Today, we have a guest post by author and Gothic lover Rayne Hall. First, I’ll introduce her, then she’ll talk about Dickens’ “The Signal-Man” and then she has a special offer regarding her new book you won’t want to miss!
Rayne Hall MA is the author of over 100 books, mostly Dark Fantasy and Gothic Horror, e.g. The Bride’s Curse: Bulgarian Gothic Ghost and Horror Stories. She is also the acclaimed editor of Gothic, Fantasy and Horror anthologies (e.g. Among the Headstones: Creepy Tales from the Graveyard, and author of the bestselling Writer’s Craft series for advanced-level writers, including the bestselling Writer’s Craft series e.g. Writing Gothic Fiction.
Born and raised in Germany, Rayne Hall has lived in China, Mongolia, Nepal and Britain. Now she resides in a village in Bulgaria, where men perform the annual demon dance, ghosts and sirens beckon, and abandoned decaying houses hold memories of a glorious past.
Her lucky black rescue cat Sulu often accompanies her when she explores spooky derelict buildings. He delights in walking across shattered roof tiles, scratching charred timbers and sniffing at long-abandoned hearths. He even senses the presence of ghosts… but that’s another story.
Rayne has worked as an investigative journalist, development aid worker, museum guide, apple picker, tarot reader, adult education teacher, belly dancer, magazine editor, publishing manager and more, and now writes full time.
Why I Love the Gothic Story “The Signal-Man” by Charles Dickens
By Rayne Hall
(copyright Rayne Hall 2023)
Charles Dickens (1812 –1870) was a fiction writer, editor and social critic. Today, he is best known for his novels, including Oliver Twist and David Copperfield, depicting life in Victorian England. Few people realise that Dickens also wrote fine ghost and horror stories.
‘The Signal-Man’ is one of the stories which drew me to the horror genre – the kind of story I like best, Gothic, psychological, atmospheric, scary by implication rather than by gore. Each time I read it, it has the same disturbing effect, leaving me to wonder: what if the narrator had not interfered, had not tried to help the signal-man by calming him? Would the signal-man have paid attention to the call, heeded the warning, and averted the accident? How guilty is the narrator of the signal-man’s death? Does he feel the guilt? Should he?
Throughout the story, the narrator felt and acted compassionate and caring on the one hand, patronising and detached on the other. We don’t learn how he feels at the end, if his ‘superior’ attitude gives way to feeling foolish. As readers, we know only how we would feel in his place.
This is not the only question the author leaves for the readers to decide. Dickens doesn’t even reveal what the signal-man had really seen – or thought he had seen – and where the visions and premonitions had come from.
Although the ending is strong and leaves a powerful impact, it doesn’t answer all questions, and instead encourages the readers to think and draw their own conclusions.
Charles Dickens wrote this story a few months after he survived a horrific railway disaster, the 1865 Staplehurst Rail Crash. The train crossed a viaduct where a section of the rails had been removed for engineering works and derailed, with parts of the train tumbling into the dry riverbed below.
When his carriage hung at a steep angle off the viaduct into the river, Dickens escaped with his life. For hours, he aided injured fellow passengers, some of whom died in his arms. The directors of the railway company presented him with a piece of plate as a token of their appreciation for his assistance.
Dickens never got over this trauma. For two weeks after the accident, he lost his ability to speak, and for the rest of his life, he was terrified of trains and used alternative modes of transport where possible. According to his son, he never fully recovered from the terror of that day.
I know from experience how scary it can be to revisit personal traumas to weave them into fiction. Dickens wrote this story just a few months after the event, with the horrifying events fresh on his mind. This must have required great courage.
A second railway disaster, which happened a few years earlier and was still in the public mind at the time, also fed Dickens’ creative imagination for this tale: the Clayton Tunnel Crash of 1861. A series of human and technical errors, combined with misunderstandings and unfortunate coincidences, caused two trains to crash into each other in a tunnel, killing 23 and injuring 176 passengers.
One of the crucial factors in that train crash was a misunderstanding between two signal-men. An investigation revealed the horrifying conditions under which these men worked: one of them had been working a continuous 24-hour shift! His job required intense, non-stop concentration, and we can imagine how tired his brain was at the time of the accident. Even in his tired state, he did his best to avert the accident, but did not realise that his counterpart at the other end of the tunnel had misunderstood him. When the inquest revealed how these men, on whom the safety of trains and passengers depended, had worked without proper break, a public outcry ensued, and different rules and systems were put in place.
As well as an author and editor, Charles Dickens was a social reformer. Often, he combined these roles, using his fiction to expose intolerable living and working conditions, flagging up social injustices. He saw literature as a springboard to moral and social reform.
No doubt, he was moved by the plight of two signal-men involved in the Clayton Tunnel Crash who had been too tired to avert the disaster. In writing his story, Dickens exposed another aspect of the inhumane working conditions of signal-men.
The story’s titular character lives and works in total isolation, in a remote signal box where he has practically no human contact. As a result, his mental health suffers. Through the narrator’s perspective, Dickens presents it as a life that can descend into madness. Yet this man is in charge of the safety of trains. Dickens used his story to arouse pity for men working under such conditions, and alert the public to the resulting dangers.
In this, he was remarkably successful. Dickens was what we today would call an ‘influencer’. His stories helped shape public opinion influenced the decisions of the authorities, and contributed to several legal reforms.
I admire how Dickens manages to use the plight of fictional characters to expose real social injustices, and to inspire moral, ethical and political action without ever sounding preachy. This, I think, is literature at its noblest: inspiring readers to change their attitudes and bring about improvements, without preaching or dogma.
In tone, this story is decidedly Gothic. I’ve identified the following typical elements of Gothic literature:
The location is isolated, remote, difficult to reach and creepy: ‘The cutting was extremely deep, and unusually precipitate. It was made through a clammy stone, that became oozier and wetter as I went down.’
The building is dark, dilapidated, battered by the elements: ‘His post was in as solitary and dismal a place as ever I saw. On either side, a dripping-wet wall of jagged stone, excluding all view but a strip of sky; the perspective one way only a crooked prolongation of this great dungeon; the shorter perspective in the other direction terminating in a gloomy red light, and the gloomier entrance to a black tunnel, in whose massive architecture there was a barbarous, depressing, and forbidding air. So little sunlight ever found its way to this spot, that it had an earthy, deadly smell; and so much cold wind rushed through it, that it struck chill to me, as if I had left the natural world.’
The means of communication with the outside world are limited. The signal-man can use the telegraph machine to contact his colleagues along the track, and when a train passes, he can exchange a hurried signal with the driver, that’s all – except when a wanderer happens to come to this spot and seek a conversation, like the narrator does, an extremely rare circumstance.
The story begins when an outsider enters the scene, disrupting the status quo. This happens with the first word, the narrator calling “Halloa!”
A growing sense of danger and impending doom pervades the story. We readers know that a disaster will unfold, and are as helpless as the characters to prevent it. ‘There is danger overhanging somewhere on the Line. Some dreadful calamity will happen.’
Darkness, light and shadows create mood and contribute to the plot – for example, the red warning light.
Part of the story unfolds at sunset, that special time of the day when day gives way to night and the sinking sun dyes the horizon. Dickens’ description of the twilight’s effect is sparse, but powerful. ‘… so steeped in the glow of an angry sunset, that I had shaded my eyes with my hand before I saw him at all.’
Windy weather contributes to the atmosphere. ‘The wind and the wires took up the story with a long lamenting wail.’
The tunnel represents the dangerous underground space so common in Gothic fiction. ‘…and the gloomier entrance to a black tunnel, in whose massive architecture there was a barbarous, depressing, and forbidding air. So little sunlight ever found its way to this spot, that it had an earthy, deadly smell; and so much cold wind rushed through it, that it struck chill to me, as if I had left the natural world.’
In typical Gothic fashion, the line between sanity and madness is blurred: The narrator believes that the inhumane isolation has affected the signal-man’s mental health. ‘When I saw him in this state, I saw that for the poor man’s sake, as well as for the public safety, what I had to do for the time was to compose his mind. Therefore, setting aside all question of reality or unreality between us…’
A character has a dark past that he prefers not to reveal. The signal-man mentions having wasted education opportunities in his youth, but does not elaborate. We readers are left to surmise what happened. Since he seems to bear his new life like a penalty for past deeds, it seems likely that he committed something worse than mere classroom truancy.
Paranormal elements are present, e.g. the ghost that appears and disappears. ‘I ran right up at it, and had my hand stretched out to pull the sleeve away, when it was gone.’
There are communications from the supernatural realm, e.g. the warning voice, and the warning bell ringing that only the signal-man can hear: ‘The ghost’s ring is a strange vibration in the bell that it derives from nothing else, and I have not asserted that the bell stirs to the eye. I don’t wonder that you failed to hear it. But I heard it.’
A death contributes to the unfolding story: the demise of the young lady in the train.
Guilt, one of the key elements of Gothic fiction, plays a role when we readers wonder if the narrator caused the signal-man’s death – even though the narrator himself doesn’t seem to feel this guilt.
Great Gothic fiction flag ups and deals with social issues. In this story, it’s the working condition of signal-men.
Of course, no single work of Gothic fiction contains all tropes of Gothic literature. ‘The Signal-Man’ features neither a disputed inheritance nor a forbidden love; those would simply not fit into this plot.
However, one crucial trope of Gothic fiction is conspicuous by its absence: passion.
Throughout the tale, the narrator remains strangely detached and analytical, even when he feels strongly about something. The signal-man, although conscientious, is not passionate about his job. Although he teaches himself in his spare time, he’s not passionate about learning either. While he is distressed and worried about the warnings, he is not passionate about finding out what they mean.
This absence of passion is strange in a work of Gothic fiction, and the sense of detached, analytical interest from the narrator’s point of view feels alien – but in my opinion, this makes this story all the more chilling.
To me, ‘The Signal-Man’ is Gothic fiction at its finest: creepy, thrilling, thought-provoking.
When I was editing the anthology The Haunted Train: Creepy Tales from the Railways and selected the stories, I was happy to include this masterpiece of Gothic fiction.
ABOUT THE BOOK THE HAUNTED TRAIN: CREEPY TALES FROM THE RAILWAYS
Come on board for a Gothic journey in a funicular railway in Victorian England, a freight train in the Carpathian mountains, a high tech sky train in Bangkok, an underground railway in Tokyo. Visit stations which lure with the promise of safe shelter but harbour unexpected dangers. Meet the people who work on the tracks – stationmasters, porters, signal-men – and those who travel – commuters, tourists, dead bodies, murderers and ghosts.
In this volume, editor Rayne Hall has collected twenty of the finest– and creepiest – railway tales. The book features the works of established writers, classic authors and fresh voices. Some stories are spooky, some downright scary, while others pose a puzzling mystery.
Are you prepared to come on board this train? Already, the steam engine is huffing in impatience. Listen to the chuff-chuff-chuff from the locomotive and tarattata-tarattata of the giant wheels. Press your face against the dust-streaked window, inhale the smells of coal smoke and old textiles, watch the landscape whoosh past as you leave the familiar behind and journey into the unknown.
But be careful: you can’t know the train’s real destination, nor your fellow travellers’ intentions. Once you’ve closed that door behind you and the wheels start rolling, you may not be able to get out.
The ebook is available for pre-order from Amazon at the special offer price of 99 cents until 31 January 2023. (After that date, the price will go up.) https://mybook.to/Train.
The paperback edition will be available soon.