I recently read a collection of supernatural short stories by Charles Dickens. I found the collection a mixed bag, with several stories suffering from a surfeit of humour and / or sentimentality to the point where they aren’t creepy or even slightly unsettling. (Humour and sentimentality, I have to say, are two things that put me off much of Dickens’ fiction.) However, there are other stories that work. A Confession Found in a Prison at the Time of Charles II, for example, is a variation on Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, though instead of an old man being murdered it’s – more disturbingly – a child. The Ghost in the Bride’s Chamber uses the clever idea that the ghost, of an aged murderer, is replicated according to the hour of the day – at two o’clock in the haunted house in question you’ll encounter two mysterious old men, at three o’clock you’ll encounter three of them, and so on.
And then, of course, there’s The Signalman.
The Signalman, in which the titular character is tormented by a spectral figure whose appearances at a remote stretch of railway line are invariably followed by tragic rail accidents, has none of Dickens’ comic / sentimental shtick. It’s told in a straightforward manner and is deadly serious. No doubt Dickens wrote the story with such earnestness because the subject matter was no laughing matter for him. On 9th June, 1865, he’d been a passenger on a train involved in the Staplehurst rail disaster. Ten people were killed and for hours during its aftermath Dickens tended to and comforted the injured. Writing The Signalman may have been his attempt to exorcise the trauma he experienced that day.
(c) Alma Classics
The story feels very familiar now, thanks to the famous BBC dramatization of it broadcast at Christmas-time in 1976. Scripted by Andrew Davies and starring Denholm Elliot, the TV version of The Signalman is regarded as the greatest of the BBC’s traditional festive ghost stories. Indeed, it’s interesting to read Dickens’ original story and compare it with its TV adaptation. For the most part the latter is fairly faithful to the former, although the second railway accident foretold by the spectre’s appearance is more spectacular in the TV play – it has a young bride plunging to her death from the door of a carriage, before the signalman’s eyes. In the story, he simply tells the narrator that a “beautiful young lady had died instantaneously in one of the compartments”. Also, the signalman in the story – “a dark, sallow man, with a dark beard and rather heavy eyebrows” – is an earthier and more hirsute figure than the clean-shaven, well-groomed Elliot.
One aspect of the story that the TV adaptation captures very well is the grim, claustrophobic setting: “The cutting was extremely deep, and unusually precipitate. It was made through a clammy stone that became oozier and wetter as I went down… His post was in as solitary and dismal a place as ever I saw. 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; and so much cold wind rushed through it that it struck chill to me, as I had left the natural world.”
Actually, the setting in The Signalman reminded me a little of a place close to where I live, in the Scottish Borders town of Peebles. Still visible west of Peebles are remnants of a railway line that was constructed between 1858 and 1864 and linked Peebles – from a station called Peebles West – with the village of Broughton, the town of Biggar and finally the village of Symington, just south of Carstairs Junction on the Glasgow-to-England line still in operation today.
Most of the Peebles-to-Symington line had disappeared even before Dr Richard Beeching published his notorious report in 1963, which led to the axing of some 5000 miles of track from the British rail network (and coincidentally left the Scottish Borders as the only region in mainland Britain without a single railway station on its soil). The Peebles-to-Biggar section of the line was phased out in 1950 and 1954, with the last Biggar-to-Symington section disappearing post-Beeching in 1966.
What remains now at the Peebles end of the route is several miles of footpath, which follow the old railway track, and a lovely stone viaduct standing over the River Tweed just beyond Neidpath Castle. Once you cross the viaduct to the southern side of the Tweed, the old track leads you into a cutting in the hillside of South Park Wood and then to the mouth of a tunnel. I’ve read somewhere that the tunnel was used a ‘refuge’ during World War II and have even heard claims that the Royal Train was stored inside it.
Although on a good day the view from the viaduct along the Tweed Valley is gorgeous, the atmosphere changes as you enter the cutting and approach the tunnel. It always feels damp and clammy there, the ground black and squelchy, a constant drip-drip-drip of water in the background. The stone walls on either side of the tunnel-entrance have thick green fleeces of moss and the entrance itself seems to be permanently in shadow. While it’s not the hellhole that Dickens describes in The Signalman, the place definitely feels a little sinister.
There used to be a wooden door sealing off the disused tunnel but that has disappeared. Because the tunnel supposedly has a bend in the middle, when you peer in you can’t see any light at the far end of it. After a few muddy yards everything seems to vanish in a mass of thick, dripping darkness. It isn’t unusual to find those first few yards inside the tunnel littered with bottles and beer-cans, which suggests it’s become a popular party-site for foolhardy teenagers, the sort who’ve never seen a horror movie before.
A friend told me a little while ago that it’s possible to walk right through the tunnel now and emerge on the other side of the hill, a little way up from where Peebles West railway station used to be. Maybe I will attempt to do that one day, with a powerful torch, lots of spare batteries and a pair of strong, dry walking boots. But I’ll wait until the memories of Charles Dickens’ The Signalman fade a little.