"The Signalman" (also known as "The Signal-Man") is a famous ghost story by the English author Charles Dickens. It was originally published as "No. 1 Branch Line: The Signalman" in Mugby Junction, the 1866 Christmas edition of All the Year Round weekly literary magazine founded by Dickens. The special issue featured eight railroad-themed short stories. "The Signalman," one of four stories in the issue written by Dickens, has since been reprinted in numerous anthologies.
In the story, the unnamed narrator befriends a railroad signalman at his lonely post outside a tunnel. The signalman confides that he is being haunted by a ghost. The apparition warned him on two previous occasions of impending tragedies; a horrible accident and a sudden death of a passenger. The specter has recently reappeared and the signalman is tormented by the thought that something terrible is about to happen. The narrator is concerned but skeptical. Soon, however, he learns the meaning of the third ghostly warning.
"The Signalman" is thought to have been inspired by the 1861 Clayton Tunnel rail crash which killed 23 and injured 176. Another railway accident, the 1865 derailment at Staplehurst in Kent which Dickens himself survived, also likely influenced the author.
The story has been adapted to other media numerous times, most notably as a 1976 British TV movie that was made for the BBC A Ghost Story for Christmas series.
"Halloa! Below there!" the narrator shouts from the top of the railway cutting down at the signalman who is standing outside his box. Oddly, instead of looking up, the man turns and looks down the line. The narrator shouts again and the man finally looks up. The narrator asks if there is a path down to the bottom and the signalman hesitantly points to a spot a few hundred yards away. The narrator descends down the steep path notched out in the cliff. As he nears the bottom of the deep cutting, he sees the signalman waiting for him, standing between the rails and watching intently.
It is a dismal post between the jagged stone walls with only a strip of sky visible above. The narrow gorge stretches in one direction away from the post. On the other side of the post is a black tunnel. The narrator approaches the signalman, and the man takes a step back. The narrator attempts to start a conversation, but the man does not respond. He instead looks away at the red light near the tunnel's mouth. The narrator sees fear in the man's eyes and tries to put him at ease. The man says he thought he had seen the narrator before at the red light. The narrator assures him he has never been there before, and the man's manner finally clears. They begin to converse naturally about the signalman's duties and how he spends his time during the lonely hours between his tasks.
Inside the signal box, there is a desk and a telegraph machine with an electric bell attached to it. As they speak, the bell rings several times and the signalman reads the incoming messages and sends off replies. On one occasion, he goes outside to display a flag and deliver a message to the driver. The signalman is exact and vigilant in his duties and seems most capable and trustworthy. Twice, however, he looks at the bell when it has not rung. Each time, he looks outside towards the red light and comes back obviously disturbed. He would not say what is bothering him, but says he will try to explain if the narrator would visit him again. The narrator promises to return the following evening. The signalman asks him not to call out to him. Then he asks why the narrator yelled "Halloa! Below there!" earlier. The narrator tells him he only meant to get his attention and those particular words had no significance to him.
The following night, the signalman tells the narrator that he mistook him for someone else at first. He had heard the cry "Halloa! Below there!" before and seen a man at the red light. The man kept shouting "Look out!" while covering his face with his left arm and waving the other arm violently. The signalman demonstrates the gesture which appears to mean "For God's sake, clear the way!" The man then disappeared, and the signalman could not find him although he looked into the tunnel and all around the area. He telegraphed to see if anything was wrong, and was told all was well. Within six hours, however, a horrible accident occurred and the dead and the wounded were brought over to the spot where the figure had stood.
The signalman saw the apparition again several months after the accident. Unlike the first time, it was silent and covered its face with both hands in the gesture of mourning. Later that day, as a train exited the tunnel, the signalman saw through a carriage window some commotion inside. He signaled and stopped the train. They found a passenger, a beautiful young lady, had suddenly died.
Then the signalman explains what is troubling him now. He saw the specter again a week ago, and has seen it several times since. As it did the first time, it covers its face and waves emphatically while calling out "Below there! Look out! Look out!" The signalman says the ghost also rings the electric bell. He says it rang twice the previous evening. The narrator assures him that the bell did not ring, but the man insists he not only heard the strange ring but the ghost was there both times when he looked out.
The signalman's conscience is tortured by the burden of foreknowledge. He is sure something terrible is about to happen but, not knowing specifically what the danger is, he is unable to alert anyone. The man is so distressed that the narrator decides it would be best to try to calm him down rather than reason with him. He speaks to the man about his duty, emphasizing the importance of doing it well even though he may not understand the meaning of the ghostly warnings. His efforts are successful and the signalman regains his composure. The narrator offer to stay the whole night, but the man turns him down.
The next evening, the narrator goes out for a stroll. He looks down the cutting and is horrified to see a figure at the tunnel waving passionately and shielding its face. But the narrator quickly realizes that it is not an apparition but a man. There are others standing nearby. Sensing that something is wrong, the narrator goes down to inquire. The men tell him that the signalman was killed that morning. He was cut down by an engine as it came out of the tunnel. Inexplicably, he did not move out of the way but stood there with his back towards the oncoming train.
The driver repeats his demonstration for the narrator. He saw the signalman as he came around the curve of the tunnel. The man did not react to the whistle, so he called out loudly "Below there! Look out! Look out! For God’s sake clear the way!" He covered his eyes with his arm so as not to see, but continued waving the other arm desperately till the last.
"The Signalman" was adapted as a short television film for the BBC A Ghost Story for Christmas series. The acclaimed episode starring Denhlm Elliott in the title role was first broadcast in the United Kingdom on December 22, 1976. The outstanding adaptation by Andrew Davies is faithful to Dickens' story with one notable exception. The narrator in the original story learns of the third tragedy after the fact, while in the adaptation, he witnesses the denouement.
American radio adaptations of "The Signalman" include episodes of Columbia Workshop (originally aired on January 23, 1937), The Weird Circle (under the title "The Thing in the Tunnel", originally aired on March 4, 1945), Lights Out (originally aired on August 24, 1946), Hall of Fantasy (originally aired on July 10, 1950) and Suspense (originally aired on November 4, 1956). The story was adapted as an episode of the Canadian radio series Nightfall which first aired on CBC radio on December 17, 1982. An abridged version of "The Signalman" is read by Christopher Eccleston in the first episode of the British four-part radio mini-series The Devil's Christmas. The episode was first broadcast on BBC Radio 2 on December 17, 2007. A reading of the story by actor Adrian Scarborough was first broadcast on the British digital radio station BBC Radio 4 Extra on March 2, 2016 as the third episode of the five-part Charle Dickens - Tales of the Supernatural mini-series.
Playwright Matthew Harper adapted "The Signalman" as a one-act play.
- On June 9, 1865, Charles Dickens was returning from Paris with his mistress Ellen Ternan and her mother when their train derailed over a bridge near Staplehurst. The tracks were under repair and a section had been removed. The workmen failed to signal, and the driver of the train saw the missing section too late. The engine went through with the first carriage dangling behind it, but the rest of the train fell to the river bed below. Ten were killed and nearly fifty injured in the accident. Dickens and his companions were riding in the first carriage. Ellen Ternan suffered minor injuries but both her mother and Dickens were unhurt. Dickens assisted the injured passengers until help arrived. Along with Dickens, the manuscript of Our Mutual Friend also survived the accident, and the novel was published the following year with a postscript referencing the incident.
- The BBC series A Ghost Story for Christmas is made up of fifteen TV movies that were first shown on British television between 1971 and 2021. Of the other fourteen films in the series, three are original stories. The rest are adaptations of the M.R. James' short stories "The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral", "A Warning to the Curious", "Lost Hearts", "The Treasure of Abbot Thomas", "The Ash-tree", "A View from a Hill", "Number 13", "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad", "The Tractate Middoth", "Martin's Close" and "The Mezzotint".
- The other episodes of The Devil's Christmas are based on "The Necklace" by Guy de Maupassant, "Thurlow's Christmas Story" by John Kendrick Bangs and "The She-Wolf" by Saki.