Admission number one – I haven’t read that much by Charles Dickens recently. As a child we had a collection (in faux leather!) on the family bookshelves and I dipped into Great Expectations and A Christmas Carol but then I moved on. I found them a bit stuffy and long-winded to be honest.
Then a few weeks ago I heard Chris Priestley talk about a Dickens short story called The Signalman — a story that had had a great influence on him as a child. I tucked this title away as yet another book I must locate and read.
Then, as luck would have it, I found a copy whilst browsing in the Ipswich branch of Waterstones this week. Coincidence – I think not! Whilst paying for this £1.99 pocket edition the lovely man serving me commented that he also would be buying a copy to stick in his pocket to read on the train. The power of this book was spreading!
Last night, after lighting the wood-burner, I sat down and cracked this bad boy open. And wow, just wow. What a chilling short tale it was.
Visited by an unnamed narrator, the signalman spends his days stuck in a dark, dank railway cutting that rarely sees light. His work is to signal to trains when it is safe to travel along the tracks. A pretty miserable, tedious but very important occupation. He spellbinds our narrator with a dark tale of visitations from a ghoulish creature. And with each spooky, spectral sighting comes calamity and death…
The short story thrilled and chilled Victorian readers in their millions. It also frightened a new generation the 1970s when it was adapted for the BBC as part of their A Ghost Story for Christmas series.
As luck would have it, you can watch the episode on YouTube, but I recommend that you first gather around a fire and read this short tale for yourself. The terrifying images Dickens can create in your mind with his word wizardry will be far more chilling…
The Signalman by Charles Dickens, approx 30 pages, ages 8+. Reserve The Signalman from Suffolk Libraries.