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The literary ghost story will never cease to profit from its long-held stake in the popular anxieties pertaining to travelling and public transport. The narrator of Amelia B. Edwards’ “The Phantom Coach” (1864) finds himself trapped in a recording of a doomed stagecoach journey; Charles Dickens’ “The Signal-Man” (1866) portrays a railway official who is haunted by premonitions of railway disasters; Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Green Tea” (1872) and M.R. James’ “Casting the Runes” (1912) respectively feature eerie and unexpected hauntings aboard a city omnibus and an electric tram; the hairy old chestnut about Lord Dufferin’s Ghost and E. F. Benson’s short story “The Bus-Conductor” (1906) in turn herald disasters befalling a steam elevator and a London bus; the sinkings of the Titanic (1912) and the Lusitania (1915) inspired various old wives’ tales about premonitions and curses; whilst the spectacular destruction of the British airship R-101 in 1930 would lead to accusations that, “Air tragedy happened because séance messages were ignored.”

Some of these stories well up from fears about travelling alone with strangers, whilst others hinge upon being saved from a passage aboard a doomed voyage. With particular regard to the latter, it is possible to identify the premonitory tale as a significant subgenre to the literary ghost story, with raconteurs such as Lord Dufferin, E. F. Benson, W. F Harvey, and A. J. Alan counting amongst its most talented practitioners. Incidentally, some of the most famous and accomplished writers of ghost stories, such as Le Fanu, Henry James, and M.R. James, did not write premonitory tales, although one occasionally happens upon rather inconsequential reports of premonitions in Algernon Blackwood’s fiction. The premonitory tale may be a minor, modest, genre-in-miniature, but we find the apparent grandfather of the premonitory tale – and possibly the most “literary” example of such a tale – at the darkly yawning and infinitely Gothic entrance to Clayton Tunnel.

In 1861, the interior of Clayton Tunnel became the scene of a fiery train crash in which twenty-three commuters perished in truly hellish conditions. Four years later, the novelist Charles Dickens fortuitously survived a rail crash near Staplehurst – he was travelling in the only one of seven first-class coaches which did not end up in the River Beult. Dickens treated the injured with brandy and water from his top hat, but he remained thoroughly haunted by the crash, losing his voice and being unable to maintain his nerve during subsequent train and hansom cab journeys. By the Christmas of the following year, Dickens had submitted his short story “The Signal-Man,” which is troubled by the spectres of both Clayton and Staplehurst. Yet the story is also unusually good for Dickens. Indeed, from a literary perspective, it made a case for the novelist being exposed to regular jeopardy, and perhaps if he had been treated to enough railway crashes, then he may have become as unsentimental a writer as Hemingway.

The unaccountable narrator of “The Signal-Man” arrives at a lonely signal box which is planted before the mouth of a tunnel “in whose massive architecture there was a barbarous, depressing, and forbidding air.” Approaching the signalman, the narrator imagines himself being seen as “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.” This could merely mean that the narrator has finally escaped the city for a holiday, but these cryptic words may equally convey the literal meaning that the narrator has been released from a nearby prison, such as Lewes (if the setting is really Clayton), and that he is wandering from his “inn” in search of his first inroads back into society. This would not be the first occasion in Dickens’ fiction when an erstwhile convict is again at large. There are so few certainties in Dickens’ story that even this fruity reading may acquire legs and walk us towards a possible explanation for the signalman’s initial “dread” of the narrator, before his eventual acceptance of this stranger as a harmless and socially excluded figure.

A more straightforward reading of this story, and one which is vaguely implied by the mention of the “inn,” is that the narrator is a bourgeois tourist, who is on a rural walking tour, and that he has called in on the tunnel because it is one of the “sights” of the area. The Northern entrance to Clayton Tunnel (if this is the story’s setting) is a stark and imposing masterpiece in early Victorian Gothic, which is rendered even more Gothic by being bizarrely situated in the middle of nowhere. Yet the tunnel formed part of the London-to-Brighton line, which was originally built for tourists, and the glimpse of looming turrets was presumably offered to thrill-seekers as an established highlight of the journey.

The narrator may be addressed as “sir” and invited into the signal box because he is a respectable tourist who is entitled to such treatment, or because any visitor is a “rarity” and the signalman is so lonely that he has resorted to an ex-convict for a confidant. The narrator later considers approaching the signalman’s employers or a leading doctor, which suggests some familiarity with “respectable” circles, although the signalman would have presumably not confided in the narrator in the first place if he had the power to “displace” him. When the signalman demands the ear of “somebody with credit to be believed, and power to act,” it does not occur to him to appeal to the narrator (who, at least on these grounds, is not Dickens himself). Yet given that his story is strong enough to threaten commercial confidence in the railways, the signalman shows a surprising lack of interest in the narrator’s identity and credentials.

The narrator may have merely edited himself out of his own story, or perhaps he looks like the sort of person whom one would unthinkingly classify as “a nobody,” but, in any event, the narrator will end up as even more blank and mysterious than the apparitions who are haunting the signalman. Amusingly “in character,” the signalman will treat the narrator as if he was a train, discussing his next “visit” and telling him what “light” he will shine to guide him.

The signalman is distinguished from the narrator because he is a working man, or at least because he performs an obvious and useful job. Yet the signalman is overeducated in several respects for his job. He has apparently “fallen” from the middle class into the hellish proletariat because, as a student, “he had run wild, misused his opportunities, gone down, and never risen again.” The signalman now lives in a diabolical pit and his tormenting demons are mocking guardian angels, who taunt him with pointless, unintelligible warnings of disasters which he cannot prevent. He is powerless to apply his visionary wisdom to his industrial circumstances, just as the medieval castellated turrets of Clayton tunnel were of no practical help to the running of a modern railway.

Whilst the signalman may have lived if he had simply fled his post, he may have equally survived and upheld “the public safety” if he had accepted his station as an unthinking industrial cog. This befuddled figure remains in front of an oncoming train because his head is full of hopeless visions, and if he had heeded the “real” driver’s warning rather than confusing it with the premonitory warning-of-a-warning then he may have lived. The narrator warbles the necessary overture to stoicism: “I represented to him that whoever thoroughly discharged his duty, must do well, and that at least it was his comfort that he understood his duty…” Yet the reader may remain doubtful that any human being could be reduced to the sort of mindless machine that the railway company requires in order to discharge the signalman’s “duty.” A “disease of the delicate nerves that minister to the functions of the eye” is presumably the inevitable consequence of such a lonely and monotonous undertaking.

Whilst the signalman fulfils the mutual functions of preserving consumer “safety” and upholding a lucrative industry, the price of his labour is a veritable dehumanisation, until he joins the narrator and those fruitlessly signalling apparitions as a completely blank individual. Significantly, the narrator and the signalman both remain nameless throughout the story, and if the most important feature of this tale is not any sentient and identifiable “spectre” but the premonitory signal, then the narrator, the signalman, and the spectres – who are all equally featureless – will vainly repeat this signal to each other throughout the course of the narrative, in a farcical parody of the communications needed to keep the trains running.

Capitalism, it seems, can only survive by stunting human identity and potential, until men become the ghosts of whom they could have been:

On my trusting that he would excuse the remark that he had been well-educated, and (I hoped I might say without offence), perhaps educated above that station, he observed that instances of slight incongruity in such-wise would rarely be found wanting among large bodies of men; that he had heard it was so in workhouses, in the police force, even in that last desperate resource, the army; and that he knew it was so, more or less, in any great railway staff.

The only scraps of personal information that we garner about the signalman is that he has “taught himself” an unspecified language – which he cannot “speak” because he has nobody to talk to – and that he wiles away the long hours with “fractions and decimals… and a little algebra.” Deep in the night, the signalman pointlessly calculates – his hell is complete! The narrator jibes mercilessly that, “You almost make me think that I have met with a contented man.”

The character of the signalman combines attributes of the fallen Watchers, who are mentioned in the book of Enoch, with a suggestion of the Vestal virgins who tended Rome’s sacred flames. The Watcher angels were sent to Earth to keep an eye on human souls, but they remained insufficiently stoical and, after mating with some of the more lovelier daughters of men, they were chained up in hell, just as the signalman cannot stretch beyond earshot of his electric bell. The Watchers fell because they were corrupted by their association with humanity, whilst the signalman’s wandering powers indicate the stubborn perserverance of a human identity.

The signalman may evince the pure life of a Vestal – vigilantly watching over his danger-light – but it is unclear whether he is already fallen or whether his hellish surroundings foreshadow his fall. Just as the Watchers breached heavenly confidences by revealing the secrets of their trade to men, the signalman provides a more candid look at railway safety than perhaps his employer would have countenanced. The signalman claims that the “memorable accident on this Line” just “happened,” and the narrator cannot find the bravery or initiative to inquire whether the signalman had a hand in it. The Clayton disaster was itself caused by poor planning, technological failures, and a confusion between the signalmen, and if Dickens’ character is modelled upon those on the ground at Clayton, then he would be conceivably “haunted” by the consequences of his actions, even whilst he had been officially exonerated. The guilt and embarrassment of contributing to so much death would, of course, restrict the signalman’s ability to discharge his duty.

“The Signal-Man” displays many of the characteristics of the premonitory ghost story, particularly the sense of a higher power’s not entirely straightforward intervention in human affairs. But this is not quite the premonitory tale a la Lord Dufferin, not only because it is too long and complicated, but because the whole thing could be simply a hoax.

If one discounts the historical context of the tale – with its allusions to the Clayton disaster and Dickens’ harrowing brush with death at Staplehurst – then there is no corroborated evidence of anything supernatural within the text itself. The stories of train crashes and expiring female passengers are imparted by the signalman alone, and perhaps, as his tall tale got progressively out of control, he roped in a few friends at the end of the story in order to provide his rambling and impromptu narrative with a concluding “punch-line.” The ghost story may have been invented only to scare away the annoying narrator from the signalman’s workplace, and when this failed, the signalman may have staged his own death to send the narrator packing for good. The alleged corpse can be identified because his “face is quite composed,” and he is otherwise covered with a tarpaulin hut to conceal the nature and extent of his injuries. Intriguingly, in Andrew Davies’ 1976 film version of the story, the death of the signalman is almost fatuously unconvincing – his whole body is “quite composed” and apparently napping – and such a death is almost feasibly the work of hoaxers.

On the other hand, if the signalman is really dead then the railway now requires a signalman, and for most of the story the narrator has been receiving the necessary training for this job. Perhaps part of the signalman’s premonitions involved finding and training his own replacement. As a keen observer with a firm sense of “duty,” who is apparently uninhibited by imagination, the narrator is assuredly “one of the safest of men to be employed in that capacity.”

[Next instalment: Lord Dufferin’s Ghost! Tychy previously submitted the ultimate reading of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Ed.]

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