A SCENT OF NEW-MOWN HAY (1958) by John Blackburn

Blackburn_Hay_msmilljpgI’ve been looking to sample this author’s weird fiction for years after hearing him compared with LP Davies, one of my favourite British pulp authors of the 1960s. So I have decided, in my usual fashion, to start at the beginning with his debut, a Cold War tale of biological weaponry with its roots in Nazi experiments that combines espionage and horror with a dash of SF – or as the blurb has it:

“A novel of action, horror and emotion”

I offer this review as part of Bev’s Vintage Golden Age Mystery Challenge; and Rich Westwood’s celebration of all things 1958 over at his Past Offences blog.

“This isn’t science, it’s madness, mumbo jumbo, the three-headed devil sitting on the ruined church. no organism can behave, can be made to behave like this.”

So what kind of book is this exactly? It begins with General Charles Kirk, the permanently under-heated head of Her Majesty’s Foreign Intelligence Office, learning that a remote region in the the Soviet Union some 300 miles wide is being forcibly and secretly cleared. Right away he thinks this is the projected landing area for a returning space probe, proving that the Russkies have conquered space and world supremacy will thus not be not far behind. He’s wrong though, as becomes clear in one of the book’s most memorable sections, when a British ship is told to get out of the nearby port but is then sunk by other vessels fleeing the area.

“The old ship seemed to sway softly, almost normally in the passing wash as if uninjured, and then she began to die”

Blackburn_Hay_valancourtThe survivors make it to one of the abandoned villages and in the fog find a nightmare that will envelop and destroy them all. This sees Blackburn at something like his best, building nicely on the sense of mounting horror without ever getting too specific about what is actually happening. We are left in no doubt though that what is menacing the sailors is something elemental and organic that has taken a terrifying shape. The Russians eventually admits to the Americans and the British that there is some sort of plague afflicting them – one imagines initially that it is one of their bio-weapons that has got out of hand, but sadly not. They have no idea what it is – all they know is that it kills men and turns women into a human-fungal hybrid.

“Since these terrible murders I’ve felt that it is almost as if a curse hangs over this neighbourhood”

Back in good old England Tony and Marcia Heath live in a University town, seemingly contented after his stint working for a government research unit, the stresses of which almost ended their marriage. But all is not well even now as there have been a series of deaths in the village and there are inklings that the deadly plague has reached Britain’s shores. It’s not long before Tony’s old boss asks for him to come back to brief Kirk on just what the mutated germ might be and how long it will be before the whole world succumbs to it. And where did it come from? Well, all is explained courtesy of a flashback to Nazi Germany that includes a guest appearance by Heinrich Himmler himself:

“But I! I would use everything in my power to end this war even if I made the name of Germany stink in the nostrils of the world for a thousand years.”

Blackburn_Hay_nelThis ultimate in genetic warfare is the brainchild of the diminutive Rosa Steinberg but it seems that even the Nazis thought it was a bit much. Her experiments, interrupted at the end of the war, have clearly borne fruit and so the novel turns into a race against time to find an antidote and Rosa, who from name to deed seems to be imbued with a strong sense of the olfactory. Rather pleasingly, it is Marcia rather than David or Kirk who connects the dots and realises that it must be Steinberg behind it all. Her husband asks her to leave the village and head off to far away Wales (!) but she gets a hunch and seeks out another member of the University faculty who, by a whopping coincidence, was part of the army contingent who arrested Rosa in 1945.

“There was no movement, no motion, but just behind her she could hear soft breathing”

This gets her and David into serious trouble when they get trapped by Rosa and, in time-honoured serial fashion, tied up in a cellar with only minutes to spare before being exposed to a fate worse than death. Or anyway, the results of the monstrous germs that Blackburn manages to describe in indirect but still fairly disgusting details (basically imagine your whole insides invaded by mushrooms that then decide to start sprouting very vigorously …). At a time when pandemic alerts are forever in the news, there is something both scary and amusingly naive about this story. The book is highly reminiscent of John Wyndham in its very British tone and ambience (though the narrative actually also moves to Germany, Russia and the US) though parts of it aren’t very well written frankly. Some of Blackburn’s dialogue especially is very juvenile and Boy’s Own – take Rosa’s triumphant speech to her captives for instance:

“Yes, it was I. All the time I was here waiting for you, and you never knew, never guessed, never suspected, until this little fool thought she would play detective and led you here, right into the hollow of my hand.”

Blackburn_Hay_digitOn the other hand, the basic idea is solid if unlikely (the hosts would never survive the trauma caused by the incubation period) and there is no denying the vigorous push of the storytelling. The main set pieces (especially one involving a woman who has locked herself away with what she thinks is tooth ache and who eventually has to be broken out of the room) are very vivid, showing off the author’s penchant for delivering horror and Gothic effects in down-to-earth surroundings. The plot also has some very nice surprises and although I had an inkling, I still fell for the well-constructed double-bluff involving Rosa’s secret identity. This mixture of espionage and lightly dusted SF-horror has flaws but leaves a pungent and memorable aroma – easy to find and well worth a quick read.

The General Charles Kirk series

  • A Scent of New-Mown Hay (1958; aka The Reluctant Spy)
  • A Sour Apple Tree (1958)
  • Broken Boy (1959)
  • The Gaunt Woman (1962)
  • Colonel Bogus (1964; aka Packed for Murder)
  • A Ring of Roses (1965; aka A Wreath of Roses )
  • Children of the Night (1966)
  • Nothing but the Night (1968)
  • The Young Man from Lima (1968)
  • For Fear of Little Men (1972)
  • The Sins of the Father (1979)
  • A Beastly Business (1982)
  • The Bad Penny (1985)

Movie trivia – the rights to the book were optioned by Hammer Studios – although ultimately nothing came of their plans, promotional artwork for the project created by Tom Chantrell can now be viewed online by visiting the ‘unfilmed’ section  Hammer Horrors poster site at: http://hammerhorrorposters.weebly.com/

Blackburn’s books are currently being reprinted in good-looking editions by Valancourt Books – see their website here: www.valancourtbooks.com

I submit this review for Bev’s 2014 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge bingo in the ‘medical’ category:

vintage-golden-card-marked-medic

***** (2.5 fedora tips out of 5)

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This entry was posted in 2014 Vintage Mystery Challenge Bingo, England, Germany, John Blackburn, LP Davies. Bookmark the permalink.

29 Responses to A SCENT OF NEW-MOWN HAY (1958) by John Blackburn

  1. Sergio – I always think it’s worth it try those more unusual books out once in a while. Even if, like this one, you don’t find a truly remarkable book, they can be enjoyable. And I always give authors credit for doing the out-of-the-ordinary at times. It may not be extraordinary, but it keeps literature fresh, if that makes sense.

    • Thanks Margot – parts of the story are undeniably a bit outlandish, but that was starting to be the style with spy fiction at the time and certainly the Bond boom of the sixties embedded SF more closely into the mixture!

  2. Colin says:

    Sounds like a whole lot of fun. Not my usual taste but something different never hurts.

    • Well, that was my thinking! it has all kinds of laughable elements but the story moves a long and it’s a lot like watching a great British SF thriller from the late 1950s in glorious black and white HammerScope, preferably directed by Val guest 🙂

      • Colin says:

        That was exactly the sense I got from your review, and what makes it sound attractive to me. I’ll have to check it out.

        • It’s easy to get actually (I think his first remained his most popular book) and I want to get hold of an affordable copy of NOTHING BUT THE NIGHT, which actually was filmed with Cushing and Lee (thought not for Hammer).

          • Colin says:

            I’ve seen that – didn’t cotton on to the writer though.

          • Just the novel basis, though apparently, from what I’ve read, it is pretty faithful – I’d like to read it first and then see the film now (though annoyingly it’s a bit pricey to get hold of – when did paperback reprints get so expensive?)

          • Colin says:

            Dunno – but annoyingly, it always seems to be the case for the ones you want most.

          • I wonder how many are actually print-on-demand, as an ‘extra’ almost to e-books? Financially, in the case of niche publishing, I can see that making a lot of sense (unfortunately for us print-bound readers)

          • Colin says:

            I’m not really a convert to the whole ebook thing. I have a number of titles stored on the laptop Kindle app – mainly stuff that can’t be got or is prohibitively expensive in traditional form – but I haven’t warmed to it entirely. To be honest, I need to buy an actual Kindle device.

          • I think you and me are very much ‘on the same page’ here (sic) – I’ll have to get an e-reader too – I spend too long in front of a computer screen as it is at work to want to read for pleasure that way.

  3. mikeripley says:

    Glad you’ve discovered Blackburn, an author I have been championing for many years as the natural link in Britain between Dennis Wheatley and James Herbert. The writing may have flaws – and is really quite arch at times – but you cannot deny the incredible pace at which his stories move.
    I managed to republish The Young Man From Lima as a Top Notch Thriller a few years ago and fully support the excellent new editions from Valancourt. One of Blackburn’s best “gothics” was Ring Of Roses (1965) but he is famed among booksellers for Blue Octavo (1963), a more conventional murder mystery set in the world of antiquarian books. His 1967 historical novel The Flame and the Wind (1967) – which I only discovered thanks to Valancourt – is the story of the early struggle between paganism and Christianity in the Roman Empire, done as a spy-story investigation into the background of a certain Jesus-bar-Joseph. The ending though is Blackburn at his gothic best.

  4. I read Ring of Roses and Sour Apple Tree years ago: as far as I remember they were good reads, but that combination of weird science and crime isn’t what I really enjoy. I think Ring was about an outbreak of bubonic plague. Very interesting review anyway, and a good taste of 1958. Blue Octavo, mentioned above by Mike Ripley, sounds like a good read.

  5. TracyK says:

    Sounds worth a try, Sergio. Especially since I lean towards any variation of espionage fiction. I will see what I can find, if not this year then in 2015.

  6. Bev Hankins says:

    Sergio, I’m pretty sure I saw this some time back on the shelf at our Friends of the Library used bookstore. After reading the back cover blurb, I decided to put it back and not take it home. Now your review has made think I should have given it a try after all. My own inner 13-year-old hasn’t a a good read in a while. 🙂

  7. “A Cold War tale of biological weaponry with its roots in Nazi experiments that combines espionage and horror with a dash of sf?” Wow, Sergio, where did that come from? This is the kind of novel I’d like to read and surprise others with. It’s uncanny but that line sounds a lot like the storyline of “The Athena Project” by Brad Thor which I read last year. I liked the covers too. Thanks, Sergio.

    • Thanks Prashant 🙂 as far as I can gauge (John Norris is the expert on this), Nazis, biological weapons and armageddon scenarios about in Blackburn’s book – I’m certainly going to pick up a few more!

  8. Kelly says:

    The horror aspects of this sound neat, and it seems rather mid-apocalyptic to boot. I think I’ll seek this one out. Thanks!

  9. John says:

    Anyone who is a devoted reader of my blog knows I’m hooked on Blackburn’s books. And I have both David Vineyard and Mike Ripley to thank for that. David because he enlightened me about the existence of Blackburn and Mike for being the first one to bring Blackburn back into print. Now there are many more Blackburn reissues thanks to Valancourt Books. I’m excited that they reprinted three of the very scarce titles: THE BAD PENNY, BEASTLY BUSINESS and HOUSEHOLD TRAITORS.

    The more outlandish Blackburn is the better he is, as far as I’m concerned. And I love the atrocious over-the-top “You little fool!” kind of dialogue. It’s perfect for his kind of thriller. SCENT OF NEW MOWN HAY is one I’ve not yet read. It’s his first novel, isn’t it? I’m knocking off most of his supernatural horror books first though I did stumble across a book that almost counts as a straight crime thriller (THE SINS OF THE FATHER) until you get to the typical Blackburn denouement. And then it’s an episode from “The Avengers” all over again. He should’ve been a staff writer for that show. I’ve enjoyed all his books I’ve read so far in one way or another. Not literature by any stretch of the imagination, but a very fun, rip-roarin’ read.

    Never knew about the failed movie version of this book. NOTHING BUT THE NIGHT was made into a movie, but you’d do well to avoid it. I was thoroughly disappointed in it and it’s spoiled my reading of the book which I foolishly didn’t do first. Even with Christopher Lee in a leading role it’s pretty lame. I thought it was a godawful rip-off of VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED with a little of THE WICKER MAN thrown in.

    You missed a few of the Kirk books, BTW. My list has more than you have, but I was only listing the horror novels. I omitted two espionage thrillers (GAUNT WOMAN and COLONEL BOGUS). I guess if you combined both our lists it would be the complete General Kirk series. But maybe they are even more? No one seems to have identified them all. At least not on any of the websites I’ve visited that are praising Blackburn in this posthumous revival he’s enjoying.

  10. John says:

    A long distance dedication! I feel like I’m on the Casey Kasem show. :^D (He was a radio DJ. Do you know him over in the UK?) Here are the other Charles Kirk titles, most of them also have Marcus & Tanya Levin:

    Children of the Night (1966)
    For Fear of Little Men (1972)
    The Sins of the Father (1979)
    A Beastly Business (1982)
    The Bad Penny (1985)

    There may be others, but I have yet to confirm them by reading them.

    • Updated – thanks chum, that is a lot more Kirk books than I thought! Now, Kasem will be known to some in the UK as Shaggy from Scooby Doo but back in my youth I used to live in Singapore, where the Solid Gold Dancers (gulp) were a fixture on TV, along all kinds of US imports that were regularly screened and heard (including, I think, his top 40), so I know exactly what you mean!

  11. Pingback: The Mystery of the Missing Twins: #1958book | Past Offences Classic Crime Fiction

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