This weekend's short story, "The Signalman" by Charles Dickens first appeared in the Christmas edition of the literary magazine All the Year Round in 1866. The inspiration for it likely came from an actual incident that occurred several years earlier when two trains crashed in the Clayton Tunnel (picture below taken from the Wikipedia). The tragedy would have been fresh in readers's minds. In this case several accidents are presaged by the appearance of a ghostly specter always resulting in death.
"Helloa! Below there!"
An unnamed narrator calls out to the signalman who is taking care of the entrance/exit of a railway tunnel located in what's known as a "railway cutting" (the bit that's cut away into a mountain so the train can pass through). Strangely the man does not look up or turn around but looks intently into the tunnel. He calls out again and asks for permission to descend and only after a pause does the signalman motion for him to come down. It's a deep and narrow cutting made into clammy stone and the hike down is unusually precipitate.
The signalman is a dark, sallow man with a dark beard and heavy eyebrows and he watches with great expectation as the narrator climbs down. One hand rests on his chin and the elbow of his other arm rests in his right hand in such an attitude that the narrator wonders at him. It's a lonely and solitary place, dismal with the walls of the sides dripping wet almost like a dungeon with only a narrow bit of sky over head.
"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."
And the signalman is curious in his demeanor. The two talk about the signalman's work which is tedious at best but he seems to hope for little else having wasted his educational opportunities. And he is greatly troubled by something. He agrees to try and explain if the man ever returns, which he tells the signalman he will. The following night he will come back when the signalman is on duty, but the signalman makes him promise not to call out or gesture to him when he returns.
The next night the signalman tells his tale of a ghostly apparition who's appearance presages a death in the near future. On two occasions he has seen this ghost and like the narrator has "helloa-ed" to the signalman, and then covered his face in a way that portends an awful tragedy, hence his reluctance and strange behavior when he first met the narrator. First two trains collided and then a young woman died on a train while passing through the cutting.
Of course the narrator is dubious of the claims the signalman makes. It's a dismal place, dark at night and surely it is easy for man's imagination to run away from him in a lonely place like this. When the signalman tells him that just this week the ghost has returned and is surely foretelling yet another tragedy the narrator is skeptical, but the signalman is convinced.
"'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?'"
He fears that if he tries to warn those down the line no one will believe him.
I won't spoil the ending, but there is an ironic twist. Is it simply coincidence that things finish as they do?
The story has been adapted to both film and radio and would be a great one to listen to on a cold winter's night, I think. I am somewhat ambivalent about Dickens, but the story was pitch perfect as a good haunting goes. Nicely atmospheric and well told. The illustration above by Edward Gorey captures the mood perfectly, too.
Next up in The Haunted Looking Glass is a story by L.P. Hartley. I'm already looking forward to it!