrator trying to convince the signalman that these events cannot be the work of the supernatural but instead in his own mind, the signalman has seen the apparition again. He cannot understand what he is being warned about, nor why he should be receiving these warnings. He is distressed nearly out of his senses. The narrator returns the next day, only to find the signalman dead, having been caught standing in the tracks at the mouth of the tunnel (we assume, trying to confront the apparition). Dickens has described an early ‘bootstrap paradox’, or causal loop. The signalman has gone to investigate what the apparition is warning about, and it is this that causes his death, which is what the apparition was warning about, but the warning creates the death, which creates the warning…
The story was always going to come to its climax with the third appearance of the mysterious apparition. Things always go in threes in stories. Dickens himself employed three ghosts (past, present and future) in 1843’s A Christmas Carol, but three has a much, much older mythic provenance in stories, rhymes, legends and sacred accounts. There are three billy goats gruff, three bears, three wishes, three ships I saw sailing by, and three kings, to name but a few.
The really interesting thing about The Signalman, however, is that it’s not primarily a ghost story at all, but rather one of the finest literary expressions of the Victorian fear of railway technology. Dickens himself had a special insight into this. He has been described as the last victim of the Staplehurst train crash of 1865 (only a year before the publication of The Signalman). A train in which Dickens was travelling derailed on a viaduct near Staplehurst, in an accident which killed 10 passengers and injured many more. Maintenance workers had removed a length of track from the viaduct, believing (wrongly) that no trains were due. A worker with a red flag, who should have been positioned to warn trains to stop, was too close to the missing track to allow sufficient stopping distance. Dickens remained extremely nervous of train travel from then on, and died five years later, with those close to him suggesting he had never fully recovered from the trauma of the crash.
No surprise then, that the railway should conjure up so many negative emotions in The Signalman. To the general mid-19th Century suspicion of the railways was added Dickens’ own personal fear.
The cutting is “as solitary and dismal a place as ever I saw. On either side, a dripping-wet wall of jagged stone…this great dungeon.” The tunnel entrance has “a barbarous, depressing, and forbidding air” and the whole place makes the narrator feel as if he has “left the natural world”. The funny thing is, I know how he feels. Because when I was a child, that was exactly how I felt about the long series of cuttings and tunnels between Lime Street and Edge Hill stations in Liverpool. They were tall, dark and wet. I was new to railways, fearful and over-awed. In contrast, in the 1800s, it was the railways that were new to people, but with much the same end result.
But it was the technology of the railways – its profound unnaturalness and dehumanising potential – which also concerned Dickens and many of his contemporaries. And it’s all there in The Signalman. The railways were a huge undertaking, but once constructed, required a new way of working far removed from the honest manual labour of pre-industrial Britain, which Dickens was old enough to remember. As The Signalman‘s narrator says, “…of actual work – manual labour – he [the signalman] had next to none. To change that signal, to trim those lights, and to turn his iron handle now and then, was all he had to do.” The narrator then asks, “could he [the signalman] never rise into the sunshine from between those high stone walls?” Although the signalman confirms he can, the narrator discovers that, “being at all times liable to be called by his electric bell, and at such times listening for it with redoubled anxiety, the relief was less than I would suppose”.
The technology of the railways has, in other words, enslaved this employee in its mechanics, cutting him off from the sunlight and the natural world. The narrator therefore decides that the signalman’s alleged sightings of the apparition, and his terror of them, is “the mental torture of a conscientious man, oppressed beyond endurance by an unintelligible responsibility involving life.”
Except that’s not the problem at all.
Most people, if they know The Signalman at all, know it from the BBC’s television adaptation of 1976, starring Denhom Elliott as the signalman and Bernard Lloyd as the narrator.
Nevertheless, it’s an enjoyable and accessible read, rather in the vein that Roald Dahl would later mine with his Tales of the Unexpected. It’s certainly less of a challenge than one of Dickens’ full length novels which, while being considerably more famous, tend towards doing double duty as doorstops.
And how can you not love the description of the railway cutting in which the story takes place, and the uncomfortable boundary between nature, and the fearsome technologies of the railway?
“Listen for a moment to the wind in this unnatural valley, and to the wild harp it makes of the telegraph wires…”
Bibliography and Further Reading
Bradley, Simon (2016): Railways, The – Nation, Network & People. Profile Books: London
Hayes, Michael [editor] (1978): Supernatural Stories of Charles Dickens, The. John Calder: London