Charles Dickens’ short tale of the supernatural, The Signal-Man begins with,
Halloa! Below there…
A ghost story of quality should be simple and use language to create atmosphere, tension and generally – to coin a cliché – raise the hairs on the back of one’s neck. Dickens delivers with a chilling compact example of a classic ghost story; a shocking account of one man’s haunting amidst rails and tram noises.
The tale first appeared in the Christmas edition of the magazine All Year Round, in 1866. It is believed that the master wordsmith used personal experience from his direct involvement in the Staplehurst Rail Crash of 1865. After surviving the tragedy, he nursed other victims, some of whom passed away whilst he was with them. Dickens suffered what would now be known as post-traumatic stress syndrome, losing his voice for two weeks.
From that day onwards he sought other means of transport when travelling. In a letter to an old school friend Thomas Mitton, he conveyed his feelings.
I am a little shaken, not by the beating and dragging of the carriage in which I was, But by the hard work afterwards in getting out the dying and the dead which was most horrible.
The celebrated author even risked his life after the derailment to clamber back into the carriage to retrieve his working manuscript of Our Mutual Friend. Some say he never got over this tragedy and five years after the crash, he died on the anniversary of the day it had occurred, 9 June 1870.
The location of a railway line for a ghost story is quite unsettling. Places that are usually bustling and busy when completely still and empty can convey an unnameable terror; think of an open plan office after hours, a desolate 24 hour supermarket with its lonely aisles, or a completely empty swimming pool. Dickens cleverly taps into the public collected subconscious, the unnerving attitude to the transitional times of industrialisation. (Rail travel was relatively new in Victorian England). He also very cleverly preys on one of humankind’s universal traits, that of curiosity.
The story unfolds through the eyes of the narrator and the Signal-Man is never given a name, which creates a cold distance from the onset. He had fixed eyes and a saturnine face. The reader shares with the narrator’s bewilderment at the strange behaviour of the signal-man.
The monstrous thought came into my mind….that this was a spirit not a man. I have speculated since, whether there may have been infection in his mind.
The troubled signal-man keeps staring at a bell that only he can hear ring, this everyday object is used as a menacing instrument to scare.
There is a celebrated TV adaptation of the piece by Andrew Davies, first broadcast in 1976. This seminal work stands alongside the 1968 adaptation of M.R James’ Oh, Whistle, And I’ll Come to You, My Lad, both outstanding examples of the less is more school of horror. (The latter was re-made in 2010 with distinguished actor John Hurt playing the protagonist).
Charles Dickens and M.R James recognise that ghost stories work at their best when the reader is taken on a journey, questions and has to fill in the blanks with their imagination. It is not necessarily what is said, but what is not, the unknown that gives that all important shiver factor. You know a story has worked when you quicken the speed when passing an open door to a darkened room in your familiar home, you awake and rapidly seek the light switch and when bedroom objects take on a monstrous guise, a simple coat and hat stand can appear as a hooded shadowy figure.
So this Hallowe’en, read by candlelight either alone or out loud to friends and family, a simple ghost story. This will indeed, I promise be more of a fearful experience than sitting down to watch SAW 14 or another similar gore fest.
Good night and sleep tight!