Advance Review: ‘Thistlebone’ – A Chilling Trip Into The Woods In This Brilliant Folk Horror Tale
by Richard Bruton
One of the best new original strips to come from 2000 AD in the last decade, Thistlebone is a haunting and eerie piece of folk horror. And this collection really allows TC Eglington and Simon Davis‘ work to breathe, to build up its slow, creeping horror, and allows the beauty of Davis’ career-high artwork to be seen to its best effect.
The pastoral terror of The Wicker Man meets the 21st Century folk horrors of Midsommar – a stunning piece of folklore horror.
That was how Thistlebone was trailed to us before it came out in 2000 AD back in 2019 (Progs #2135-#2144).
And it did all that and did it exceptionally well, TC Eglinton putting together a story that gets into your bones with a cold, early morning chill, and Simon Davis‘ beautifully organic and rich artwork is the highlight of his career to date – and it’s been a career full of quite brilliant artwork.
Everything begins with Avril Eason revisiting the secluded rural little village of Harrowvale, accompanied by journalist Seema Chaudry. She was last here two decades past, drugged and hunted, meant to be the victim of a human sacrifice by the Thistlebone cult.
They started out as a commune, a home to a group of pagans, worshipping the ancient deity called Thistlebone, but one man changed all that, Jasper Hillman, twisting the simple ideals of the commune until the cult of Thistlebone took on a darker, more radical aspect, believing that their god demanded Avril’s sacrifice.
But Avril escaped, setting fire to the cult’s farm base, resulting in a lifetime of therapy for Avril and prison for the cult members.
And that would have been the end of it – but for the sigil she recently received, seemingly from the cult. Now she’s convinced that the only way to get some closure on the horrors of Thistlebone is to return to Harrowvale and confront the sins of the past and find out if the cult is active once more.
Once in Harrowvale, we’re treated to a slowly unfolding chiller of a horror tale, with Avril and Seema investigating, uncovering the secrets of the village, and stumbling deep into the woods, where the dark hides plenty of horrors.
The simple brilliance of Thistlebone is just how it tells a tale that really does get under your skin
The concept of the tale is obviously a horror, but the way both Eglington and Davis work really makes it a scary thing, right from the very first few flashback pages where we see just what Avril was put through in her escape from the cult.
And Avril’s the key to the horror, it’s her experiences, her damaged, fragile mental state that has you questioning just what it is you’re reading, just what it is you’re seeing – is it really a supernatural terror stalking the woods or merely the fractured memories and actions of a very unreliable narrator? And that question of what’s actually going on here continues all the way through to the very end of the book, with a climactic moment that will haunt you long after closing Thistlebone.
There are so many excellent little moments to put a chill down your spine in Thistlebone, too many to mention, but here’s just one. In a book where the members of the cult are shown speaking in tongues when they’re having their rituals, Eglington uses cut-up techniques to give us a gibberish language but has already made you think about it by having Avril tell us that, after a while, you can start to decipher little phrases or key words in the incantations.
And then he does this…
Just as Seema is showing Avril how much the village has changed, how absolutely normal and dull it is now, we get that kid – is he speaking in tongues? Is it just that they’re too far away to hear it properly? The uncertainty – that’s what sends that shiver down your spine. Quite wonderfully done.
And of course, in addition to the twists and turns of a great plot, there’s the art of Simon Davis, the absolute high-point of his career thus far, page after page full of stunning imagery, beautiful artwork and a rich, lush, organic texture that gets over every bit of the horror to be found inside.
It’s a story that seems way longer, way more involved, than it’s short page count of just 56 pages has any right to be, and so much of that is down to the way Davis constructs his pages, doing so many difficult and imaginative things with his artwork.
For a start, he’s working here with any number of non-traditional page layouts. A large proportion of the pages here have horizontal page-wide panels, all the better to give an expansive, wide-open space feel to things – where he’s using the larger part of the page to create a background with panels sitting atop, just a beautiful way to do things…
And then there’s the lack of traditional panel borders, allowing the movement of characters and scenes through a single background to great effect. Or how he’s using the characters themselves to act as panel border substitutes.
It’s a fabulous technique that Davis uses all the way through Thistlebone, the unconventional style of his pages adds so much to the experience of the book and makes it all so much more immersive and chilling.
Thistlebone should be one of those 2000 AD tales that stays in your memory, one that’s sure to be talked about in amongst the very best of the comic, one of those that breaks out of the traditional limits of what to expect, a perfect slice of cold, terrifying folk horror.
One last thing – at the end of the book we have a chance to see a little of Davis’ process, which starts with a complete work-through of the entire story as watercolour layouts before completely starting over with pen and ink before adding gouache, paint, and finishing touches. Doing a complete thumbnail layout is hardly unusual, of course… but it’s the quality of Davis’ layout watercolour pages that truly amaze.
Thistlebone – written by TC Eglington, art by Simon Davis, letters by Annie Parkhouse.
Thistlebone Volume 1 is released on 29th April by 2000 AD in paperback and web-exclusive oversized hardcover from the 2000 AD web shop.
As for Volume 2…