A Scent of New-mown Hay

November 3, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

hayA Scent of New-mown Hay by John Blackburn


I had high hopes going into this book, in part because it’s been republished by Valancourt Books. I’ve read ten of their books so far, and none of them have disappointed. They’ve republished a bunch of Blackburn’s books, and what I’ve read of them — that they’re a combination thriller, science fiction, and horror romp — engendered excitement. While A Scent of New-mown Hay wasn’t bad, it didn’t quite live up to my expectations.

Published in 1958, the book is, as promised, part James Bond thriller (complete with villains who are damned Ruskies), part science fiction, and part horror. In fact, taken together, the three genres make it a Lovecraftian Bond novel, which, honestly, sounds pretty bad ass. The thing is, the story is mostly plot, with the characterization left behind in order to increase the tension and excitement of the plot. This isn’t a problem, but much of what I’ve liked about Valancourt’s reprints is that focus on character, and I was expecting the same thing here.

Additionally, Valancourt’s focus has been on the slow burn, the buildup of tension over several chapters, leading us to an ending that’s not explosive, but at least conclusive. Hay isn’t that kind of story, either. It starts fast and keeps the pace going all the way through to the end, and I’ll admit, I felt the excitement as we neared the end of the story, thinking How is our hero going to get out of this? It just didn’t quite fit what I thought it would be.

It seems ridiculous to base how much I like a book on what I expect it to be, but Valancourt has done such a good job setting up my expectations on all of their works that I didn’t expect anything else. I had those same expectations with the other books I read, by Ken Greenhall, Michael McDowell, Bernard Taylor, and Robert Marasco, and wasn’t disappointed. Here, the characteristics shift a bit, even though it’s not a bad story.

One might expect the story to be a bit dated, and in some ways, it is. The way men talk to women is condescending (“Good girl” is said to them more than once), but one of the central characters is a woman, and a strong one, to boot. Sure, her involvement is based on her husband, but once she’s involved, she shows that she’s just as capable as any of them men. Then there’s the antagonist, also a woman, and more than just a jilted lover or a frigid bitch. In fact, as far as the characters go, she’s the most developed and the most interesting.

Valancourt has sixteen other books by Blackburn, and I still plan to read them. Having read this one, I should be able to adjust my expectations on the rest of them to appreciate them more. Plus, A Scent of New-mown Hay was his first novel, so maybe they will improve as I move forward. Fans of weird fiction will like this the best, though it’s not as atmospheric as standard weird fiction.

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