Dark Horse Comics’ newest miniseries begins today, weaving the strange tale of the Winchester House. Blending gothic horror with a pulpy Old West feel, Major Spoilers reviews House of Penance #1.
Previously in House of Penance: While this is the start of a series, it is helpful for readers to know a bit of American history before cracking this issue open. Sarah Winchester was husband to William Wirt Winchester, heir to the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. Around the turn of the 20th century, both William and the daughter of the couple died, leaving Sarah grieving and shell-shocked. She moved to California, where she pumped her inheritance into the creation of the infamous Winchester House. Believing that all of the victims of Winchester rifles and other arms were pursuing her from beyond the grave, Sarah built an elaborate mansion with stairways leading to nowhere and doors that would not open in order to confuse any pursuing spirits. Construction workers were paid to work twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Work on the Winchester House continued until the 1920’s, when Sarah died at the age of 83. This massive, Escher-like building still stands in San Jose, California today, a landmark of the state.
SURELY THAT’S JUST A TALL TALE…RIGHT?
From page one, where our story opens with bodies being exhumed from graves, it is clear that this story is going to be steeped in darkness and intrigue. Peter Tomasi spins a delicate story here, teasing and tantalizing the reader with glimpses into the mind of a clearly troubled Sarah Winchester. She pines for her lost loved ones, she talks to herself, and she lashes out at the confused construction workers. Throughout the book though, Tomasi is able to write her as a sympathetic character. This is a woman who is either scared out of her wits or mentally deranged, or perhaps a combination of the two. The reader can’t help but be drawn to her predicament.
However, Sarah is not the only focus of this book. The supporting cast gets some key moments, especially as readers are introduced to what appears to be a bounty hunter on a lethal hunt for Native American who winds up on the Winchester House’s doorstep. Other volatile relationships exist between the workers, including tense racial relationships lingering from the Civil War. Several men are hiding deep, dark secrets of their own. The whole thing feels like a powder keg whose fuse has already been lit, and that doesn’t account for the presence of anything supernatural…yet!
A PLACE OF FOREBODING DREAD
The art from Ian Bertram haunted me long after I put the book down. Slavish attention to the details has created a very unsettling book. Every drop of sweat is detailed. The eyes of characters are haunted and hollow. Shadows are crosshatched perfectly on the page to give still scenes a sense of motion, which amped up the dread in each successive panel. There is blood here, though it is used sparingly, allowing the book to work its magic on the strengths of its writing and atmosphere. Superb.
BOTTOM LINE: VISIT THE WINCHESTER HOUSE
I went into this book cold, avoiding solicitations on giving it a chance based on Tomasi’s work and my own love of historical-supernatural fiction. This book delighted and terrified me at the same time. There are some very human underpinnings to an event this horrific…A creation of a twisted house due to guilt, loneliness, and a longing for penance. On top of this very real moment of history, it is obvious the series is just getting warmed up. I’m in for the entire ride.