This season of Tales Told When the Windows Rattle ends with “The Signal-Man,” one of Charles Dickens’ creepiest and most disturbing stories. Perfect for Christmas, right? Okay, maybe not. But I figure that other, more hopeful Dickens story get plenty of airplay this time of year. You know, the one about the gang of ghosts who prod that grumpy Gus to buy the Cratchits that gargantuan goose? Okay, maybe it’s a titanic turkey.
As I was recording “The Signal-Man,” which was first published in 1866, I was struck by how the title character has similarities to the stifled, stymied, smothered characters to come afterward from the pen of Thomas Hardy. Think of Hardy’s Tess in Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891) or his Jude in Jude the Obscure (1895). First, Dickens puts his character in a bleak, narrow work environment:
On either side, a dripping-wet wall of jagged stone, excluding all view but a strip of sky; the perspective one way only a crooked prolongation of this great dungeon; the shorter perspective in the other direction terminating in a gloomy red light, and the gloomier entrance to a black tunnel, in whose massive architecture there was a barbarous, depressing, and forbidding air. So little sunlight ever found its way to this spot, that it had an earthy, deadly smell.
Then there’s the unrealized potential of the man himself:
On my trusting that he would excuse the remark that he had been well educated, and . . . 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. He had been, when young, . . . a student of natural philosophy, and had attended lectures; but he had run wild, misused his opportunities, gone down, and never risen again.
It’s almost no wonder that, when offered visions of an apparition seeming to signal future rail tragedies, he experiences them as incomprehensible fragments, infuriating teases of coming events instead of intelligible messages upon which he might act. He pleads:
[W]hy not tell me where that accident was to happen,—if it must happen? Why not tell me how it could be averted,—if it could have been averted? When on [the apparition’s] second coming it hid its face, why not tell me, instead, ‘She is going to die. Let them keep her at home’? If it came, on those two occasions, only to show me that its warnings were true, and so to prepare me for the third, why not warn me plainly now? And I, Lord help me! A mere poor signal-man on this solitary station! Why not go to somebody with credit to be believed, and power to act?
Another title might have been “Tunnel Vision,” and I suspect that Dickens was implying that his solitary railway worker was far from alone in suffering from this condition. If I’m wrong, I can say with confidence that this piece says more about a life of dire constraints than one typically finds in a ghost story. As I ask in the introduction to my reading, is it really a ghost story at all?
I put a lot of “soundscape” behind my recording of “The Signal-Man” in the hope of making it a distinctive conclusion to Season Two. Give it a listen on the Tales Told YouTube channel, on the season’s page here, or at your preferred podcast provider: Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, RadioPublic, Stitcher, or Anchor.
If you’ll excuse me, I now have to go think about what to read on Tales Told Whenever I Feel Like It!, the interim series.