A family in a small, midwestern town hides a secret: in addition to the son everyone knows about, they have a second. This one is six years old, as large as a fully grown man, and strong. He looks monstrous, but he’s happy to simply spend time and play with his brother. But when their father decides he’s too big and too strong and should be killed, the pair escapes and sets off on their own.
The brothers’ relationship is the core of Niles’s story. As is often the case with children, they’ve yet to be taught to hate and fear people who are different. They recognize the older generations’ cruelty for what it is and reject it. And they refuse to let others be caught up in it either. I’m not sure I can point at another horror story that feels as hopeful as Freaks of the Heartland.
Much of the book’s horror atmosphere comes from Greg Ruth’s art. His watercolor pages would be scenic and relaxing if his figures weren’t styled to be just a bit unsettling, if his his shadows weren’t quite so deep. But that discomfort is important to the book’s tone, and he pulls it off well.
A lot of horror relies on a certain amount of fantasy. But while Freaks of the Heartland uses a certain amount of monstrousness, rarely does it break from reality. Instead, it trades displays a real problem—fear and resultant hatred of people who are different—and lets that fuel its tension. If that sounds interesting to you, then it’s worth a read.
Freaks of the Heartland (#1-6)
Writer: Steve Niles | Artist/Letterer: Greg Ruth