No. 1 Branch Line: The Signalman

In which a railway signalman receives strange warnings from a cryptic figure.

By Charles Dickens

First published in 1866

Available online at Gaslight e-texts

(AKA “The Signal-Man”)

In an earlier essay, I came up with a list of three stories which together comprise the crashiest of crash courses in classic English ghost fiction. These are:

I’ve already covered “’Oh, Whistle‘” and “The Red Lodge.”  I’ve deliberately saved “The Signalman” for last, primarily because it’s the most famous of the three.  In the UK, at least, this is a much-loved story; it’s been adapted by the BBC as a Christmastime ghost special and praised by Dr. Who.  In the US, it’s not as well-known, but perhaps that’s because many of us prefer our Dickensian specters to be (say) cheerful, burly, and sporting wreaths on their heads.  We like the ghosts in A Christmas Carol because they’re all about moral uplift, and have clearly defined goals. Ominous apparitions of ambiguous provenance need not apply.

That, however, the sort of ghost we’re dealing with here — if it’s a ghost at all.  Dickens allows us to interpret it as an hallucination, or a representation of precognitive insight.  We ultimately don’t know what it is, and this ambiguity makes this “The Signalman” a important precursor to Robert Aickman‘s fiction a century later.

This story also has one of the most effective openings in all of supernatural fiction.  It unsettles me as much now as it did when I was 14:

 “‘Halloa!  Below there!’

“When he heard a voice thus calling to him, he was standing at the door of his box, with a flag in his hand, furled round its short pole.  One would have thought, considering the nature of the ground, that he could not have doubted from what quarter the voice came; but instead of looking up to where I stood on the top of the steep cutting nearly over his head, he turned himself about, and looked down the Line.  There was something remarkable in his manner of doing so, though I could not have said for my life what.  But I know it was remarkable enough to attract my notice, even though his figure was foreshortened and shadowed, down in the deep trench, and mine was high above him, so steeped in the glow of an angry sunset, that I had shaded my eyes with my hand before I saw him at all.”

Dickens establishes that something’s wrong merely by having a character look in an unexpected direction. It’s a remarkable small moment.

The nameless narrator of the story decides that he must speak with the signalman he sees at the bottom of a deep railway cut, near a tunnel opening. Why he should wish to do this is never explained; all we learn about the main character is that he is “a man who had been shut up within narrow limits all his life, and who, being at last set free, had a newly-awakened interest in these great works.”

For his part, the signalman is reticent.  He’s a man with a strange weight on his mind:

“He directed a most curious look towards the red light near the tunnel’s mouth, and looked all about it, as if something were missing from it, and then looked at me.

“That light was part of his charge?  Was it not?

“He answered in a low voice,—’Don’t you know it is?’

“The monstrous thought came into my mind, as I perused the fixed eyes and the saturnine face, that this was a spirit, not a man.  I have speculated since, whether there may have been infection in his mind.

“In my turn, I stepped back.  But in making the action, I detected in his eyes some latent fear of me.  This put the monstrous thought to flight.

“‘You look at me,’ I said, forcing a smile, ‘as if you had a dread of me.’

“‘I was doubtful,’ he returned, ‘whether I had seen you before.’


“He pointed to the red light he had looked at.

“‘There?’ I said.

“Intently watchful of me, he replied (but without sound), ‘Yes.'”

The signalman has seen a mysterious figure on two previous occasions.  It appeared near the mouth of the tunnel, and made gestures; the first time these were gestures of warning, the second, gestures of grief.  Both times, the apparition was a harbinger of death.

Now, it has appeared for a third time.  The signalman is distraught:

“‘What is its warning against?’ he said, ruminating, with his eyes on the fire, and only by times turning them on me.  ‘What is the danger?  Where is the danger?  There is danger overhanging somewhere on the Line.  Some dreadful calamity will happen.  It is not to be doubted this third time, after what has gone before.  But surely this is a cruel haunting of me.  What can I do?'”

Here, “The Signalman” does something that few ghost stories do:  it critiques ambiguity. The signalman is being asked to make a life-or-death decision on the basis of slim data, and he demands a better omen.

Re-reading “The Signalman” again after many years, it also struck me how much this story has in common with a subgenre of science fiction that was popular in the 20th century, a body of stories dealing with psi powers and discontents of those who have them.  The “Precognition” entry of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction sums these up:

“Characters whose foresight of the future is perversely impotent extend from the hero of J D Beresford’s ‘Young Strickland’s Career’ (in Signs and Wonders, coll 1921) to the heroine of C J Cherryh’s aptly titled ‘Cassandra’ (October 1978 F&SF); and Philip K Dick’s precogs, notably the title character of The World Jones Made (1956), rarely get much joy out of their abilities.”

Dickens’s signalman fits in perfectly alongside the characters in those works; in fact, “The Signalman” could be considered a link between Dickens and Dick.  This gives the story a modern feel that not many 147-year-old stories possess.

That may be one factor in its success, but I suspect that the main reason for the longevity of “The Signalman” is that it’s a perfect fireside tale.  It works because the plunge into the unknown it depicts is something that seems possible in our everyday lives, in a world as vague and as frequently menacing as ours is.