House Of Penance (Trade Paperback)
Released by: Dark Horse Comics
Released on: January 11th, 2017.
Written by: Peter J. Tomasi
Illustrated by: Ian Bertram
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The first page of this series takes us back to 1905, Mount Hope Cemetery in New Haven, Connecticut. A man named Mercer is sent to San Jose, California to pick up some bodies. He transports them by wagon to a huge house surrounded by strange statues where the sound of banging seems to be a constant.
Inside the home his employer Mrs. Winchester, obsesses over bullets. The coffins he’s brought to her contain the bodies of her husband and her daughter. She’s small in stature but wants to dig graves for them on the property herself. She has them interred under the willow tree, her hope is that the shade will keep them cool.
Near the San Joaquin River in the north part of the state, a man uses a Winchester rifle to use some natives for target practice. The rifleman takes them out from a distance and then heads into the camp to use some carefully placed arrows to make it look like Indian on Indian violence. There’s one survivor, a man, who attacks him – the rifleman killed a child and the survivor wants payback, but it’s not to be.
Back at the Winchester house a team of men build day and night – a stairway to nowhere, a door that doesn’t open. The banging that Mercer heard on the way in was the constant hammering of the workers. In her room, Mrs. Winchester talks to her husband as if he and their child were still alive. Later that morning she interviews new workers, tells them that when on her property there will be no violence, lateness or lying. The work needs to be constant. When a Southern man in her employ refuses to hand his hammer to a black man during the shift change, Mrs. Winchester scolds them for allowing the work to stop, even for a brief moment. Alone in her room, Sarah Winchester reads a letter from her departed husband William’s brother Thomas. He hopes the construction on the house will cease, it’s giving the rifle manufacturer a sullied reputation in the press.
Later that night, the rifleman, who we learn is named Warren Peck, arrives at the house looking for a place to stay for the night.
This second issue catches up with Sarah as she’s surveying the workers harvesting apples on her property. She finds some privacy and mutters to herself, hoping that the spirits that plague her will give her a rest. She lays own a barrel of dynamite near a rock and blows it up.
When the workers, some of them at least, break for a meal Peck is told by a co-worker named Arthur Cooke that he’s surrounded by killers. Every man here has killed for his own reasons, some of them in the war, some of them for personal gain, some for self-defense. Cook includes himself in this batch. Peck tells him he’s just passing through. On the other side of the house, Sarah enlists Murcer’s aid in relocating the aviary to the other side of the house. She wants a larger skylight put in for the birds, but Murcer knows this is just another job to ensure that the construction doesn’t stop. When Zip, her dog, begins to bark Sarah sees hordes of worms emerge from the floorboards. She orders Murcer to grab a hammer and smash them, while she does the same – Murcer can’t see them, but he does what he’s told…. “For Annie and William.”
The crew talks amongst themselves, speculating as to why she wears a cloth around her wrist with numbers on it. Possibly the combination to a safe – and what if she was to have a fall? Peck doesn’t like what he’s hearing and he leaves the crew but then gets lost in the insanity of the house himself. He finds Murcer, wants to be relocated and is told that since Seaver quit the furnace, he can work down there. He doesn’t mind the heat and finds himself having to melt down guns and use the metal to forge hammers and construction materials in the very bowels of the house.
And then he wants to burn away the dirt. Burn away the blood. And then he hears Sarah singing to her child, the daughter, Annie, who died some time ago, and to her husband, William, also deceased. When, later that night, she determines that the house is too cold, she demands to have a word with Peck…
Murcer carries Peck’s wounded body out of the furnace room. It looks like he’s been stabbed and tried to cauterize the wounds himself. Sarah orders Murcer to bring Peck to one of the finished bedrooms to rest, and to call a physician… and then her sister Mary Pardee arrives, completely unannounced.
Peck has dreams, or maybe visions, of his past. His past involving a rifle, killing a man, strange trees, explosions and worms. He tells the bodies that start to swarm him that they have only themselves to blame. A child he killed asks him why they had to die. He wants to know if she’s going to Heaven, he says her head hurts all the time because there’s a hole in it. Peck doesn’t want to look any of them in the eye, and as he sees Sarah come towards him in the dream he wakes up – to find her sitting at the foot of his bed, genuinely concerned for him.
She tells him he’s been out for eight straight days, they didn’t think he’d make it. Now that he’s conscious she wants him to replace an Italian woodworker who recently passed away, but when he looks at his hands, all he sees are worms, more worms. She insists, however, and leads him to a room she wants setup for her guest, the ones no one can see that she says are already here. He looks around, reads the odd Shakespearean passages engraved into the plaques on the walls, but still, the worms.
Outside, Mary tells Sarah that the Winchester family is not happy that she had her husband and son moved three thousand miles from the family plot in Connecticut to be buried on the lands surrounding the house. Mary is concerned that Sarah is going insane, or possibly already there. Later that night as the two sisters, in separate rooms, prepare for bed Sarah sees a horrible vision and starts smashing the mirrors, the one in Mary’s room included. Before Sarah can do anymore damage to the house, its inhabitants or herself Peck grabs her. She didn’t want them to come through the mirrors, we’re told.
That night, Peck goes out to the stable to visit his horse. Sarah finds him there and, taking advantage of their solitude, Peck asks her just what it is exactly that she’s doing with the constant construction. And so she explains to him just why she considers the Winchester House to be a house of penance.
Sarah Winchester and her sister, Mary Pardee, walk the grounds and discuss matters both personal and financial. All of Sarah’s money, which comes from her majority stake in the Winchester Rifle Company, goes into the house, farming on the lands or to charity. Mary doesn’t understand this. She sees things from the company’s point of view, but Sarah wants nothing to do with the wholesale of weapons used for slaughter. She’s haunted by the ghosts of those killed by the weapons that are made in the name of her late husband and her incessant building at the house is the only way she can keep those ghosts at bay. Mary feels her sister is suffering from depression caused from the loss of her husband and daughter, she offers to help her. Sarah would rather Mary leave on the next train back to Connecticut.
Meanwhile, Peck seems to have been in a trance all night – whittling away at a piece of wood but not really remembering much about it. Later, he approaches Sarah’s room and fills her in on how and why a shootout occurred when a birthday ‘got out of hand.’
Mary heads into town and notices an advertisement in the day’s paper offering ‘cash for guns’ to the citizens of San Jose. Murcer tells her the idea is crazy, but the line up at the gate the next morning says otherwise. Sarah tells him ‘this is war’ and honors her end of the bargain, then sings a lullaby to her dead daughter as the day turns into night. Then she’s visited by the ghosts of her late husband and daughter, they tell her they’re drowning in blood… they’ve run out of time.
The next day Sarah approaches peck about another dead cat found on her property with its throat slit… she knows he is ‘awash in a tide of blood’ even as their unusual connection seems to grow stronger.
Thomas, the President of Winchester Arms, and Mary, her sister, have shown up to help. Mary knows that something is amiss in the house, but conveniently forgot to tell her sister that she and Thomas were wed. Men in white coats show up and drag Sarah, literally kicking and screaming, off the property. The men in Sarah’s employ protest and Sarah sees the eyes of the statues on the property weep blood.
Peck grabs a rifle and opens fire, wounding the two white coats and threatening to drop Mary first if they don’t release Sarah immediately. Mary, Thomas and the men in the white coats leave, post haste. Sarah, however, is furious with Peck not because he saved her from being institutionalized but because he broke into the gun room and drew blood on the property. She doesn’t send him out, however – she shows mercy and tells him he can stay if he works ten shifts in a row.
Later on in the furnace room, Sarah hands peck a rifle to use not as a weapon but to stir the boiling pot. As he does this, he sees the faces of those he put down and as he sees them appear to him he tells Sarah of his time ‘in the tree.’ He worked as a sniper, he was good at it, how he served his government under the guise of ‘manifest destiny.’ It was all a ruse, he killed natives, he killed homesteaders, he killed children and he kept taking money to do it. Sarah takes him outside, he calms down. The next morning she follows her dog, Zip, to a barn on the property to find Duffy dead, hanged by his own hand, a suicide note apologizing to Sarah for killing man and animal alike on her property.
Sarah still sees everyone drowning in a sea of blood, even her late daughter, she sees this in a horrible nightmare, one of many it seems that she has in recent times. When morning comes, Sarah tells Peck how her daughter and husband die, how this made her start to care about ‘blood money’ and how she consulted a medium who told her that the souls of those killed by the firearms made by her family were going to send the souls of her family to purgatory until she made it right. And so she moved west to build this massive house to appease the dead. But the workers, they’re riled up – a lot has been happening on the property and when tensions run high amongst men like this, it can only end in more violence.
This final issue opens with a splash page – blood red steams erupt from the earth as Sarah stands in front of them, her arms raised to the heavens, proclaiming that the Day Of Judgment has arrived. The men scatter, save for Peck. As the house appears to be coming down all around them she heads in, and he after her – she wants the meet the reckoning as a family unit.
But those tubes, those worms, those veins…. whatever they are… they’re tearing the place down so quickly and with such violent force that it doesn’t look like she’s going to get the reunion she’s longed for. She calls out to that which haunts her, she’s committed her body and her soul to their cause, and as she yells this, the ground opens up and swallows her. Peck and Mercer, with some help from her dog, search where they can but the house, as crazy as it was before this, is quite literally a jigsaw puzzle now that it has crumbled. As they make their way outside, what’s left of the house tumbles.
But Mercer tells Peck that ‘she was there when we needed her’ and so off he runs into the ruins to find Sarah Winchester, her faithful hound leading the way. And with that dog’s help, Peck finds her. They pull her out and marvel at the stillness, the quiet, and then learn that San Francisco was hit hardest by the earthquake but that it was felt from Los Angeles to Oregon. She’s taking this as a sign from God….
There’s more to the ending than that, of course, but we’re not going to ruin the finale of one of the most startlingly original works of comic book art to hit the stands in years. Tomasi’s story is both horrifying and, somehow, beautiful and poetic. With this work he’s crafted some fascinating characters, shown to us their similarities despite their differing social classes, and also made clear to the reader some of their stark differences. All Sarah Winchester, for her many flaws, ever wanted was peace, to be reunited with the family she lost yet could not let go of. She sees in Peck a kindred spirit of sorts, they’re both alone and in each other do find some solace – but not enough to take Sarah off course, even for a second. Peck knows this, and Peck accepts this. It makes the ending all the more poignant and all the more fitting.
Ian Bertram’s artwork has been absolutely perfect from the first page of the first issue right through to this final chapter. His illustrative style, at least as employed in the six issues that make up House Of Penance, is over exaggerated at times but in the context of the surreal, horrific story being told it’s hard to imagine a better fit. There’s also loads of detail here, you’ll spot it in each and every panel in the run. From the lines on Sarah’s face to the knowing glances that Peck gives her to the architecture of the ever imposing house itself, this was clearly not a rush job. Dave Stewart’s coloring is the icing on the cake, his use of heavy earth tones contrasts beautifully with the harsh blood reds used throughout the book.
This is one of those rare mini-series that, once you get to the end, you want to re-read all over again from the start because you know you’ll appreciate it even more the second time around. High praise? Maybe. But House Of Penance deserves it. Let’s hope Tomasi and Bertram team up again sooner rather than later.