The old whimsical phrase “there’s fungus among us” might not sound so amusing after a reader finishes John Blackburn‘s first novel, A Scent of New-Mown Hay. This short (my New English Library paperback edition from 1976 is only 160 pages long) but densely written book originally appeared in 1958, and is a curious combination of sci-fi, horror and spy thriller. I first came to hear of it after reading a very laudatory article on the novel in the excellent overview volume Horror: Another 100 Best Books edited by Stephen Jones and Kim Newman. And yes, A Scent of New-Mown Hay certainly does contain its horrific elements, although the less said about them, the better. I’d hate to spoil any surprises for prospective readers.
Suffice it to say that the book opens in 1954, with General Kirk, of Britain’s Foreign Service Intelligence, being informed that large sections of northern Russia have been reportedly evacuated and quarantined. Kirk, who would go on to figure in several other Blackburn novels, begins an investigation, and it is soon revealed that an ex-Nazi scientist may or may not have released a deadly, mutating organism into the world. The bulk of the novel details the race that Kirk and some dedicated biologists engage in to find the crazed scientist and stop the spread of the plague, with the action transpiring on the White Sea, in seedy Hamburg and in the English countryside. I won’t divulge the nature of the deadly problem, but let’s just say that those folks who have seen the 1963 Japanese thriller Matango will have an inkling of the sort of crisis that Kirk & Co. are dealing with here. The book moves along rapidly, and contains some memorable set pieces, including a fog-shrouded run-in with the mutants on the Russian tundra; the final appearance of Mrs. Baker, a shoplifting British biddy who’s been afflicted with the contagion; and the finale itself, with our heroes facing off against those responsible for the scourge.
If I seem to be overly coy when describing A Scent of New-Mown Hay or its plot points, again, it is solely because I enjoyed the story so much, and would hate to ruin things for any other reader. Blackburn, as it turns out, is a terrific writer, and it is hard for me to believe that this was his first book. The story is very well paced, very suspenseful, and at times almost poetically written. What a terrific film this tale might make, if handled with care by a team that respected Blackburn’s vision. For those readers who are seeking a truly memorable page-turner, this book might be just the ticket.