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Charles Dickens & The Train of Death: The rail crash behind the classic ghost story ‘The Signal-Man’
10:33 am


Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens suffered from siderodromophobia—a fear of traveling by train—the result of his being involved in a rail crash in 1865. If you suffer from a fear of flying, then you will appreciate the dread Dickens sometimes endured—panic, foreboding, sheer white knuckle terror. His son later claimed that Dickens never quite fully recovered from the crash—and he died exactly five years to the day of the accident.

The Staplehurst train wreck took place at 3:13pm on June 9th, 1865. It happened at a viaduct on the South Eastern Railway linking London to the coastal town of Folkestone. A section of rail track had been removed. The foreman in charge of replacing the missing track misread the train timetable—believing his crew had sufficient time to finish the job before the arrival of the next train. His mistake had fatal consequences.
Illustration of the Staplehurst train wreck.
Apart from the shock and trauma, the accident had highly personal implications for Dickens. He was accompanying his mistress Ellen Ternan and her mother to Folkestone where they were to catch a boat back to France.

Long before the 50-Mile Rule—which suggests one should never an affair with someone within a 50 mile radius of home—Dickens had been careful to keep the 27-year-old Ellen well out of the public eye in France—in an effort to avoid any possibility of discovery of affair by his wife or by a prying press. The three were sitting in the first carriage when the train jumped the tracks and crashed over the side of a viaduct. Ten passengers were killed, forty were injured.
Photograph of the accident.
Once he had ensured Ellen and her mother were safe, Dickens busied himself aiding the injured and the dying. He described the accident in a letter to his old schoolfriend Thomas Mitton on June 13th, 1865:

My dear Mitton,

I should have written to you yesterday or the day before, if I had been quite up to writing. I am a little shaken, not by the beating and dragging of the carriage in which I was, but by the hard work afterwards in getting out the dying and dead, which was most horrible.

I was in the only carriage that did not go over into the stream. It was caught upon the turn by some of the ruin of the bridge, and hung suspended and balanced in an apparently impossible manner. Two ladies were my fellow passengers; an old one, and a young one. This is exactly what passed: you may judge from it the precise length of the suspense. Suddenly we were off the rail and beating the ground as the car of a half emptied balloon might. The old lady cried out “My God!” and the young one screamed.

I caught hold of them both (the old lady sat opposite, and the young one on my left) and said: “We can’t help ourselves, but we can be quiet and composed. Pray don’t cry out.” The old lady immediately answered, “Thank you. Rely upon me. Upon my soul, I will be quiet.” The young lady said in a frantic way, “Let us join hands and die friends.” We were then all tilted down together in a corner of the carriage, and stopped. I said to them thereupon: “You may be sure nothing worse can happen. Our danger must be over. Will you remain here without stirring, while I get out of the window?” They both answered quite collectedly, “Yes,” and I got out without the least notion of what had happened.

Fortunately, I got out with great caution and stood upon the step. Looking down, I saw the bridge gone and nothing below me but the line of the rail. Some people in the two other compartments were madly trying to plunge out of the window, and had no idea there was an open swampy field 15 feet down below them and nothing else! The two guards (one with his face cut) were running up and down on the down side of the bridge (which was not torn up) quite wildly. I called out to them “Look at me. Do stop an instant and look at me, and tell me whether you don’t know me.” One of them answered, “We know you very well, Mr Dickens.” “Then,” I said, “my good fellow for God’s sake give me your key, and send one of those labourers here, and I’ll empty this carriage.”

We did it quite safely, by means of a plank or two and when it was done I saw all the rest of the train except the two baggage cars down in the stream. I got into the carriage again for my brandy flask, took off my travelling hat for a basin, climbed down the brickwork, and filled my hat with water. Suddenly I came upon a staggering man covered with blood (I think he must have been flung clean out of his carriage) with such a frightful cut across the skull that I couldn’t bear to look at him. I poured some water over his face, and gave him some to drink, and gave him some brandy, and laid him down on the grass, and he said, “I am gone”, and died afterwards.

Then I stumbled over a lady lying on her back against a little pollard tree, with the blood streaming over her face (which was lead colour) in a number of distinct little streams from the head. I asked her if she could swallow a little brandy, and she just nodded, and I gave her some and left her for somebody else. The next time I passed her, she was dead.

Front cover of ‘London Illustrated’ showing Dickens tending to the injured.
The accident caused Dickens to lose his voice for two weeks. From then on he was often visibly panicked on train journeys—on one occasion hurling himself to the floor of the carriage convinced another crash was about to take place. However, he was not a man to waste his personal experience—no matter how painful—and he used the events in his ghost story The Signal-Man—one of literature’s most famous tales of the supernatural.

The Signal-Man describes an encounter between the unnamed narrator and a signalman who recounts his haunting by ghostly premonitions prior to a series of dreadful train accidents. The story formed part of Dickens’ Mugby Junction series of stories. It is a subtle and beautifully told tale, and was adapted by the BBC in 1976 for Ghost Story, starring Denholm Elliott and Bernard Lloyd. Elliott is perfect as the man haunted by a ghostly visitor, whose message he tries to understand.
Continues after the jump…

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment
Have a very scary Christmas with Vincent Price

Habits often start through the comfort they give. While the tree may be up, the decorations hung and the lights a-twinkling I never feel truly festive without rereading Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. It’s a habit I started long ago, a ritual you might say, and each holiday I return to those opening lines:

Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge’s name was good upon ’Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

It’s the mix of atmospheric ghost story with a deeply humanist moral that makes Dickens’ tale so irresistible. There were, of course, many other ghost stories before A Christmas Carol but none that so intrinsically linked the festive season with the supernatural.

The story of the ungrateful miser Ebenezer Scrooge finding personal redemption after a visit from three ghosts was inspired by the deleterious effects of the Industrial Revolution on the children of poor and working class families. Dickens was horrified at the conditions of the poor and originally considered writing a political pamphlet to highlight the issue—An Appeal to the People of England, on behalf of the Poor Man’s Child—but thought that such a pamphlet would have only a limited appeal to academics, charity workers, liberal politicians and philanthropists.

After addressing a political rally in Manchester in October 1843, where he encouraged workers and employers to join together to bring social change, Dickens decided that it would be far better to write a story that could carry his message to the greatest number of people. Thus he wrote A Christmas Carol. Since its publication in 1843, it has never been out of print and its humanistic themes—to learn from our mistakes, enjoy the moment and find value in human life not things—continue to inspire generation after generation.

While I enjoy reading Dickens’ tale, I can think of no greater delight than hearing it told by Vincent Price—one of the few voices that could read YouTube comments and make them sound interesting. On Christmas Day of 1949, the debonair Mr. Price hosted a holiday special where he read an edited version of A Christmas Carol....

After the jump, Vincent Price and “the oldest extant straight adaptation” for television of ‘A Christmas Carol.’

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment
‘The Signalman’: A classic ghost story for Christmas
04:47 pm


Charles Dickens
Ghost Story

If you haven’t seen The Signalman, then you’re in for a treat; if you have, then, it will be like welcoming back a well-remembered friend.

“The Signal-Man” is a short story by Charles Dickens, first published in 1866, and relates the tale of a signal-man, who works in a solitary signalbox in a deep cutting, near the mouth of a long tunnel on a lonely stretch of railway. The signal-man is haunted by the vision of a spectral figure…well, that’s enough for here, you’ll just have to watch or read the story.

The Signalman starred Denholm Elliott, and was produced for the BBC’s Ghost Story at Christmas, which like turkey and chestnut stuffing, tinsel and crackers, was a firm festive favorite. It was the one drama that lingered long in the mind long after transmission.

Prior to The Signalman, Ghost Story at Christmas had dramatized uncanny tales by M. R. James, which had kept viewers transfixed, as we sat around our flickering TVs, in darkened living rooms, watching The Stalls of Barchester, A Warning to the Curious, Lost Hearts and The Ash Tree. It is because of this I associate Christmas with ghost stories. Without much more ado, let’s begin our tale:

“Halloa! Below there!”

When he heard a voice thus calling to him, he was standing at the door of his box, with a flag in his hand, furled round its short pole. One would have thought, considering the nature of the ground, that he could not have doubted from what quarter the voice came; but instead of looking up to where I stood on the top of the steep cutting nearly over his head, he turned himself about, and looked down the Line. There was something remarkable in his manner of doing so, though I could not have said for my life what. But I know it was remarkable enough to attract my notice….


And if you can’t find time in between wrapping presents to watch the whole half-hour above, here’s a three-minute version by animator George Roberts.

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment
Charles Dickens does Morrissey

Charles Dickens
Uncanny, eh?

Children’s television can be absolutely unbearable if you’re not actually a child. Luckily, the smart shows know this and throw you a bone every once in a while.

The BBC’s Horrible Histories recently decided to teach the kiddies about the life of Charles Dickens with a decidedly Smiths-vibe, and it’s an eerily accurate impression. Despite his reputation for being a bit humorless, I hope Moz would get a kick out of this one—I mean, it’s totally funny, and it’s for the kids!

Via Slate

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Vincent Price: ‘A Christmas Carol’ from 1949

Close the door against the chill and draw yourself a little closer to the fire. There. Comfortable? Then we’ll begin…

Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Vincent Price hosts this short TV adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, starring Taylor Holmes as Ebeneezer Scrooge, Pat White as Bob Cratchit, and Earl Lee as the Ghost of Jacob Marley, directed by Arthur Pierson, from 1949.


Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment