It’s the summer of 1972, and 30-something divorcee Martyn returns to London after some years away. He joins the Olive Grove, a religious community, where he forms a relationship with Amelia. Over time Martyn becomes suspicious of the Olive Grove’s leaders, a pair of apparently ordinary men who can speak in perfect unison, known as the Two. A sequence of ambiguous events might indicate that the Two have malign purposes, though Martyn cannot be sure. These suspicions come to a head when Amelia breaks off with Martyn and appears to vanish. He travels to Devon, where the Olive Grove has a retreat house, in search of Amelia and the truth about the organisation. There, events take several disturbing and unexpected turns.
When you write a novel, chances are it won’t be long before people ask you what or who influenced you. I find that a hard question to answer. I’m influenced by lots of things. None of us are original. It’s just that I can’t think of influences as a linear equation: admired author + particular circumstances = novel, or something like that. Truth is there are so many influences – known and unknown – that it would be impossible to unravel and categorise them. So here’s just one.
I first heard of Phyllis Paul in about 1986, when I was reading Charles Williams – Poet of Theology (1982) by Glen Cavaliero (Williams is an influence too, but that’s another story). Cavaliero wrote about Paul briefly in that book, then more substantially in The Supernatural and English Fiction (1995), which I didn’t get around to reading until a few years ago. He piqued my interest, but I couldn’t follow it up. No internet in those days, so finding a long dead, long out-of-print author who was obscure even when active was a matter of getting lucky in a second-hand bookshop. Unless you had the money to pay a book dealer to locate books for you – which I didn’t.
I suppose I forgot about Phyllis Paul for decades, but something must have lodged in my subconscious because I took note when Sundial Press announced that it was reissuing her novel, Cage For A Nightingale, in 2012, and bought it on publication. It’s the sort of book that defies algorithms. Is it a thriller? Sort of – intelligent, subtle, inventively characterised and densely plotted. And there seems to be an awareness of an over-arching moral dimension, forces of evil and good. I loved it and went in search of more of her books. To date, I’ve found just one, Twice Lost. Judging by the relative frequency that it appears on abebooks this was Paul’s most successful novel, published, like a few others, in the US as well as the UK. To my mind it’s even better than Cage For A Nightingale, drawing the reader in and never quite tying up the strands of the story.
And that’s as far as I’ve got. Even now, the biographical details about Phyllis Paul remain scant. She was born in 1903, and published 11 novels before her death in a road traffic accident in 1973. There was a 15-year gap between her first two novels, and the first of the remaining nine. There’s some further intriguing detail here http://wormwoodiana.blogspot.com/2019/01/the-last-lost-novel-of-phyllis-paul.html
Paul hardbacks rarely appear on the market, and when they do fetch three figure sums. Tantalisingly, there’s one in the library of a National Trust property in the Cotswolds. Even frayed US paperbacks are £40 plus.
There’s talk about republishing more Phyllis Paul novels. I’m ambivalent. I know when it comes to it I’d probably be first in the pre-order queue. But part of me wants her to remain elusive. What I liked about the two books that I’ve read was the ambiguity. Is something very wrong happening here, or not? Is it supernatural or not? You’re never quite sure. Who was Phyllis Paul? What sort of person was she, and what inspired her mysterious books? It would be fitting if we never quite knew, and she remained just out of reach.
Thank you, Mark Brend and Love Books Tours Group.
About the author
Mark Brend is a writer and a musician based in Devon. He has written several books about music and has released six albums under various artist names. Undercliff is Mark’s first novel.