Freaks of the Heartland

Greg Ruth and Steve Niles deliver a curious and macabre tale of isolation and morality in Freaks of the Heartland. The story of a pair of rural American brothers, Heartland is a rarity for a horror piece. being both disturbing and warm. It is an excellent example of the versatility of the graphic novel as a vehicle for strong stories with lots of depth.

Freaks

The titular “freaks” in this story refer to a group of children born in a small rural township. Their story was weird from the first day. Seemingly at random, all the women in town became pregnant. They gave birth almost simultaneously on the same day at the same time. The children were all hideously deformed. The deformities ranged from fur and animal-like in appearance, to large and misshapen bodies, like Will, one of the brothers. When the infants were born, a pact was made to dispose of the mutants and bury them. Two of them were destroyed, but at the urging of the town preacher, five were saved.

The origin of the critters is somewhat of a mystery. Are they the result of the devil, as some suggest, or of some kind of chemicals put in food? Were they the result of intervention by aliens from outer space, or perhaps the government? Or a random convergence of fate and genetics? These questions are interesting, but ultimately irrelevant.

WIll’s older brother is Trevor. Trevor is a normal boy, who lives with his abusive father and subjugated mother in their farm house. Will, who is constantly chained up, is kept in the barn, and fed slop from a trough as if he were an animal. This dehumanization is a common theme in outcast literature. It is reminiscent of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, or even Of Mice and Men, where abnormal characters are made to feel inferior for their individual traits. The “critters” as the group of children is referred to, are all hidden in basements or barns. They are all fed as little as possible, and are treated as a burden and scapegoated for the communities problems.

Nature vs. Nurture

Despite this dehumanization, the critters are still children. Their naiveté, their playfulness, their fear all deliver them to the reader as child like, in spite of their monstrous appearance. They are honest, good people who tragically cannot be given a fair shot at life. It is that damning fact that makes their escape from the town that much less joyous. Where do they go from here? What society will openly accept a band of mutant children? Even their own parents could barely stand to have them around for the few years they’d been alive.

The injustice of their situation is highlighter further by the concern they get from others. Maggie, sister to one of the critters, and Trevor both defend their siblings and want to escape the abusive, self-destructive town they inhabit. Without their help, the end for these children would’ve been far more unsettling than it was, as they’d have died at the hands of their parents, who became fearful when one of the critters killed a pig. The killing of the pig is what precipitates most of the action in this piece. The town is outraged by the killing. In a normal farming community, a child killing a pig would be a serious crime. It is the destruction of private property, in addition to being the taking of a life. But the reaction used– executing the child on sight, was beyond all extremes.

Brothers

The relationship between Will and Trevor is the hallmark of this book, no pun intended. Their friendship is strong and they share a powerful bond. Many siblings would not have gone to the lengths that Trevor did to protect Will, especially given Will’s appearance and the perception that he, like the others, was a horrible burden upon the family and the town. Their friendship continues the theme in literature that says that what is truly important is what is on the inside. This is a common theme in children’s literature, and it is not surprising that it appears here in a piece of horror fiction which is about children.

What Freaks?

The title of this book begs the question: who exactly are the freaks? An obvious interpretation is that it refers to the critters. Another would be that it refers to the brothers, and by proxy the other children including Maggie, who go to extraordinary lengths for the sake of freedom and friendship. One might also consider the reference as being related to the parents and other townspeople. Their treatment of these children was abhorrent, and despite their disfigured appearance, society would frown upon the imprisonment or murder of children simply because they did not meet the criteria for normalcy.

The book’s theme of isolation draws the critters into one last interpretation. They, as outcasts, can become the proxies of any group or individual in society which is by their nature abnormal. This could include the obvious modern scapegoat of homosexuals, but a better example would be transgendered persons as their perceived “abnormality” is far more outward. Transgendered people, like the critters, would almost need to be horrifically closeted in a society like that of this town. Their liberation from their basement and barn dungeons becomes a symbolic coming out of the closet for these characters, as they embrace life as they are and venture off into the world with a non-conventional family to replace the dysfunctional ones they left behind.

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