House of Penance
– By Peter J. Tomasi (Story & Words), Ian Bertram (Art), Dave Stewart (Colours); Dark Horse Comics; 2017
A horrific story of a haunted house and one woman’s mission to wash away the blood curse of her husband’s invention from claiming her own life and soul.
This is a tale about guilt, ghosts, and guns…of how fortune brings misfortune, as a grim and determined woman oversees the construction of a house twenty-four hours a day for twenty years with the simple motto of keep busy building or get busy dying.
House of Penance is a horror comic book, telling a fictionalized story about Sarah Winchester, the real-life wife and widow of gun magnate William Wirt Winchester — who served as treasurer for the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, known for manufacturing the famous Winchester rifle. The issues ran in 2016, this collected volume having been released just this past month.
Outside of the fiction, a lot of details are true — though in some cases only allegedly. The Winchester Mansion is a real place of comparable size and scope to that depicted in the book. It is very elaborately designed and the construction did take place over decades. Whether or not Sarah believed she was haunted by the ghosts of Winchester rifle victims is a contentious matter, but it is certainly the most popular explanation for the eccentricity of the project: these rumours of ghosts and curses circulated before her death and continue in the advertisement of the “Winchester Mystery House” to this day. Many of the alleged occurrences and reasons behind the construction were incorporated into this story.
The most notable details I have found changed from concrete historical fact are the death dates of key characters, which are particularly altered for the sake of this story: Annie Winchester her daughter, and William, her husband.
While presented with stark, gruesome imagery, this book didn’t end up being the type of horror story I had expected. What at first appeared to be a rather grisly ghost story turned out to be a much more psychological affair. While there are supernatural undertones, and perhaps a hint of some real paranormal influences, the ghostly presences seem conclusively in the minds of the characters. This manifests as grotesque imagery, but the characters are haunted by grief, guilt, and the bloodshed from past misdeeds and the widespread death facilitated by guns — be they killers themselves or profiting from the trade — rather than any literal ghosts.
The workers of the house are former soldiers and killers who work without pay (with rooms and board provided), seemingly drawn by a like-minded desire for redemption through constructing something endlessly in contrast to their destructive pasts. There isn’t much of a plot to speak of, though I don’t feel that’s necessarily a bad thing. The story deals more with the states of mind of the characters, raising tensions and coming to a head in different ways, but never particularly in service of an ultimate conclusion. There are unsavory types among the workers that butt heads and Winchester Repeating Arms is concerned with Sarah’s state of mind, but these are subplots at best that mostly serve to help flesh out the characters further.
Without giving much away, things end in the story at the point they do because they must, and I was okay with that. Vagueness aside, it’s a poignant conclusion that you want to feel relieved about, but know that some of the conclusions drawn by the characters are tragically false.
The art is one of the strongest aspects of this book, highlighting the tortured psychology of the characters without putting it into words. The characters don’t really talk about what they’re feeling. Sarah has her delusions of ghosts and curses, and the workers have their work. The wonderfully nightmarish visuals permeate and infect the story, highlighting the real-life horror that plagues their thoughts.
Though I don’t believe most of it is literal, the grotesquerie at work is impressive. It manifests commonly as viscera wriggling and entangling its way into the fringes of each panel and around the characters, without them being explicitly aware of it happening. I feel this represents the gun violence itself, its pull lurking just below the surface of these troubled people who’ve resolved issues looking down the sites of a rifle or revolver so much it’s second nature.
Character designs have a gritty yet cartoonish look to them that contrasts well with the violent and creepy imagery. Sarah in particular has a doll-like appearance with rather large eyes that almost always have a dead-eyed look to them, accentuating her troubled state of mind. A few characters did look a tad misshapen and silly to me, but that was an uncommon thing.
House of Penance will likely do little to scare you (unless gruesome imagery has a particularly effect on you), but it is a rather haunting story with macabre visuals that convey a more visceral feeling about violence, guilt, and grief than simple words could. I recommend reading it, especially for any horror fans, just don’t expect it to be an outright ghost story. If you’re into more literal paranormal stories you may find yourself a little disappointed by the end.