“The Signal-Man” (and The Mothman) – thoughts on a short story by Charles Dickens

One of my favorite supernatural story themes is that of the premonition, or the forewarning of disaster. The legend of the “Mothman” as told in the great movie, “The Mothman Prophecies” is one example. In fact, that legend was of great personal interest to me since it involved the “Silver Bridge” collapse at Point Pleasant, West Virginia; a regular crossing of the Ohio River at this location was done by my family on our twice-yearly trips to visit my Mom’s family in the interior of West Virginia. I was just old enough to remember hearing the news of the bridge collapse and our subsequent crossing of the river via a ferry during the interim period when a new bridge was being built. (below: the mothman statue in Point Pleasant)

I was reminded of “The Mothman” by the Charles Dickens short story “The Signal-Man” wherein a lonely railroad employee, whose forlorn outpost is located in a dank, dark cut along a railroad line, is repeatedly visited by a supposed phantom, and each time an accident of some sort follows his encounter. Our narrator startles the signal-man by coincidentally calling out to him in the same words that the phantom used once to address him. He spends some time with the signal-man and learns of his troubled visions. Sometimes the warning spectre only gestures to him, once with a pose of mourning upon which he remarks that he has “seen such an attitude depicted on stone tombs.”

Is the signal-man not of sound mind (as our narrator may suspect)? Or is he the only sentinel for a forthcoming new disaster (as he himself believes)? Read this short story and find out. In fact, reading a short story by Dickens is something of a pleasant “revenge” for those of us who have slogged through many of his longish novels… 🙂

Read this story online at http://www.eastoftheweb.com/short-stories/Ubooks/Branline/shtml

Dickens once narrowly missed being involved in a rail disaster in his own life, The Staplehurst Train Crash of 1866… Several cars of a train which he was on (but not his own car) tumbled into a river and several passengers died. Many think this experience was something of an inspiration for this short story, which I was unaware of until I “discovered” it as part of my 2011 short story reading project, “deal me in.”

Sent from my iPad


  1. Dale Barthauer said,

    May 25, 2011 at 5:00 pm

    I haven’t read Dickens in a while…I’ll have to check out this story.


  2. Jay said,

    May 26, 2011 at 9:16 am

    I really liked it. It’s so weird reading something by Dickens and knowing you’ll be done in 20-30 minutes!


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