all the year round, bagman's uncle, BBC, Bernard Lloyd, clayton tunnel, Denholm Elliott, Dickens, ghost, haunted, industrialism, mugby juction, premonition, railways, signalman, staplehurst, supernatural, train
The Signal-Man / Part of ‘Mugby Junction‘ collection
Images are from 1976 BBC television adaptation by Andrew Davies for the BBC’s sixth Ghost Story for Christmas. Though a bit modified plot, it is warmly…erm..coldly recommended to see times before CGI and little horrible girls from well.
Today I present you an old tale of Dickens that is enjoyable regardless of the fact that I still have problems deciphering it. Sometimes typing all this down may help the work. Not to mention that it is gratefully short for anyone bent for tragic supernatural.
What drove Charles Dickens to write about terror of railways? Was it the times’ prominence of supernatural in literature and/or his ill experiences with the fresh means of mass transit? The question can be more or less juxtapositioned to the very question why his narrator character decided to put his nose deep into the haunted slot deep inside rock. Dickens offers no direct answer, unless it is the connection from his character’s initial audible calls to other subjects within the tale, the invisible power driving this person to talks with signalman. At this point I must admit, after all attempts to understand the backbone of the tale I’m still at loss with the explanation and the punch-line. If it simply was a tragic coincidence, then it was another good tale swallowed and forward we press along the ghastly tales; if not, then I shall toss and turn even in my grave scratching my numb skull so that the annoyed worms will leave for nearest library and bring me the answer.
Apart from the conundrum I fall victim to, the tale offers excellent point of view into transitional times of industrialism, quickly expanded railways presenting one epitome and it definitely is not high praise Dickens presents us. His ‘Story of the Bagman’s Uncle‘ is truly hilarious(as meant) compared to this testament of tragically monstrous future. The horse carriages are not so much forsaken as passed but riveted monsters on rails are about, bowing to none in their way; and the cold, damp ruins, castles, cathedrals are clearly replaced by an artificial rift hammered into the rock, yet having all the necessary features of gothic ambience: Cold and damp, dripping stones and dungeons, the site could well be any roofless castle or cathedral ruins.
So is it then that in the verge of modern times the ghosts move here? Quite tickling idea, whether Dickens thought of this or not. Maybe he did, for the tale(another ghost included in Christmas collections: ‘All the Year Round‘ 1866) carries a weigh of personal experience in Staplehurst Rail Crash 9th June 1865 and is moreover reloaded with earlier rail incidents. In Staplehurst, Dickens tended and comforted wounded and dying fellow passengers. For any author bent for haunted stories this kind of personal horror mercilessly inflates the supernatural factor.
The terror of trains is emphasized with signalman telling about unknown woman perishing in passing train of unknown reasons; even without thought of humans squashing between crashing tons of iron and wood Dickens points to iron horses. This woman is another burden laid to unfortunate signalman by the haunting premonition near the tunnel entrance, a figure with both arms covering it’s face. The previous sight, the figure covering it’s eyes while waving, had preceded the most horrible of train accidents, a crash in the tunnel and with a single line about the ‘dead and wounded’ Dickens describes a hellish sequence and sad solitude of a signalman incapable of forewarning anyone with sensible ways; indeed, he can just wire messages around inquiring the situation but not much more without being suspected incapable of performing his duty, yet the premonitions are amplified by red light box and vibrating bell. But our reasonable signalman has no fear of unearthly figure itself so much as the conundrum of its manifestation and thus there is no need to identify the figure. It remains just an ill omen carrying similitude to our olde raven or crow knocking the window.
Signalman’s guest, the narrator, is a man of reason and put into difficult positions as the signalman also seems to be otherwise very logical in his office. Dickens does not make straightforward clear about narrator’s thoughts but only when narrator starts to think about some medical cure for otherwise so resolute railway professional, the reader sees his response to signalman’s tale. Indeed the narrator leaves his proposals about a medical leave for next nightly visit, but then it is too late: The reason for latest premonitions and haunting near tunnel entrance has become clear as those warnings had been for signalman himself. In his words to the narrator, the train driver describes his exact shouting to signalman standing in the rails, which were the exact words of narrator starting this tale, and the exact words that had been shouted during premonitions.
Without Staplehurst, that may have contributed to his death 1870, I doubt Rugby(‘Mugby’) Junction incident with bad refreshment service could have produced such a haunting story, though it did bring out a railway criticizing satire to the same ‘All the Year Round‘ stories.
Thank You for reading this, comments welcome. Next analysis shall be about a story from Montague Rhodes James, falling in no way short of the classic horror.