Freaks of the Heartland #1

Written by Steve Niles
Art by Greg Ruth
32 pages, color
Published by Dark Horse

Dark Horse’s horror line and author Steve Niles both seem to be debuting new books every time I turn around. It almost goes without saying that there’s a slight overlap between the two, including Niles’s newest book Freaks of the Heartland. What intrigued me the most about Freaks of the Heartland wasn’t the larger-than-life, paranormal aspect of the book… but the real terror of every day life.

Growing up in Gristlewood Valley, Trevor’s used to fear. His domineering father terrorizes his life, ruling his family with an iron fist. His mother crumbles at the slightest word. And his little brother Will is forced to live in the barn, because everyone but Trevor is afraid of Will. Specifically, Will’s deformed appearance. But Trevor’s ready to try and let Will out of the barn…

Reading Freaks of the Heartland was a little frustrating, because initially it looks like an entirely different story than the one we’re getting. Up until the 2/3rds mark of the first issue, Freaks of the Heartland is very much a horror story that deals with the horror of real life. An isolated community, a threatening authority figure, and a brother locked away because of his appearance. Then we discover that Will’s difference isn’t limited to his physical differences, but his special abilities as well, and I couldn’t help but be disappointed. Don’t get me wrong, Freaks of the Heartland is still really intriguing and I very much want to see what happens next… but I couldn’t help but wish that Niles had just done a straight, real-world horror story. Maybe it’s because of the hidden menace that Niles is able to evoke while it’s rooted in normality, where with each page you turn you jump with anticipation. Freaks of the Heartland may not be the craziest or most outlandish concept of Niles’s, but it’s the most gripping one to date.

This is the first time I’ve encountered Greg Ruth’s art, but I’m sure it won’t be the last. His depictions of windswept fields and solitary houses looming out in the darkness are breathtaking; this is a very different sort of “american gothic”. You can see the dread in Trevor’s body as he walks up to his home, knowing what’s in store for him, and the look of revulsion on his father’s face is startling in its anger. When it’s time for Will to be revealed, Ruth handles it perfectly, letting us see him crouching in the darkness of the barn with insects buzzing around him.

Freaks of the Heartland #1 is a very quiet start to the mini-series, but it easily got my attention and refuses to let go. Niles and Ruth remember what makes life really scary, and bring it to the forefront here. This is how you get people to want to come back for more. Freaks of the Heartland is a five-issue mini-series from Dark Horse Comics.

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