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A Scent of New-Mown Hay

Novel by John Blackburn (England) 1958.

John Blackburn was a prolific writer, concentrating mainly on the fringes of the horror genre. He has produced some excellent novels, including a couple of my favourites, the stylistically very different A Ring of Roses (1965) and A Beastly Business (1982). However this was his first book, and his masterpiece.

The smuggling of a small slip of paper from Russia to the office of Major-General Charles Kirk in London causes the death of at least one man, but it proves to be well worth the sacrifice. It informs the British Government that a large area of mainly deserted northern Russia has been sealed off. All villages within the area have been burned to the ground and their inhabitants evacuated. All White Sea ports are being closed to foreign traffic. The area is expanding and the Russians are scared. When Kirk teams up with the Russians and learns the details, namely that some form of plant is mutating every woman it comes into contact with and which could in a short period of time cause the extinction of the human race, he brings in bacteriologist Dr Walter Hearn, who in turn brings Dr Tony Heath, now lecturing at Durford University. Though forbidden to do so, Heath tells his wife Marcia and it is she who connects the events with the activities of a lady scientist at one of the Third Reich's experiment camps.

A Scent of New-Mown Hay has a plot similar to many of the low-budget scifi B-movies of the 1950s, but without any of their tackiness. It doesn't go into too much scientific detail, but does not completely avoid it. The style is remarkably literate for a genre seen by the uninitiated as the refuge of untalented writers who rely on shock and gore and established writers of other fields who write horror as catharsis before returning to their real and worthwhile work. The characterisation is exceptional, and suitably for what was marketed as an Earth-threatening sf novel, bears favourable comparison to the work of another British sf writer who excelled so much at characterisation, one John Wyndham. For a work of the 1950s, there is of course no gratuitous sex, gore or swearing, but you get the feeling that even if John Blackburn had written it today, he would still have left such things out in favour of its delicious tension. If I had to compile a list of the greatest horror novels of all time, this would be way, way up my list.


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