‘The Signal Man’ by Charles Dickens

In a word, I should have set this man down as one of the safest of men to be employed in that capacity, but for the circumstance that while he was speaking to me he twice broke off with a fallen colour, turned his face towards the little bell when it did NOT ring, opened the door of the hut (which was kept shut to exclude the unhealthy damp), and looked out towards the red light near the mouth of the tunnel. On both of those occasions, he came back to the fire with the inexplicable air upon him which I had remarked, without being able to define, when we were so far asunder.
Said I when I rose to leave him: ‘You almost make me think that I have met with a contented man.’
(I am afraid I must acknowledge that I said it to lead him on.)
‘I believe I used to be so,’ he rejoined, in the low voice in which he had first spoken; ‘but I am troubled, sir, I am troubled.’

I am not unique in being a ghost story writer highly influenced by BBCTV’s Ghost Stories for Christmasseries which was broadcast throughout the 1970s. The best of these were directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark, and the best of those, adapted as it was by Andrew Davies (now notorious for ‘sexing up’ the classics), was The Signal Man (1979), boasting in its cast list Denholm Elliot, whose performance the director has described as “wound up like a coiled spring”. The Dickens story is no less taut or perfectly realised than its small screen cousin. Only a year before its publication, he himself had been involved in the Staplehurst rail crash of 1865, when his train jumped a gap and plunged off a viaduct, hanging in the void. Dickens had helped in the rescue of passengers, but it is said the experience had a traumatic effect on him – Peter Ackroyd opines it hastened him to his death in 1870 – and it is not hard to see panic disorder and horrific flashbacks pervading the short story that emerged from it. Dickens also knew that the best ghost stories operate not with unequivocal belief but with doubt as their engine. Is it true, or all in the mind? The Signal Man, then, is a struggle between rational thinking and the lure of the supernatural. It is tempting for us  to think of Dickens and M. R. James as writers of cosy, even quaint and innocuous terrors, but we should remind ourselves their times were not antiquarian, dusty and distant when they were writing. Their world was modern and real. A train wasn’t a symbol of nostalgia of a bygone age: to the Victorian imagination it symbolised death, the very real fear of disaster. Dickens was not only using the emblem of his trauma, but a contemporary fear of hurtling, out of control, technology – the same thing that inspires much contemporary fiction today.  

First published as part of the ‘Mugby Junction’ collection in the 1866 Christmas edition of All the Year Round; collected in The Complete Ghost Stories of Charles Dickens, Wordsworth Classics 1998 It can be read online here

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