A Good Read – The Signalman, Charles Dickens

The SignalmanA perfect Ghost story for a dark winter’s night, The Signalman perfectly conjures up the atmosphere of Higham Station on the Hoo Peninsula, the gateway to the marshes.

Even today the little station has a feeling of being lost in a different age, with it’s ornate metal footbridge, friendly staff and addition of a quirky book swap and art gallery. It is still an outpost and a place where I have collected many a confused Londoner to take them for a walk across the North Kent Marshes.

Dickens would have known the station well as he travelled between his London residence and Gad’s Hill Place, his country retreat, where he wrote many of his later books in the Swiss chalet in the garden.

For Dickens the railways were both a huge convenience and a source of fear, hardly surprising, after he survived a fatal train crash at Staplehurst where he was one of the first on the scene to help the wounded and dying passengers. It is little wonder that this story is full of the dangers of train travel.

The story starts with the narrator calling down into the steep cutting to the Signalman below, who diligently carries out his duties from a little wooden hut beside a long dark tunnel leading beneath the cliff face.

Dickens takes us into his world and we shelter with them in the hut from the mists of the damp railway siding and watch as the signalman checks his dials and charts and waves flags to signal to the passing trains.

The signalman is on edge and we soon learn that he is haunted by a ghost at the tunnel entrance who has twice prophesised disaster on the railway and has now come again.

Dickens, as always, does a marvellous job of creating atmosphere and painting a picture of the world of the signalman in rich detail and we are treated to some lovely florid Victorian imagery of young women dying in railway carriages for no apparent reason. At times the formality of language, which is a feature of the times, makes things a little clunky and, I was left a bit confused by the twist in the tale but Dickens paints such a fantastic picture that I won’t ever visit Higham Station again without looking for the ghost standing under the red light by the tunnel.