I had never heard of John Blackburn until a very few days ago. Given his status as a prolific English genre author who emerged just on the heels of the two better-known Johns – Wyndham and Christopher – I couldn’t begin to think of why I’d never encountered any of his work in the past, aside from the bothersome inconvenience that comes with so much of it being out of print. Originally published in 1958 and intermittently re-printed from there, Blackburn’s freshman work A Scent of New-Mown Hay is a science fiction thriller with overtones of apocalyptic horror and in principle just the sort of book I should love. And though I devoured it in scarcely an afternoon, I found the expected love rather difficult to come by.
The basics of the premise are promising enough. Word emerges from the Soviet Union that the Russians have cordoned off a vast swath of their northern territory, hastily evacuating the sparse population and moving huge numbers of troops into defensive positions around it. Suspicions swirl in official circles as to what the Soviets are up to, and fears steadily mount that they’re using the forbidden area as a testing ground for some new space-age super weapon. But when an English cargo vessel is accidentally sunk by Soviet warships the men behind the iron curtain come clean to avoid an international incident. Rather than preparing for a global conquest the Soviet Union is actually under attack, from a confounding contagion that threatens to decimate the total female population of Earth. Their restricted zone expanding with each passing moment the Soviets admit that they are powerless to stop the plague, and look to the outside world for assistance.
Enter talented biologist Tony Heath, whose former ties to one of the government’s scientific think-tanks give him an in at the British Foreign Office. Put to work investigating the contagion, Tony soon discovers that the cause is not a disease, but a bizarre fungal mutation that takes over the biological functions of its female hosts and transforms them into inhuman spore-spouting monsters. With nothing like it to be found in evolutionary history Tony begins to wonder whether the mutation may have a more human origin…
There’s the potential for a great deal of existential dread in Blackburn’s A Scent of New-Mown Hay, and the civilization-crushing ramifications of its woman-hating fungal menace are indeed terrifying to contemplate. It’s all the more unfortunate, then, that Blackburn squanders that potential so completely, ignoring the larger potentialities of his concoction in favor of a decidedly small-scale hunt-for-the-bastards-responsible that plays like a poor precursor to Alistair MacLean’s The Satan Bug, a tale of super-germ thievery published four years later. In a series of contrived yet all too predictable developments Tony and his friends in the Foreign Office discover that the fungal aberration is actually the end result of an insidious Nazi plot (when aren’t they insidious?) set in motion by a goose-stepping savant near the end of the War. With said savant still at large, presumably with a cure to the problem in hand, the narrative quickly becomes encumbered with the frequently dim-witted quest to find them.
With the shift in focus towards finding the folks responsible any and all of A Scent of New-Mown Hay‘s apocalyptic potential is effectively dashed, and the horror of the situation greatly diminished. Blackburn’s specifics with regard to the subject do nothing to help matters. So long as the danger of the mutated spores is left relatively ambiguous it can work quite well, appearing a blight upon the fairer sex with the power to wipe out mankind in a single generation, but once the details of its effects are revealed it becomes little more than a catalyst for stock ’50s monsters, and silly ones at that. Blackburn avoids being too descriptive in terms of his creatures, but what we do get is pretty bland, indicating puffy amorphous things that smell of – well, you’ve no doubt already guessed. For being advertised as “a novel of action, horror and emotion” there’s precious little of the former and latter and a sad lack of the middle. Once Blackburn reveals what’s going on in the frozen Soviet north he mostly lets his fungus be, allowing only one infection and exactly one victim outside the iron curtain.
All of these things I could likely forgive in so short a read as this were the writing not so bad on its own terms. The following brief excerpt is indicative of the clunky, awkward qualities that mar Blackburn’s work here:
She didn’t just die. There was no time for dying. Her end had nothing to do with the conventional idea of death. She was just there one moment and then not there. There was simply nothing of her there. Nothing left of her. Nothing that could even be called a part of her there. There was just stuff on the floor and the walls, and that was all there was.
I was a bit shocked, to be quite honest. This is the sort of asinine stuff I expect from low-rung potboilers like The Day They H-Bombed Los Angeles or The Second Atlantis, but from a novel of some genuine reputation (Hammer Films evidently once considered a film adaptation) I was expecting more. All that said I didn’t hate Blackburn’s first novel, but it was definitely a disappointment. Perhaps the best things about it are the enigmatic first-edition cover design from Frank Pagnato and the title, splayed as boldly as possible across the front. All the more’s the pity, then, that what’s beneath couldn’t have been more satisfying.
A Scent of New-Mown Hay is at present out of print, but used copies remain readily available.