Spoilers in review

Freaks of the Heartland owes a sweet debt to Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men as it explores the heartbreaking relationship between a boy and his monstrous brother, a gentle and innocent soul in a cruel world. It is a tale with emotional resonance, a story of love and acceptance in a callous world. It’s written by 30 Days of Nights Steve Niles and illustrated beautifully by Greg Ruth: a horror story, but one where the real monsters hide their deformity within.

Depression era US Midwest town of Gristlewood Valley has a dark and shameful secret, a secret that breeds terrible fear and corrupted morality in a people blinded by their own prejudice. Trevor, the young hero of the story, has chores, one of which is to feed his massively deformed little brother, Will. Will is kept shackled in the barn, hidden through shame and fear. He proves to be one of a number of deformed children born to this town, all feared and hated by the adults. Will’s love for his little brother provides a simplistic and touching beauty as it explores the true heartland of the title, the human heart. The children are unburdened by the ugly judgmentalism and fear of the adults, echoing another classic tale, To Kill A Mockingbird. Niles clearly references a number of classic American texts without ever coming across as derivative. Its story of tolerance and acceptance is a touching one, told with a deceptive simplicity. When Trevor’s brutish father decides it is time to remedy the problem of Will, Trevor faces his ugly prejudice face-on and the journey of the brothers truly begins.

Greg Ruth’s art is near perfect. He creates a beautiful Midwestern landscape that really captures a sense of the era using earthy, natural colours. Each page is perfectly composed to capture the subtle nuances of the story, often wordlessly. The book does have one great flaw – it is simply too short. The journey of the children feels curtailed and the reader who becomes emotionally attached to the trial of the innocents may feel cheated. Niles and Ruth have produced a terrific book, but what could have been had the creators been allowed to stretch their idea?

Freaks of the Heartland is one of Niles’ best and most rewarding works, more than the horror tales on which he made his reputation. The horror here is all too human and the message of tolerance and prejudice elevates the book beyond its genre. It finds beauty in the heart of ugliness, and hope through the hearts of children. It deserves a much wider audience.