The Signal-Man – 1866 – a short story
This is a first-person horror-cum-mystery story. It was first published as part of the Mugby Junction collection in the Christmas 1866 All the Year Round.
It was first published as part of the Mugby Junction collection in the 1866 Christmas edition of All the Year Round.
The narrator meets up with a signal-man who works from a signal-box on a lonely stretch of railway line, in a deep cutting, near a tunnel entrance.
The signal-man is somewhat disturbed when they meet, almost afraid, but then relaxes and admits the narrator into the signal-box.
The signal-man explains that he deserves the monotony of his role because he had wasted educational opportunities as a boy. As a result he was teaching himself mathematics and a foreign language.
There seems to be something troubling the signal-man, he looks several times at the signal when it is not ringing.
The narrator returns the next day, and does not call out as he did the first day, The signal-man reveals that he is haunted by a vision of someone at the tunnel entrance, it had called out much the same as the narrator. Each time he had seen the spectre an incident had occurred.
On the first occasion it had waved and called out and a few hours later there was a terrible rail accident. On the second it had remained silent, covering its face, and subsequently a young lady had died on a train. He had seen the spectre again, several times in the last week.
The narrator does not believe in the supernatural and says the signal-man is having hallucinations. But the signal-man declares he has heard a signal and seen the spectre, while the narrator hears and sees nothing. The narrator suggests visiting a doctor.
The next day the narrator himself sees a man at the tunnel, but it is not the spectre it is an investigator. The signal-man has died, he was on the track staring intently at something, the driver had called out in the manner the signal-man had heard, and the driver had covered his face.
The 1865 Staplehurst rail crash may have inspired this story. Or, an earlier 1861 train crash at the Clayton Tunnel near Brighton may have been the inspiration.