Critique of ‘The signalman’ by C. Dickens and ‘Harry’ by R. Timperley – English Essay
After reading ‘The signalman’ by C. Dickens and ‘Harry’ by R. Timperley I believe ‘Harry’ is a better ghost/horror story as it evokes more human fear by
Timperley using elements of safeness and security as chilling clues as to who Harry really is.
‘The signalman’ is about a man working in a pre twentieth century train station. It starts with a combination of posing a puzzle and plunging into the action as it begins with speech from an unknown character. The story progresses to reveal the train worker has been visited by a ghost who brings premonitions of death. In the complication, when their life’s become involved with each others, the train worker speaks of the sightings to the traveller who then says he will come back to visit him the next day, when he does the train worker is dead and when his colleague describes how he attempted to warn him it is the same actions as the spectre had been making.
In ‘Harry’ Christine James, adopted daughter of Mrs James, starts talking to a mystery shadow in her garden as Mrs James’ concern grows she seeks help from many different sources but each time is met by a rational voice or at times anger from her husband. Eventually she asks for information from the adoption agency that tells her Christine came from a family where her brother was named Harold. She then speaks with an elderly woman who claims to have known Harold; she says he will not rest until he has Christine with him. When Mrs James realises she is late to pick up Christine from her first day at school she arrives to find Harry has already been to the school and taken Christine.
In both stories there were many examples of descriptive writing and literary devices to evoke an appropriate atmosphere for the story. In ‘The signalman’ the writer portrays the sun as an enemy by writing;
‘ So steeped in the glow of an angry sunset.’
The use of the word ‘angry’ suggests the sun is against the travelling man and does not want him to go any further. This quote also creates images of danger. The device Charles Dickens has used her is personification as I believe he wanted to capture the thought that the weather is acting as an almost human enemy.
Also in ‘The signalman’ he describes body language in detail:
‘He had his left hand at his chin, and
that left elbow rested on his right hand
crossed over his breast.’
This passage emphasises the train workers reluctance to speak with the traveller and creates a clear picture of the man’s hostility towards people that may want to approach him. It also makes the man seem quite unfriendly and suspicious.
Charles Dickens uses alliteration to vividly describe an oncoming train. Dickens does this to emphasise the inhospitable atmosphere, he writes;
‘ Just then, there came a vague vibration
in the earth and air, quickly changing into
a violent pulsation,’
This is alliteration of the ‘v’ sound that allows you to almost hear the train emphasising the hollow atmosphere. This quote also incorporates senses as you can hear the sound the train is making and therefore can to some extent relate to what the traveller must be thinking about the surrounding environment.
Dickens further evokes a dangerous, unpleasant and damp atmosphere by using specific individual words, he writes;
‘ The cutting was extremely deep, and un-
usually precipitate. It was made through
a clammy stone that became oozier and wetter
as I went down.’
The word ‘oozier’ allows you to imagine the true extent of the dangerous wet conditions the traveller faces. The word oozier is also onomatopoeia that means the senses are involved when reading this passage as you can almost hear and feel the clammy stone squelching on his way down.
The fact that the description of the journey to the signalman is relatively long means it gives the traveller enough time to question the signalman’s behaviour. This passage is an example of good descriptive writing as it incorporates all senses to evoke an inhospitable and dangerous environment.
Charles Dickens also employs personification and alliteration to describe the shock the traveller feels when the signalman tells him of a recent death he has witnessed, he writes;
‘I could think of nothing to say, to any
purpose, and my mouth was very dry.
The wind and the wire took up the story with
A long lamenting wail.’
The alliteration of ‘w’ and ‘l’ emphasises the empty hollow sound of the whistling wind. This clearly portrays the horror the traveller feels at the death. Dickens describing the traveller’s mouth as ‘dry’ reinforces the fear he feels at that point and allows the reader to create an image of the shocked traveller.
R. Timperley also employs clever literary devices and descriptive writing to evoke an atmosphere. On the first page of the story Timperley uses a realistic description to create a vivid picture of Chris, she writes;
‘her little plump legs defenceless and
endearing beneath the too short blue
This description allows you to imagine a clear picture of Chris’ short legs and ill fitting clothes therefore emphasising her innocence and age. This passage also makes readers understand Chris’ vulnerability and is an insight into Mrs James’ view of Christine.
The writer also uses a clever realistic use of dialogue, Timperley writes:
‘Hello,’ she said. ‘I hoped you’d come ….
Because I like you. How old are you? …
I’m only five and a piece …. I’m not
The realism of this conversation means it is hard for Mrs James to be consoled by a rational voice, as it is difficult for Mrs James to imagine a five year old acting out such a realistic conversation by herself. This dialogue also allows the story to move on a step as Mrs James’ concern grows.
The writer of ‘Harry’ uses normal everyday activities to show the gap developing between Chris and Mrs James:
‘Chris ran ahead of me. She looked up
as if at someone beside her. For a
brief, dreadful second, I saw a shadow
on the pavement alongside her own-
a long, thin shadow- like a boy’s
This quote starts off by emphasising the distance forming, both mentally and physically, between Mrs James and Chris by writing Chris runs ahead yet also acts as provider of several chilling clues to showing Harry may be real. This passage is particularly powerful as Timperley uses dashes before describing the shadow and figure to prolong suspense and evoke real human fear.
R. Timperley also writes that Chris talks of Harry while doing normal routine activities:
‘Harry’s my brother. He says so.’ She
bent over the glass of milk and emerged
with a smeary top lip. Then she grabbed
at the biscuits. At least ‘Harry’ hadn’t spoilt
This quote emphasise the fact Mrs James no longer feels safe from Harry no matter where she is or what she is doing. Towards the end of this passage the writer puts Harry in inverted commas to suggest he has spoilt many aspects of their lifes. This quote is also another example of fear being found in comparative normality.
Another example of good descriptive writing is when Timperley describes Chris’ attitude towards Mrs James:
‘Chris, stop this nonsense! Stop it!’
I struck her sharply on the arm. Her
Crying ceased immediately. She stared
At me, her blue eyes wide open and
frighteningly cold. She gave me an adult stare
that made me tremble.’
This demonstrates the contempt Chris begins to feel for Mrs James as she refuses to entertain the idea of Harry being real through her own fear. The quote also shows how Mrs James feels she can only express her thoughts of Harry to Chris through violence and outbursts of anger.
Timperley uses personification twice to describe the white roses, she writes:
‘The roses glared whitely’
‘The white roses danced before my eyes
and turned red.’
The first example of personification portrays a vivid picture of the roses to emphasise their importance in the story. In the second example personification is used to show the roses to be an almost human enemy and is used to describe when Mrs James collapses with fear and sunstroke. The writer says the roses turn red to symbolise danger and loss.
The writer of ‘Harry’ uses a simile to describe the sun’s rays hitting Mrs James and the panic she faces, Timperley writes:
‘ The sun struck me like a hot
This simile is used as it compares the sun to a weapon that is cutting into Mrs James. The simile is also describes the sun as an enemy to emphasise Mrs James’ isolation and need for help.
Both story beginnings were effective as both posed a puzzle and made the reader want the opening questions answered.
In ‘Harry’ Timperley starts the story with a short sentence that immediately provokes a reaction:
‘Such ordinary things make me afraid.’
This statement provokes a reaction due to the fact that as readers we are curious to know what has made Mrs James afraid of ordinary things.
Also in ‘Harry’ the brief description of the things Mrs James is afraid of intrigues readers:
‘Sunshine. Sharp shadows on the grass.
White roses. Children with red hair. And
the name- Harry. Such an ordinary name.’
Timperley has written the list with full stops in between each fear to emphasise their importance and so they do not detract fear from each other. This is also a good way to begin a story as the list consists of seemingly inoffensive things that have provoked an obsessive fear in Mrs James.
In ‘The signalman’ Dickens uses a combination of plunging into the action and posing a puzzle to begin the story, he writes:
‘HALLOA! Below there!’
Beginning the story with speech was effective as it meant readers wanted to know where it came from and to who it was intended.
Also in ‘The signalman’ readers want to find out the reason for the signalman’s strange behaviour, Dickens writes:
‘One would have thought 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.’
This is an effective beginning as it poses many questions to both readers and the traveller not only making you want to read on but allowing you to feel you can relate and have something in common with the traveller, a key character, meaning you want to start out on a journey along with him.
In both ‘The signalman’ and ‘Harry’ there are many cases of tension and fear building up to provoke a reaction in characters and readers.
In ‘The signalman’ tension and fear is built up due to the signalman’s strange behaviour, Dickens writes:
‘He twice broke off with a fallen colour,
turned his face towards the little bell
when it did NOT ring, opened the door
of the hut and looked out towards the red
light near the mouth of the tunnel.’
This builds up tension and fear as there is no rational explanation for the signalman’s behaviour and is a chilling insight into his insecurities which means the reader and traveller feel unsafe and are forced to be taken out of their secure environment. This passage is also an example of tension and fear building up as in the story the signalman is described as good at his job and intelligent so when he begins to react strangely to everyday occurrences it becomes even more curious.
Also in ‘The signalman’ tension is built up when the train worker admits he used to be a contented man but now is not, Dickens writes:
‘You almost made me think that I
have met with a contented man.’ ‘I
believe I used to be so,’ he rejoined, in the
low voice in which he had first spoken; ‘but
I am troubled, sir, I am troubled.’
This is a good example of tension and fear building up as the signalman tells the traveller ha is ‘troubled’ but does not specify why he is which leaves readers to imagine what it could be and to piece together previous clues.
Tension and fear is also built up when the signalman quizzes the traveller about his previous actions, which the train worker views as suspicious for an unknown reason, Dickens writes;
‘What made you cry ‘Halloa below
there! Tonight?’ ‘Heavens knows,’
said I ‘I cried something to that
effect-‘ ‘Not to that effect, sir. Those
were the very words. I know them well.’
Tension is built up here as what the traveller sees as innocent words of greeting the train worker views as sinister. This quote also builds up tension and fear due to the fact that as readers we know something is wrong but we are not clear on what so this passage leaves us to dread what we read next.
Tension and fear is also built up effectively in ‘Harry’ by R. Timperley. In ‘Harry’ tension and fear is built up from the very beginning as at the start of the story, Timperley writes:
‘And the name – Harry. Such an
ordinary name. Yet the first time
Christine mentioned the name, I felt
a premonition of fear.’
This builds up fear as we know nothing of Harry at this point however Mrs James already expresses how feared he is by her. This quote is also chilling due to the element of fear being found in such a normal name making readers feel vulnerable aswell as Mrs James.
Tension and fear is also built up when Chris mentions Harry for the first time. The story says:
‘She said: ‘I must go in now. Goodbye.’
Then walked slowly towards the house.
‘Chris, who were you talking to?’
‘Harry,’ she said.’
Fear develops here as Mrs James is unaware of who Harry is which indicates something is not right and makes readers wonder why Christine is so at ease with him.
Another example of tension and fear developing is when physical evidence of Harry begins to become apparent, Timperley writes:
‘Chris ran ahead of me. She looked up
as if at someone beside her. For a brief,
dreadful second, I saw a shadow on the
pavement alongside her own- a long, thin
shadow- like a boy’s shadow.’
Fear is built up here as seeing physical evidence of Harry means it is no longer as easy to be consoled by rational voices. Fear and tension also develops here as the shadow also fits previous descriptions given by Christine.
‘The signalman’ and ‘Harry’ share many similarities in order to evoke fear and insecurities.
In both stories there is examples of rational voices attempting to console Mrs James and the train worker. In ‘The signalman’ the traveller acts as the rational voice. Once the train worker has told the traveller of the sightings, he says:
‘Why, see,’ said I how your imagin-
ation misleads you.’
This is an attempt by the traveller to console the signalman. He tries to do this by suggesting the spectre is all in his mind and that the ghost does not really exist. The traveller also plays down the fear he feels by using informal language and a friendly tone.
In ‘Harry’ there is also evidence of rational voices, one is Dr Webster. He says:
‘You see, every child needs company
of her own age, and if she doesn’t
get it, she invents it.’
This quote shows the doctor trying to console Mrs James by suggesting Chris has simply created an imaginary friend.
In both cases the rational voices only relax the characters momentarily until they discover yet another clue to who Harry and the spectre really is.
Both stories are also similar as Mrs James and the signalman feel isolated in their fear and pain and think there is no one who can truly understand their situations.
In ‘Harry’ Mrs James feels she cannot speak to Mr James too much as in the past it has provoked anger and only served in making Mrs James feel foolish and isolated further.
In ‘The signalman’ the train worker cannot inform his senior colleagues of his sightings as he believes they will think of him as mad and unfit to do his job any longer.
Also in both stories readers and fellow characters begin to question both the signalman and Mrs James’ state of mind as their sightings torment them further, however, this is still not picked up on by the people closest to them.
Stephen King would of approved of both ghost stories as they both met king’s criteria of what makes a good fictional ghost/horror story.
Throughout ‘Harry’ Stephen king comment D applies, that states:
‘Horror fiction is a cold touch
in the midst of the familiar, and
good horror fiction applies this cold
touch with sudden unexpected pressure.’
This comment applies as Timperley writes:
‘Even in the comparative security
of the house- the house so strangely
cold in this hot weather- I never let her
out of my sight.’
This passage complies with King as Mrs James no longer feels safe in her own home due to Harry. This is effective as it makes readers not just characters feel insecure. King would also approve as Mrs Kings fears now reside in the familiar aswell as the unknown.
R. Timperley’s ‘Harry’ also complies with Stephen King comment A:
‘They are all stories where the
past eventually becomes more important
than the present.’
This is applicable in ‘Harry’ as Mrs James becomes extremely concerned by Chris’ past, Timperley writes:
‘Who is this little loved stranger
I’ve taken as a daughter? Who
This is an example of Chris’ past becoming more vital than the present as it could hold an explanation of who Harry is and why Christine has become so obsessed with the idea of her new brother.
In ‘The signalman’ Stephen King comment A also applies, Dickens writes:
‘Not to that effect, sir. Those
were the very words. I know
This is a good example of the past becoming more important than the present as the root of the signalman’s suspicions of the words spoken by the traveller are from events previous to the traveller’s arrival.
‘The signalman’ also incorporates Stephen King comment C:
‘Horror stories are best when they
are ambiguous and low key and
This applies to ‘The signalman’ as the face of the spectre can never actually be seen by the train worker:
‘I never saw the face. The
left arm is across the face, and
the right arm is waved.’
This allows the reader to use imagination which means their worst fears can be seen in the ghost instead of someone else’s interpretation. It is also so there is still a mystery as to who or what the sighting is.
‘The signalman’ has a clever and very final ending. The traveller returns to find the signalman dead, he had been knocked down by a train after the driver had attempted to warn him by making the same hand gestures as the spectre. The signalman had been so scared by what he thought was the spectre he could not he could not avoid the oncoming train. This was an effective ending as it was powerful and had a clever twist. However, I felt ‘Harry’ had a better ending as it evoked more human fear due to the ambiguity of Harry and desperation of Mrs James. ‘Harry’ ends with Mrs James arriving late to pick Chris up, once she eventually arrives Chris’ teacher informs her Chris’ bother, Harry, has already been to collect her. The story finally ends with life going on around Mrs James although she personally still lives in fear of normal ordinary things. Both stories end with the main characters, Mrs James and the signalman, being left in isolation.
In conclusion I preferred ‘Harry’ as it evoked a sense of human fear by placing danger and insecurity in usually safe environments. However, both ‘The signalman’ and ‘Harry’ met important criteria needed in the writing of a good ghost/horror story. The stories achieved this by taking the element of safety out of normal everyday places and making the feared ghosts ambiguous and low key.