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Classic Christmas, horror therapy - The Signalman by Charles Dickens

Updated: Dec 18, 2022

The full text is available to download here to read along with the audio.

The Signalman
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The signalman is a horror suspense story by Charles Dickens, first published as part of a collection of railway-themed stories called The Mugby Junction in the 1866 Christmas edition of All the Year Round. All the Year Round was a weekly literary magazine founded and owned by Dickens himself, it hosted the serialised versions of many prominent novels including Dickens’ own A Tale of Two Cities

The Mugby Junction was a project very close to Dickens’ heart, on June 9th 1865 Dickens survived the Staplehurst rail crash. While passing over a viaduct in Kent, the train jumped a gap in the line where rails had been removed for maintenance, the viaduct fractured causing most of the carriages to be thrown into the river below. Dickens was in the first carriage which derailed sideways and did not fall completely, it hung precariously from the viaduct suspended by the coach in front. Dickens helped rescue the other passengers and was publicly commended for his actions, although he was a changed man and it would deeply impact him for the rest of his life, which ended on the same day five years later. A detail that is worthy of note considering the predictive omens contained within the story. The Mugby Junction was a compilation of his own work coupled with other authors he had asked to collaborate on the same theme of 'railway life', mishaps and horror. The project, it would seem, was something of a therapeutic undertaking, as a world-renowned author, the most obvious way for him to expunge himself of the undiagnosed post-traumatic stress he was clearly experiencing was through his literature. The chilling combination of the supernatural, the darkness of the unknown and a sense of helplessness in the face of disaster make the short story linger in one's mind.

The first person account follows the brief encounter (Oh, we see what you did there - Ed) between the story's narrator, a doctor, and a lonely signalman racked by supernatural woe. The signalman is visited by a spectre that appears to warn him of the approaching doom of three terrible occurrences. The first incident was based on the Clayton tunnel crash of 1861, which readers at the time would have been familiar with, the crash inside the tunnel was a horrific real-life tale of darkness, fire and blood curdling noise echoing inside the blackness of the tunnel. The second incident mirrors the helplessness of horror observed, but unprevented, with the death of a young woman on a passing train. The final incident leads us, the reader, to an inevitable end that again, we can do nothing but observe in powerless silence. The narrative demonstrates the struggle of the doctor, a man with a logical mind, wrestling with the unexplainable, as the story rises to its chilling, bitter crescendo.

The story has inspired many adaptations, including the made for tv short film mentioned in our round-up of alternative Halloween horrors. But, we feel this story performs best in audio.

Since this masterclass in creeping horror exists in the public domain (for more information about the public domain and access to thousands of books see here) we were able to produce our own version of this outstanding and memorable thriller. Sit back, relax, indulge your senses, as we take you on a journey into the pitch-black belly of the unknown.


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