Famous for his charismatic whit, irony, and satire, Charles Dickens’ ghost stories often typified the Victorian supernatural aesthetic – chilling but charming – but his most famous short ghost story defied convention, shocked readers, and disturbs to this day. The reason for all of this may be the personal element involved: Dickens’ “The Signal-Man” is based on the most influential tragedy of his later life, a tragedy which weighed on him until he was committed to his grave.
On June 9, 1865 at 3:13 in the afternoon, an elderly Charles Dickens was travelling by train with his mistress and her mother in southeastern England when the Folkestone-to-London train derailed near Staplehurst due to a signalman’s negligence. The Staplehurst Rail Crash took the lives of ten and left forty injured – some of whom died in Dickens’ arms. The author was traumatized. He lost his voice for two weeks afterward, and avoided trains with phobic-anxiety.
Dying exactly five years later to the day of the Staplehurst crash (June 9, 1870), Dickens, as his son stated, “never fully recovered” from the shock.
Written a year after the disaster, this cathartic ghost tale features a responsible signalman haunted in an emotionally exhaustive sense by Dickens’ own wasting phantom: the helplessness to save life in spite of one’s best efforts. The titular railroadman’s angst mirrors Dickens’ eerily.
“The Signal-Man” begins with a dreary, hellish landscape reminiscent of Dante. At the bottom of a fissure cut through rock – dominated by two towering walls of grim stone – the signalman (a railroad worker who operates a series of visual and telegraphic signals meant to warn oncoming trains of track conditions) monitors a great, chasm of a tunnel, illuminated only by a red railway lantern. The narrator meets the man after uninetenionally spooking him by shouting “Halloa! Bellow there!” while looking down on his signal box from the top of the rock wall. After assuring his new friend that he has never said that before and that he didn’t intentionally choose that phrasing, and promising never to do it again, the narrator convinces the nerve-rattled man to explain his jitters. He has seen a vision of a figure standing by the tunnel’s black mouth on two separate occasions. Each visitation was followed by a tragedy: the first appearance preceded a fiery train crash in the dark bowels of the tunnel (a portmanteau of Dickens experience and the 1861 Clayton Tunnel crash which caused 199 casualties), and the second was followed by the death of a beautiful young woman on a passing train. On the first occasion, the figure covered its face with its left arm and shouted “Halloa! Bellow there!” Reluctantly, the man admits to having seen the spectre several times over the past few weeks, and to be haunted by ringing alarm bells when the bells are clearly standing still.
The signalman is frustrated and exhausted, certain that the vision is warning of a third tragedy, something which he is desperate to stop, but incapable of guessing what it might be or of warning oncoming trains without admitting that he has no specific danger in mind. As a minor railway employee he has no ability, authority, or means of preventing the disaster. The narrator encourages him to be strong, promising to return. The next day he revisits the fissure and sees a man at the tunnel’s mouth, making the sinister hand motion. Far from a ghost, however, it is one of a group of shaken railway employees. Beside them is the signalman’s corpse, covered with a sheet – he has been struck by an oncoming train. In questioning the man at the tunnel’s mouth, he learns that he is the engineer. The man nervously explains that he saw the signalman – who all the railroaders agree was an exemplary professional – standing at the tunnel’s mouth as if in a trance. Covering his face with his left arm (to avoid seeing the inevitable collision), the man called hopelessly out to him: “Bellow there! Look out!”
Helplessness is the aura that hovers over the signalman’s hell-like dominion. Dickens’ signalman is incapable of preventing tragedy – including his own meaningless death – and the narrator is incapable of helping his friend at the bottom of the purgatorial railway chasm. The signalman’s death is unique amongst Dickens’ often sentimental, satirical, or moralistic ghost stories. His oft-anthologized “To Be Taken With a Grain of Salt” features a ghost appearing to a man who is later selected as a juryman to the trial of the spirit’s murderer. After the Staplehurst Rail Crash, a change fell over Dickens, perhaps best-indicated in his grim unfinished novel of murder and intrigue, ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’. Nothing is moralized by the signalman’s death; it is almost Kafkaesque in its meaningless sacrifice.
Nothing is learned from the ghost – not even revealed. Like E. Nesbit’s grim tale “Semi-Detached” (a man foresees a woman with her throat cut in a bed on a particular date; his warnings are ignored and the vision comes to fruition) and Rhoda Broughton’s “Nothing But the Truth” (a skeptical aristocrat spends the night in a haunted room for a bet, only to die of terror), Dickens’ pessimistic episode transmits a sense of unprotected vulnerability and cosmic alienation stripped of the theatrics of “Grain of Salt” or the moralisms of A Christmas Carol. While those classics deserve their dues and their place in anthologies, “The Signal-Man” differs from them in a way that rallies alongside radical innovators in the horror genre. Who was the ghost? Was it even trying to help? We are never told. It does not matter. The signalman is dead, and the mystery dies with him.