The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
"No. 1 Branch Line: The Signal-Man" (1866)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
“No. 1 Branch Line: The Signal-Man” was written by Charles Dickens and first appeared in All The Year Round (Christmas Number, 1866). Dickens (1812-1870) is arguably the most important and popular British writer of all time.
“The Signal-Man” is about a signal man on an English railroad line who is questioned by an agent for the railway company. The agent is investigating the man’s fitness and quizzes him about his job. The signal man, who is never named, shows himself to be diligent and conscientious at his work, but he is troubled by something, and after some questioning reveals that he has recently seen a ghost. The agent is dubious, but the signal man explains that he has seen the ghost twice before: once six hours before a train collision along his line, and once the day before a woman died on a train on his line. The agent is chilled by this story, but still wonders if the signal man might not be hallucinating, or cracking under stress, for the signal man is clearly distraught, worrying about what the ghost’s third appearance might mean. The signal man knows that if he had only figured out the ghost’s message twice before, lives might have been saved, and the signal man wants to save those lives this time. The agent leaves, determined to let the man get some medical help before the railway company is informed of his condition. When the agent returns the signal man is dead, cut down by an oncoming train.
“The Signal-Man” is highly acclaimed by critics of ghost stories. Most readers may find it too highly acclaimed. While it is a good, above-average ghost story, it is hardly immortal and is not in the upper rank of the century’s stories. It has the Dickensian touch of dialogue and characterization, and what the ghost wants is not immediately apparent, so that the ending is not predictable. And there is a general lack of malevolence to the story; in a Rosa Mulholland (“The Ghost at the Rath”) or Amelia B. Edwards (“The Four-Fifteen Express”) story, the ghost (or the story’s end) would be considerably nastier, but here the ghost is only a warning, and the ending comes almost as a relief. Dickens does a good job of conveying the signal man’s worry and stress about the ghost, so that his death is an end to that.
However, although “The Signal-Man” is good rather than great, it is notable because of what Julia Briggs called “a remarkable mastery of one form, being tightly and economically constructed so that every element contributes to the final effect.”1 What the story lacks in menace it makes up for in skill of construction. Too, the story’s use of the mundane, everyday, very modern reality of the railway system and the figure of the narrator was unconventional; “Dickens’ concentration of the ghosts’ mystery into their function rather than appearance suggests a radical departure from the more usual story of the supernatural.”2
Print: Charles Dickens, Ghost Stories. London: Macmillan UK, 2016.
1 Julia Briggs, Night Visitors: The Rise and Fall of the English Ghost Story (London: Faber, 1977), 42.
2 David Seed, “Mystery in Everyday Things: Charles Dickens’ ‘Signalman,’” Criticism 23, no. 1 (Winter, 1981): 54.