Tuesday, January 25, 2011


In the file of letters from the publisher Peter Davies to Sarban, there’s a brief letter from Nico Davies of 24 November, 1960, where he recommends to Sarban another of his authors, Kathleen Sully, citing a few books in particular. He says: "I'm glad you found things to like and admire in "Skrine". As I told you, I am sure, she is one of my favourite authors. Of the eight books of hers which have come our way - there is a new one scheduled for next February - there are to me splendid things in each. If my favourite is still her first, "Canal in Moonlight" ["Bikka Road" in the USA - MV], "Merrily to the Grave" and "Skrine" are not far behind."

I sent off for a few, and have read the one he sent to Sarban, Skrine (1960). It is set in a post-apocalypse world, very clearly and tautly told, and follows one man through hunger and desolation to a surviving community where by chance he is taken as a healer. At first feted, he comes into conflict with the boss of the town, and the wavering townsfolk turn upon him. Uncompromisingly bleak, it certainly lowered the spirits while at the same time eliciting admiration for her hard style and dark vision. Her other books seem no more sanguine in outlook but almost as good in her terse composition. Skrine, at least, has a possible supernatural element, in that the character sees the figures of those he has had to kill to survive, although a gap is left for these to be hallucinatory.

Kathleen Sully is another author whose work seems to have almost entirely passed out of view but on the strength of the books I've read so far she could attract the kind of devoted following that Phyllis Paul has acquired thanks to the efforts of Glen Cavaliero. They share a highly pessimistic, bleak outlook, although Sully also has an austere and remorseless prose style.

It was the resourceful Doug Anderson, as so often, who uncovered some biographical details: “Kathleen Maude Sully was born in 1910, died in 2001 at the age of 91… She gave an interesting comment about her writerly interests (c. 1970s): "Main interest now and ever since I could think: Man--why and whence .... Have written since a child but stuff mostly too off-beat for publication. Interest in general: philosophy; art; realistic literature; dancing; swimming and diving; teaching;' diet and health--mental and physical; why the chicken crossed the road." “ One of her dustwrappers gives a long list of workaday jobs she has held: they look like bread-and-butter chores to sustain her while her real soul was in her writing.


  1. Interesting post. I have yet to read Glen Cavaliero's essay on Paul in Wormwood. Haven't been able to find out much about Paul's work to whet my appetite. I seem to remember reading a while back that her work shares some similarities with Aickman's.

  2. Thanks Adam. Just about the only commentary on Phyllis Paul is by Glen. He also discusses her in his study of the supernatural in English fiction. She is a meticulous prose writer perhaps similar to Elizabeth Bowen, although her world-view is much more sombre.