House of Penance (2016, Dark Horse Comics)
Writer: Peter J. Tomasi
Artists: David Stewart, Ian Bertram
In 1884 in San Jose, California, Sarah Winchester began construction on a massive estate with no building plan. Deeply troubled by the deaths of her husband William and daughter Annie, rumors abound that Sarah believes she is cursed and that the strange architecture she demands is part of her deluded thinking of how she will cure herself. This real life story becomes the center of Peter Tomasi’s fictional retelling House of Penance. In this version of events, the Winchester House becomes a magnet for men troubled by killings they have committed with guns, the very things that brought the Winchesters their fortune.
House of Penance is a story that has a very clear moral message it wants to deliver but is written cleverly enough that it can hide that message in a story of personal horror. The story is told from the points of view of Sarah and new arrival Warren Peck. The first time we glimpse Peck he’s murdering Native Americans for the benefit of Westward Expansion while staging the scene to make it appear that a rival tribe killed the family he descended upon. He beds down at the workers’ quarters at the Winchester House but quickly becomes compelled to stay. Sarah experiences visions of tendrils of blood seeping up through the floorboards of the house, the spirits of her family and their company’s victims coming to drag her down to Hell.
The story is paced beautifully, revealing just enough horror in its early chapters to make the reader question Sarah’s sanity but also be convincing enough that we believe there really are demonic forces after her. Her relationship with Peck is the bulk of the story and is explored in depth. I found it to be darkly adversarial at first but soften into a caretaker position. You might stumble upon this mistakenly believing it is a Western, but it is much more a Gothic horror tale. I’m surprised we haven’t had more fiction around the Winchester House as it feels primer for horror exploitation. Though, the novel House of Leaves seems to have been heavily influenced by the non-traditional architecture of the Winchester House. House of Penance has a very similar Grand Guignol finale as the house becomes the site of a mass killing.
The pencil work of Ian Bertram uses a textured woodcut style and plays with the shadows and dark, creepy corners of the house. The way the character’s bodies are presented is also distorted with overly large eyes and grotesque muscle on the workers. Before the explicit horror of the story raises its head we already feel uneasy due to how the world is being presented to us. If you enjoyed Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak or similar fare, there is a lot to like about House of Penance and is a quick read that is worth your time.