imagine if paul bowles was an englishman and wrote ghost stories . . .

William Sansom (1912-1976), was an English short story writer, novelist, travel writer, and author of children’s books. Sansom’s short stories are characterized by his minutely detailed descriptions and depictions of people confronting extremities of experience. Eudora Welty said that "the flesh of William Sansom’s stories is their uninterrupted contour of sensory impressions. The bone is reflective contemplation." In his short story “A Woman Seldom Found,” a disillusioned young man holidaying in Rome meets a mysterious and beautiful woman and begins to believe that there is such a thing as “the perfect encounter.”


a woman seldom found
by william sansom


ONCE a young man was on a visit to Rome.


It was his first visit; he came from the country but he was neither on the one hand so young nor on the other so simple as to imagine that a great and beautiful capital should hold out finer promises than anywhere else. He already knew that life was largely illusion, that though wonderful things could happen, nevertheless as many disappointments came in compensation: and he knew, too, that life could offer a quality even worse — the probability that nothing would happen at all. This was always more possible in a great city intent on its own business.


Thinking in this way, he stood on the Spanish steps and surveyed the momentous panorama stretched before him. He listened to the swelling hum of the evening traffic and watched as the lights went up against Rome’s golden dusk. Shining automobiles slunk past the fountains and turned urgently into the bright Via Condotti, neon-red signs stabbed the shadows with invitation; the yellow windows of buses were packed with faces intent on going somewhere — everyone in the city seemed intent on the evening’s purpose. He alone had nothing to do.


He felt himself the only person alone of everyone in the city. But searching for adventure never brought it — rather kept it away. Such a mood promises nothing. So the young man turned back up the steps, passed the lovely church, and went on up the cobbled hill towards his hotel. Wine bars and food shops jostled with growing movement in those narrow streets. But out on the broad pavement of the Vittorio Veneto, under the trees mounting to the Borghese Gardens, the high world of Rome would be filling the most elegant cafes in Europe to enjoy with aperitifs the twilight. That would be the loneliest of all! So the young man kept to the quieter, older streets on his solitary errand home.


In one such street, a pavementless alley between old yellow houses, a street that in Rome might suddenly blossom into a secret piazza of fountain and baroque church, a grave secluded treasure-place — he noticed that he was alone but for the single figure of a woman walking down the hill toward him.


As she drew nearer, he saw that she was dressed with taste, that in her carriage was a soft Latin fire, that she walked for respect. He face was veiled, but it was impossible to imagine that she would not be beautiful. Isolated thus with her, passing so near to her, and she symbolizing the adventure of which the evening was so empty — a greater melancholy gripped him. He felt wretched as the gutter, small, sunk, pitiful. So that he rounded his shoulders and lowered his eyes – but not before casting one furtive glance into hers.


He was so shocked at what he saw that he paused, he stared, shocked, into her face. He had made no mistake. She was smiling. Also — she too had hesitated. He thought instantly: ‘Whore?’ But no — it was not that kind of smile, though as well it was not without affection.

And then amazingly she spoke.


"I — I know I shouldn’t ask you… but it is such a beautiful evening — and perhaps you are alone, as alone as I am…"


She was very beautiful. He could not speak. But a growing elation gave him the power to smile. So that she continued, still hesitant, in no sense soliciting.


"I thought… perhaps… we could take a walk, an aperitif…"


At last the young man achieved himself.


"Nothing, nothing would please me more. And the Veneto is only a minute up there."


She smiled again.


"My home is just here…"


They walked in silence a few paces down the street, to a turning the young woman had already passed. This she indicated. They walked to where the first humble houses ended in a kind of recess. In the recess was set the wall of a garden, and behind it stood a large and elegant mansion. The woman, about whose face shone a curious pale glitter — something fused of the transparent pallor of fine skin, of grey but brilliant eyes, of dark eyebrows and hair of lucent black – inserted her key in the garden gate.


They were greeted by a servant in velvet livery. In a large and exquisite salon, under chandeliers of fine glass and before a moist green courtyard where water played, they were served with frothy wine. They talked. The wine — iced in the warm Roman night — filled them with an inner warmth of exhilaration. But from time to time the young man looked at her curiously.


With her glances, with many subtle inflections of teeth and eyes she was inducing an intimacy that suggested much. He felt he must be careful. At length he thought the best thing might be to thank her – somehow thus to root out whatever obligation might be in store. But here she interrupted him, first with a smile, then with a look of some sadness. She begged him to spare himself any perturbation; she knew it was strange, that in such a situation he might suspect some second purpose; but the simple truth remained that she was lonely and — this with a certain deference — something perhaps in him, perhaps that moment of dust in the street, had proved to her inescapably attractive. She had not been able to helpherself. The possibility of a perfect encounter — a dream that years of disillusion will never quite kill — decided him. His elation rose beyond control. He believed her. And thereafter the perfections compounded.


At her invitation they dined. Servants brought food of great delicacy; shellfish, fat bird flesh, soft fruits. And afterward they sat on a sofa near the courtyard, where it was cool. Liqueurs were brought. The servants retired. A hush fell upon the house. They embraced. A little later, with no word, she took his arm and led them from the room. How deep a silence had fallen between them! The young man’s heart beat fearfully — it might be heard, he felt, echoing in the hall whose marble they now crossed, sensed through his arm to hers. But such excitement rose now from certainty. Certainty that at such a moment, on such a charmed evening — nothing could go wrong. There was no need to speak. Together they mounted the great staircase. In her bedroom, to the picture of her framed by the bed curtains and dimly naked in a silken shift, he poured out his love; a love that was to be eternal, to be always perfect, as fabulous as this their exquisite meeting. Softly she spoke the return of her love. Nothing would ever go amiss, nothing would ever come between them. And very gently she drew back the bedclothes for him.


But suddenly, at the moment when at last he lay beside her, when his lips were almost upon her — he hesitated.


Something was wrong. A flaw could be sensed. He listened, felt – and then saw the fault was his. Shaded, soft-shaded lights by the bed — but he had been so careless as to leave on the bright electric chandelier in the centre of the ceiling. He remembered the switch was by the door. For a fraction, then, he hesitated. She raised her eyelids — saw his glance at the chandelier, understood. Her eyes glittered. She murmured, "My beloved, don’t worry — don’t move …"


And she reached out her hand. Her hand grew larger, her arm grew longer and longer, it stretched out through the bed-curtains, across the long carpet, huge and overshadowing the whole of the long room, until at last its giant fingers were at the door.


With a terminal click, she switched out the light.


—from The Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century Ghost Stories, ed. Michael Cox, Oxford University Press, 1997

comedy, violence, and the supernatural: muriel sparks’ elements of fiction

Muriel Spark (1918-2006) was British or, more precisely, Scottish, writer of novels, short stories, poetry, biography and criticism. Born Jewish, she converted to Roman Catholicism in 1954, and echoes of Church ritual and doctrine can be heard throughout her fiction, which uses the personal vanities and social gamesmanship of everyday life to open the door to life’s deeper themes: her characters catch unexpected glimpses of its mystery and terror, experience sudden brushes with death and murder, and suffer perplexing intimations of the nature of life, death, eternity—the elemental universals which her harried, harassed and sometimes cultured characters are not equipped to deal with . . .

Muriel Spark,The Young Man Who Discovered The Secret of Life”

THE MAIN FACT WAS, he was haunted by a ghost about five feet high when unfurled and standing upright. For the ghost unfurled itself from the top drawer of a piece of furniture that stood in the young man’s bed-sitting room every night, or failing that, every morning. The young man was a plasterer’s apprentice, or so he claimed.

But I have been told on good authority that this is absolutely absurd. There is no such thing: plasterers do not have apprentices. Ben, as the young man was called, was very concerned when I wrote to point this out. He decidedly preferred to change his status to that of "bricklayer’s" or, better still, "kerblayer’s apprentice," even although this meant putting himself in an unemployed category while doing a bit of plastering on the side to make a weekly wage of sorts.

I myself had only heard of Ben through correspondence, for he had written to me a most unusual letter, care of my publisher. In it, the then "plasterer’s apprentice" told about the visitations of the ghost. Normally, I would have torn up the letter; I only replied to him because one of his statements contained the challenging one that through his ghost Ben had discovered, or was by way of discovering "the secret of life." In my reply, I was cautious about the "apparition" as I called his ghost, but I more definitely pointed out that "the secret of life" was most likely to mean the secret of his own personal life, not life in general. The lives of people hold many secrets, I emphasized. There was possibly no one "secret" applying to us all. So, anyway, I wished him luck, and mailed off the letter. Goodbye.

But no, it wasn’t goodbye, as I might have foreseen. It was true that I didn’t write to him for some time, but he continued to write letters to me in some inexplicable need that he felt to express his odd experiences, real or imagined as the case might be.

According to Ben’s letters to me his greatest problem with the ghost was now blackmail and jealousy, for the ghost was truly jealous of Ben’s girlfriend.

"I can haunt whoever and wherever I wish," the ghost told Ben. "It is easy for me to inform the whole of your acquaintance that you are only a plasterer looking for a steady job, and as for being a kerblayer or even a bricklayer, that is far from the truth."

"Please yourself who you haunt," said Ben. "I am totally indifferent. The fact remains that I am a kerblayer at heart, whatever the nature of the temporary job as plasterer, etc., etc., that I am economically forced to accept from time to time."

"And what is ‘etc., etc.’?" said the ghost nastily. "Do you mind explaining?"

"Curl up and return to your drawer," Ben bade him. "And mind you don’t crush my pajamas."

"Your pajamas," said the ghost, "have no place in the top drawer where I come from. They are not pure silk; they are Marks Spencer’s. "

Ben was secretly very anxious lest it should be known he was not a kerblayer after all. But he was a brave fellow. "Get back to your place or else," he said.

The ghost curled up again, murmuring, "At least you admit that I have a right to be here. As it happens I know what is going to win the three-thirty tomorrow. It is Bartender’s Best."

True enough that horse won the race and Ben was furious with himself for failing to take the tip, for he liked to play the horses when he had some money.

"Any more tips?" he asked the ghost that night.

"I thought you would ask that question," said the ghost. "But as you know, your girlfriend doesn’t like betting. If you give her up I’ll tell no one your secret and I’ll give you good racing tips."

"Do you know what?" said Ben. "You are getting on my nerves. You are the result of stale air, neither more nor less. Stale air becomes radioactive. It becomes luminous. If I open the window you will gradually disappear."

"Not me," said the ghost. "Not me, I won’t."

"I can’t think of any more mindless occupation than to be a ghost in that post-mortem way you have in coming and going. So very unnecessary. I could have you psychoanalyzed away."

Enter into the story Genevieve, young and fair, a designer of scarecrows, Ben’s girlfriend: Ben was convinced that her occupational status, the only type of status that apparently he knew, was beneath his, particularly now that he had become "Profession: kerblayer’s apprentice." The passion with which the ghost despised Genevieve could only be matched by Ben’s genuine and desperate love for her. In the meantime the ghost continued to unfurl its five feet and to give Ben advice like "psychoanalyze your crazy pavements."

"The ghost is a terrible snob," Ben wrote. "He makes me feel great and terrible"

In fact, Ben changed his patronizing attitude towards the girl only after Genevieve borrowed his sun-hat, his Jeans, and one of his shirts to make up one of her scarecrows. She painted a turnip in the likeness of Ben’s face. When she had set up this scarecrow in a field everyone knew that it was modeled on Ben. Everyone smiled. The terrible snob ghost came to report this to Ben, adding that a cow’s milk had already been turned by the scarecrow.

On the previous day Ben had won twenty-four pounds on a horse, quite on his own hunch. So he skipped his usual visit to the jobcenter and took a bus out of town to the field where Genevieve’s handiwork was flapping. Two cars had drawn up by the side of the road, and the occupants were admiring the work of art, as one of them called it. "It’s the image of a young builder’s mate who once worked on my property," she said.

So instead of taking the effigy amiss Ben was full of admiration for Genevieve. He rang her up and made her fix a date for their marriage, never mind that he was at present out of work.

The ghost unfurled himself again that night, but when he heard of Ben’s proposal to Genevieve, he returned to the top drawer from whence he came, curled up and disappeared. "This quenching of the ghost," Ben wrote, "is to me the secret of life." He said "quenching" for he felt the ghost had been thirsty for his soul, and had in fact drunk his fill.

Ben never again won on the horses, although he became a masterbricklayer, a prosperous man, specializing in crazy-paving.

—from Partisan Review (Winter 2000), 67(1), pp. 69-71.