William Sansom’s “A Woman Seldom Found” is the second Sansom story to appear in the The Weird, but it couldn’t be more different from “The Winding Sheet.” Rather than a Kafkaesque nightmare, “A Woman Seldom Found” is a romantic tryst with a twist.
In this story, a man visits Rome for the first time and has a perfect romantic encounter with a woman who appears to him spontaneously, claiming that she is just as lonely as he is alone in the city.
There is no catch, apparently; she is not a prostitute and although she is veiled, it is clear she must be beautiful beneath.
The splendid evening draws them together for a splendid dinner in a courtyard before she takes him up to her bedroom, when the man hesitates, feeling something is off—he forgot to turn off the light from the switch on the other side of the room. Then the woman, as though forgetting to keep her true nature hidden, extends her shadowy, elongated hand across the room and switches off the light.
The story makes effective use of a sudden unveiling of the supernatural. Though the man is sceptical that the evening is as perfect as it appears to be, expecting a catch, the woman proves him wrong, assuring him there is no “second purpose,” that she had, indeed, found him “inescapably attractive.” However, the reader’s suspicions are on alert. The text seems like merely a buildup to the fulfillment of a male heterosexual fantasy, before it is revealed the woman may be entirely human–perhaps a succubus luring men to her abode.
Oddly enough, I was not only reminded of succubae but a creature from a very different cultural context: the Indian Bhoot, or ghost. Rakesh Khanna describes the power of the Bhoot in his fantastic bestiary Ghosts, Monsters, and Demons of India:
While a Bhoot is standing in one room of a house, it can stretch its arm all the way to another room to grab something off a shelf or to shut a window. In many tales, the Bhoot who is pretending to be human does this absentmindedly, thus betraying its true nature.Rakesh Khanna, Ghosts, Monsters, and Demons of India
Furthermore, Khanna adds that the Deyyam of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, a creature similar to the Bhoot in some respects, “prefers to do this trick with its tongue–extending its glistening, prehensile pink muscle into another room to adjust the volume on a radio, or to turn off the gas burner of a stove.”
The enchanted woman in Sansom’s story seems to share similar abilities to these Bhoots, though such powers of bodily extension are not usually attributed to succubae.
I loved this story not only because of supernatural element but because it engages you differently, depending on whether you’re reading the story for the first time or the second time.
Initially, you share the man’s scepticism. Later, maybe you share in his excitement as he realizes he’s headed for the best night if his life. If you really buy in, you also notice the interesting parallel of the woman’s loneliness with the man’s. The man may well have appeared just as seductive to the woman, who admits to being lonely too and unsure of herself–not at all someone who is playing him for an ulterior purpose.
However, these perceptions change after you know the ending. Was the woman lying with the intent to suck away the man’s lifeforce after all, after seducing him with her “I’m so lonely tonight” routine? Or, more generously, was she truly as sad and melancholy as the man makes him out to be, even if she is a supernatural entity?
What’s interesting to me is the idea he may not have been deceived on an emotional level at all. The woman might be a sorceress, a succubus, the genius loci of Rome itself, or even a kind of Italian Bhoot. Whoever she is, she might be the last of her kind in an alienated, modern world, compelled to chase away her loneliness with a man who is just as a lonely as her.
(This story in its seductive qualities also reminded me a great deal of Claude Lalumère’s Venera stories. I wonder if there was any trace of influence, this being Sansom’s most anthologized short story.)
Next week I will be reading Charles Beaumont’s “The Howling Man” (1959).