“The Signal-Man”

This week’s piece of weird fiction is from Charles Dickens.

Review: “The Signal-Man”, Charles Dickens, 1866.

Our story opens with the narrator at the top of a deep and steep railroad cutting, a place of almost eternal shadow.

He sees a signal-man below and calls to him. After gaining his attention and asking if there’s a path down to the railroad bed, the signal-man gestures to one about three hundred yards down the line.

At one end of the cutting is a tunnel. Dickens describes it as “barbarous, depressing, and forbidding” with the air about having an “earthy, deadly smell”. So we’ve left the world above for a different place.

Like Scrooge in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the narrator  has decided to leave the “narrow limits” of his life and explore the world.

After striking up, awkwardly, a conversation with the signal-man, the narrator notices the signal-man looking oddly at the red light by the tunnel almost as if he something is missing in the picture.  The signal-man, as befits his job, seems a man of precision and regularity, but the narrator thinks “this was a spirit, not a man” and wonders, in retrospect, if his mind is infected with something.

The narrator says the signal-man looks at him almost as if he dreaded him.

The signal-man says he wondered if he had seen the narrator before by the red light.

We learn something about the signal-man’s past and the mechanisms and details of a signal-man’s job when the two go to the “box” of the signal-man. It turns out the signal-man is a man of some education. He attended lectures on natural philosophy but ran “wild, misused his opportunities, gone down” and never rose up again. It’s too late for second chances, but he’s resigned himself to his life without complaint.

Indeed, the narrator finds the signal-man “the safest of men to be employed” for job. He asks, aloud, if he’s met a contented man.

He used to be, says the signal-man, but not anymore. It’s a long story, and he invites the narrator to visit him again the next night.

But, before he goes, the signal-man asks why the narrator first hailed him with “Halloa! Below there!” Was it solely because he saw just the signal-man by the tracks?

The next night the signal-man tells his story.

He starts by saying that, when the two first met, he thought the narrator was someone else.

Who, asks the narrator.

I don’t know. I never saw the face. The left arm is across the face, and the right arm is waved – violently waved.

One night the signal-man was sitting in his box when he heard a voice say the same thing: “Halloa! Below there!”. He went outside and saw a figure near the red light in front of the tunnel. He went up to it and it vanished.

Six hours later, there was a “memorable accident” on the railroad  line, the dead and injured taken right past the place the figure stood.

That was about a year ago. Just about six months ago, the signal-man saw the same figure again by the tunnel. But it didn’t speak or wave its arms.  It just held its hands in front of its space.

Again, the figure vanished as the signal-man went to the tunnel. But, the same day, a young woman died in a train passing the same spot.

And the signal-man saw the figure again, a week ago, in front of that red light, the “Danger-light”. And it keeps on showing up. It speaks again, but this time it says, “For God’s sake, clear the way!”.

In fact, the night before, when the signal-man suddenly looked about and went outside briefly during his conversation with the narrator, he heard the box’s bell. And he saw the figure though the narrator heard or saw nothing.

As they speak, the signal-man sees it again, by the Danger-light. But, the narrator saw and heard nothing.

It’s a warning, says the signal-man. But of what?  Some calamity is going to happen. What can the signal-man do to prevent it?  He wants to do something, to save lives, but, if the figure is a premonition, why won’t it give him useful information he can pass on?

The narrator leaves, offering to visit the signal-man, who he has come to like and wants to help, the next night.

The next night, going down the path of the cutting, the narrator sees the figure, face behind a sleeve and waving his right arm

Near the Danger-light is a box now. And the man isn’t the signal-man.

And there are other men there. The signal-man was killed that morning. He was “cut down by an engine”.  The other railroad workers are surprised.

No man in England knew his work better. But somehow he was not clear of the outer rail.

A passing engine killed him coming out of the tunnel. A man on the train saw him at the end, and yelled “Below there! Look out! Look out!” and put his arm over his eyes and waved the other – just like the spectral figure did.

It’s an effective story and grim.  A conscientious man is given knowledge by a spectre, but nothing he can use. And, perhaps, the spectre killed him at the end through distraction either because the signal-man was fixated on another vision or a real figure that reminded him of the spectre while ignoring the onrushing train he rode..

One thought on ““The Signal-Man”

  1. EG October 14, 2020 / 3:28 pm

    I remember reading this story about ten years ago in a book of collected ghost stories by Dickens, and it was one of the ones that stood out.

    It’s impressive how Dickens was able to be so prolific, writing not just dozens of novels but also lots of short stories, yet still able to maintain such a high standard of quality in his works.

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