The Signalman by Charles Dickens Short Story Analysis

The Signalman” (1866) is a ghost story by iconic English author Charles Dickens. If you’ve ever fantasised about leaving your open office or customer service job to work alone in a tiny box in the middle of nowhere, unbothered and free to get on with your straight-forward but very necessary job, this might be the story for you.

HOW DO I GET A JOB IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE AS A SIGNALMAN?

First, the bad news. You’d have to travel back in time.

A signaller is an employee of a railway transport network who operates the points and signals from a signal box in order to control the movement of trains. Some signallers are women. The job of signallers in boxes next to railways started in the early 1800s. At first they were called the Railway Police. They were as important as air traffic controllers today.

Early signallers would hang out in their signal box until a train passed by. Then they would check for the red tail lamp on the last carriage of a train to ensure nothing had fallen off. Then they’d write it down in a Train Register Book. These books were pretty large and heavy. Signallers recorded train movements and every communication that happened between other signallers at different boxes. They didn’t actually talk to anyone. They communicated via bell codes.

Sounds pretty cruisey, but this was a stressful gig! You had no computer back up. Keeping trains on the right tracks and apart from each other was entirely up to you and you had to stay awake.

Since the early 1800s, the job description of a signaller has changed a lot due to computerisation. Centralised Rail Operating Centres now do the work originally conducted in signal boxes. Old buildings are often repurposed by communities (e.g. for cafes or community projects) if they’re sufficiently distant from a working railway line.

You can still find many signal boxes throughout Britain and other British colonies, notably India, South Africa and along the three east coast states of Australia. (The Australian signal system is especially ridiculous because the signal colours weren’t shared between states!)

The world’s biggest working mechanical signal box is Severn Bridge Junction at Shrewsbury railway station in Shropshire.

Oh, there was no good news, by the way. Death comes to us all.

Oftentimes in stories and metaphor, the train track symbolises our linear human experience of the passing of time. (Astrophysicists tell us that’s not actually how time works; none of the pop science communicators has ever managed to help my brain understand how space and time are the same thing. Congratulations and a stiff ticket if you are one of the few who can get your brain around that.)

What else do you associate with trains? Tunnels, probably. Tunnels (man-made caves) have a whole symbolism of their own. Train tracks are also frequently set either above or below the surrounding land. In this case, the narrator must go down a steep slope before reaching the train track. He descends into the underworld.

To get a sense of the setting, there’s a 1976 BBC adaptation of “The Signalman”.

Charles Dickens was himself in a railway accident. He was lucky to survive. This story is certainly an outworking of the trauma he experienced after that experience, and from which he never recovered. It is extremely creepy (though a coincidence nonetheless) that Dickens died five years to the day after the accident.

Continue reading “The Signalman by Charles Dickens Short Story Analysis”

The Bus by Shirley Jackson

I once read an article about why so few commuters were inclined to take the bus. This would have eased congestion in my home city. New Zealanders are notoriously wedded to their cars (which have only gotten bigger and bigger since the aggressive marketing of double-cab utes).

Sure, we like our cars. But there’s this thing called ‘bus anxiety’. When I read the list of ‘anxiety provoking factors’, I identified all of them in myself, a regular bus user at the time:

  • Will the bus come on time?
  • Am I at the right stop, and will this bus go where I need it to?
  • Do I have an acceptable method of paying?
  • Will there be somewhere for me to sit?
  • If so, will I have to sit next to someone unpleasant?

The list went on. When I moved to Japan, I found the payment system of the late 1990s the most stress inducing of all. Some buses opened their front doors, other the back doors for you to get on. I could never remember which it was going to be. If you got on at the back, you took a ticket with a zone on it, and kept your eyes on the digital board of numbers at the front. This would tell you how much you had to pay by the time you got off. Like a taxi cab, the number kept rising. When you disembarked, you got off at the front, and on your way out, you dropped exact change into a large acrylic box with a slot in the top. The driver didn’t engage with travellers at all. He was there as an automaton.

Continue reading “The Bus by Shirley Jackson”

Donnie Darko Film Study

Donnie Darko

Donnie Darko is a 2001 film set in 1988, in a fictional Virginia town called Middlesex. This genre blend of drama, mystery and science fiction is precisely ambiguous enough to generate much discussion about what is meant to have happened. This is ideal ‘cult-following’ material. Note that Donnie Darko didn’t make much of a splash when first released, but achieved its cult following subsequently.

Today I offer my own take on What Happens in Donnie Darko — nothing that hasn’t been said before — but I’ll also come at it from a storytelling point of view. What makes Donnie Darko a satisfying story? Why do viewers who love this film really really love it?

Continue reading “Donnie Darko Film Study”

Stephen King’s The Mist Story Analysis

When you encounter mist in real life, what do you recall? Stephen King’s novella? Frank Darabont’s 2007 adaptation of Stephen King’s novella? The 2017 TV series adaptation of Stephen King’s novella?

You may have even studied “The Mist” in literature class — the tertiary level equivalent of Lord of the Flies. This popular science fiction horror contains plenty for discussion and analysis.

Or maybe you’ve never encountered Stephen King’s Mist story before in your entire life, and you don’t scream to family members, “SOMETHING IN THE MIST TOOK JOHN LEE!” whenever fog descends.

I’ve seen the 2007 film numerous times but only just read the novella. There will inevitably be some conflation of those two slightly different stories below, so I’m going to talk about both without worrying about mixing them up.

Continue reading “Stephen King’s The Mist Story Analysis”

Coming Soon Short Story by Steven Millhauser Analysis

“Coming Soon” is a short story by American novelist and short story writer Steven Millhauser, first published at The New Yorker in 2013. (About 3,900 words.) Chang-rae Lee discussed this story with Deborah Treisman at the New Yorker Fiction podcast. The following are my thoughts after reading the story and listening to their discussion.

“You go to sleep one day, wake up and everything’s changed!” This is the sort of hyperbolic statement you might hear from someone describing the pace of change and their inability to keep up with it. Millhauser has taken a sentiment like this and turned it into something literal.

I believe this story has much in common with cosmic horror, and could be described as a contemporary version of that subgenre. Cosmic horror of the Edwardian era has limited appeal to modern audiences, but the big cosmic question remains: Do humans see reality as it really is? Like stories such as The Turn of the Screw, once you start reading this story, you realise that nothing in it is really clear. The less clear a situation, the more readers project our own personal nightmares onto it.

1957 April cover for Fortune magazine by Edmund Lewandowski
1957 April cover for Fortune magazine by Edmund Lewandowski
Continue reading “Coming Soon Short Story by Steven Millhauser Analysis”

The Art Of Nightmares

Some dreams, some poems, some musical phrases, some pictures, wake feelings such as one never had before, new in colour and form—spiritual sensations, as it were, hitherto unproved…

Lilith | George MacDonald
Remedios Varo - Insomnio (1947)
Remedios Varo – Insomnio (1947)
Adolf Born, Czechoslovakian illustrator (1930 - 2016)
Adolf Born, Czechoslovakian illustrator (1930 – 2016)

How does an artist offer the viewer a sense of nightmare?

Desaturation

Over all, 12 percent of people dream entirely in black and white. … In the 1940s, studies showed that three-quarters of Americans, including college students, reported “rarely” or “never” seeing any color in their dreams. Now, those numbers are reversed.

NYT

Note how quickly those numbers ‘reversed’. More interesting for artists: The perception that we dream in black-and-white. Regardless of what we actually see while we’re dreaming, the low light levels of night-time means the real world becomes desaturated, and we associate nightmares with the night-time. Artists can suggest a nightmarish quality by desaturating hue, or by working entirely in black and white.

The Shepherd's Dream by Henry Fuseli (1793)
The Shepherd’s Dream by Henry Fuseli (1793)

Black and white may work even better than greyscale to suggest a nightmare.

Continue reading “The Art Of Nightmares”

Fun Childhood Things Subverted For Horror

Here’s the thing about horror: It can so easily turn into accidental comedy. Watch the original 1960s Twilight Zone series and what was once genuinely scary now offers a family-night laugh.

An inverse is also true: What we once considered fun, innocent, cosy and child-friendly will morph over time into something sinister.

In the second decade of the 21st century, one of the central recurring preoccuptations of the horror genre has been the supernaturally-charged empowerment of the texts and images represented of children’s culture. These films center their horrors around the (re)positioning of a child character’s seemingly imaginary bogeyman as a threat to both the adult protagonist and the assumed adult audience (these films tend to be firmly adult-oriented with ratings ranging from PG-13 to R).

Jessica Balanzategui, “The more you deny me, the stronger I get”: “Mister Babadook” and the monstrous empowerment of children’s culture

Examples:

  • Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2010): A young girl sent to live with her father and his new girlfriend believes that she has released creatures from a sealed ash pit in the basement of her new home. “Fear is never just make-believe.”
  • Intruders (2011): Two children living in different countries are visited nightly by a faceless being who wants to take possession of them. “The nightmare is real.”
  • Sinister (2012): Washed-up true crime writer Ellison Oswalt finds a box of super 8 home movies in his new home that suggest the murder that he is currently researching is the work of a serial killer whose legacy dates back to the 1960s. “Once you see him, nothing can save you.”
  • Mama (2013): After a young couple take in their two nieces, they suspect that a supernatural spirit named Mama has latched onto their family.
  • The Babadook (2014): A single mother and her child fall into a deep well of paranoia when an eerie children’s book titled “Mister Babadook” manifests in their home. “If it’s in a word, or in a book, you can’t get rid of the Babadook.”
  • The Conjuring 2 (2016): Ed and Lorraine Warren travel to North London to help a single mother raising four children alone in a house plagued by a supernatural spirit.
  • Before I Wake (2016): A couple adopt an orphaned child whose dreams – and nightmares – manifest physically as he sleeps. “Fear your dreams.”

Each of these films dramatizes the violent eruption of the previously subjugated realm of children’s culture–as signified by images, stories, toys and lullaby-like nonsense expressions–into the adult’s reality. In all of these films, a childhood bogeyman, initially dismissed as a harmless and insignificant figment of the child’s imagination by the adult characters, comes to terrorize not just the children, but the adult characters and viewers as well. Thus, these films construct the adult’s disregard for the power of the child’s imagination and culture as their undoing.

Jessica Balanzategui
Continue reading “Fun Childhood Things Subverted For Horror”

Creepy Carrots by Reynolds and Brown Analysis

Creepy Carrots book cover

Creepy Carrots (2012) is a picture book written by Aaron Reynolds and illustrated by Peter Brown. For anyone wondering how to create a scary book for the very young reader without keeping them awake all night, this book is our masterclass in the horror-comedy blend.

First of all, the story is about carrots — a familiar, everyday food item not typically associated with horror. This story is therefore an inherently funny ironic juxtaposition.

Continue reading “Creepy Carrots by Reynolds and Brown Analysis”