By Steve Morris
Grim, yet bleak, Steve Morris’s graphic novel
Blessed Thistle is a chilling little piece of nastiness that’s likely to unsettle you the way watching one of David Lynch’s more cryptic movies might. It’s also just as likely to leave you asking yourself “what just happened there?”
The story is made up of three linked tales that start innocuously enough: a boy breaks into the home of a retired pastor, who confronts him with an unexpected offer of chicken and cake; the boy’s sister bullies another student at her school; the sister’s alcoholic teacher recounts the story of a trip to Cancun, where, on a dare, she swallows an agave worm she finds in her drink. Commonplace stuff, but Morris’s compelling storytelling and exquisite art—which is hard to describe, but makes me think of a cross between Charles Burns and Tanino Liberatore (of RanXerox fame)—keep the reader involved—and worried. There’s also enough foreshadowing that the reader can be pretty sure it’s all going to end in tears, if not gore.
The real badness starts with an unpleasant little interlude detailing an escape from a lab that seems to be experimenting with mind control. The escapee, sadly, is a moth that’s the adult form of an agave worm modified to burrow into the brainstem; it’s a bit like those Ceti eels Khan puts in Chekov’s ear in the movie The Wrath of Khan. From here, each of the three stories takes a turn for the horrific. The second chapters unfold in the reverse order of the first half, making the lab incident a sort of mirror around which this nested graphic novel is constructed; before the break the boy’s story leads to his sister’s story, which leads to the teacher’s story. After the break, the order is reversed.
Without giving too much more away, let’s just say things don’t turn out well. There’s plenty of payoff for the horror reader who’s itching for some long-delayed gratification. While there’s nothing particularly showy about what happens (nothing like what you see on the excellent if misleading cover, for example), Morris is such an excellent visual storyteller that some of it is fairly shocking.
The problem is, it’s unclear what Morris is trying to say. The story is so formally constructed that the reader really expects the worm-eating incident to be as much the figurative heart of the story as its structural heart. But it really isn’t. Only the schoolteacher seems in any way affected by the worm. The awful conclusions of the other two pieces seem completely unrelated acts of evil or insanity, which would be unsettling and horrific and good–if Morris hadn’t set up expectations for something else. As it is, the reader is likely (if I’m any indication) to page through the story any number of times looking for some way that the stories are tied together at a higher level—some clue that other characters also ate agave worms, for example.
Still, the fact that the story’s arresting enough that the reader is compelled to search for these connections says a lot about the strength of Morris’ storytelling ability. This, combined with his beautiful art (and its jarringly cheerful palette) makes Blessed Thistle an enjoyably disturbing read, even if it leaves you wishing there was a bit more to the stories.
— Sean Carroll