Sarah Winchester, new heiress to the Winchester Repeating Arms Company’s massive wealth following the death of her husband, William Winchester, is haunted. Haunted by visions of her deceased husband and infant daughter, visions of violence inflicted by the weapons that her company deals in, visions of death, of oceans of blood. She is similarly obsessed with drowning these hauntings out, largely through the construction of a literal maze of a home, commonly called The Winchester Mystery House (true story). Her obsession will eventually draw in everyone around her, for both better and worse, much as House of Penance itself does.
House of Penance is writer Peter J. Tomasi and artist Ian Bertram’s meditation on that obsession, on that violence, and what it does to people. It is a gross, unwieldy and loose story of penance, hopelessness, and slow, gory redemption that may confuse and frustrate but also finds great success in its unflinching approach collected here in Dark Horse’s library edition for your enjoyment.
And speaking of enjoyment, there’s plenty to be had. While Tomasi’s narrative is somewhat loose and meandering, it is equally evocative and impacting. For every weak second issue (of six) — which spends too much time showing us things with little contextualization or meaning — there is another with great, horrible depth and significance. For every confusing scene of a man thrusting his arm into a furnace for no reason, there’s also one of a matron of a failed family and legacy begging her family to stop haunting her while singing to her child’s empty pajamas. It’s simply great, mostly balanced, and truly effective horror.
Similarly, Sarah is a fantastically broken but sympathetic main character. Especially so when placed up against her scheming sister and brother-in-law who would see the Winchester name and fortune taken away from her. But also, in comparison to the equally broken co-star, a violent man named Warren Peck. Called to Sarah’s ever expanding, confusing mansion by the ringing of hammers in the night — sounding like gunshots by design — both to drown out the haunts, and to drawn in the wretched so Sarah can guide them towards retribution, Peck is as every bit as mad as Sarah, but in an entirely different way. The two dance around each other, different obsessions — guilt over not being able to save her family, and not being able to drown out the ghosts for Sarah, and guilt over the violence he’s done and the harm he’s inflicted for Peck, in a dizzying dance that I found personally enthralling. They feed each other’s madness — folie a deux — and amongst a narrative also beset by murderers, racists (eugh, not my favorite bit of dialogue but period correct I guess), scoundrels, fist fights, and very real ghosts, the story is all the better for it, even if it is rather simplistic and confusing.
Thankfully, where Tomasi falters, Bertram does not. This is a visually intense, disturbing story, and Bertram’s art meets and exceeds that call splendidly. Accompanied by colorist Dave Stewart’s fantastic deep reds and stark blacks, Bertram brings a hairline tense world of madness and panic, claustrophobia and violence to life incredibly well. Sarah’s gradual descent from a tense, terse woman with perfectly buttoned blouse and tucked hair to a rambling, Helena Bonham Carter as Beatrix LeStrange terror is fantastically done. As is the Lovecraftian tentacle reckoning that takes place across the final pages of the story. As are the shocking images of dead animals and family members akin to Tyler Crook’s work in Harrow County, one of my favorite horror comics of all time. It’s strange, yes, and the people don’t look like much like people at all, nor does all the geometry or choreography work, but when it does, it’s one of the most singularly effective and stylish horror comics I’ve ever read.
That being said, the library edition of this story adds very little to what’s here. The new cover is meaningless, and the sketches don’t add much to either the narrative or artistic process. If you have a copy of this in trade already, there’s no reason to rush out to buy this edition.
House of Penance is a re-telling and dramatization of the real Sarah Winchester’s story that makes a point about humanity, all its imperfections, and its resilience that succeeds because it’s based on the madness of real people — on the violence and disgust, grit, and eventual redemption that so much of the Earth seems mired in. It’s not necessarily a fun read, but it is a worthwhile one.