Issue #3 of House of Penance, and things are unraveling apace now. The red tentacles are everywhere, and still no one but us can see them.
A visitor from Winchester’s past stirs up old demons, and she must find new ways to keep them out of her unearthly mansion. Meanwhile, Warren Peck comes face to face with specters from his own past and learns that he has more in common with her than he’d thought . . .
Sarah is glimpsing horror lurking in her mirrors. But with her photo-negative sister come to stay, is it really in the glass that Sarah sees a reflection she no longer recognises? “They’re trying to see through the blood!” she yells, and blood can have more than one meaning. So how much of this exists outside of Sarah’s miserable thoughts? Certainly something is going on here. Someone stabbed one of our protagonists. Someone left an unpleasant gift in the garden. And while it might seem that Mary Pardee is the white to Sarah Winchester’s black, that might just be the light we’re standing in. But by withholding solid answers, this issue manages to pull off an impressive trick, leaving us wondering if Sarah’s fears are all in her head whilst we’re actually seeing the supernatural surrounding her, utterly unnoticed. How do her spirits link up with ours?
Perhaps the bridge across lies in Peck’s nightmares. In them he sits atop and within a gigantic tree, woven of black hair and awash with blood. The remnants of those he murdered in the name of progress. Those he swept aside to bring in the sound of hammers. No construction without destruction.
The hammers are our soundtrack throughout, of course. Sarah finally explains their meaning here, and it’s both roughly what I’d predicted – and note Sarah wants her craftsmen to work without nails, which is to say to fire guns without ammunition – and much smarter than I could have guessed. But while the underlying themes here are becoming more solid, the actual nature and flow of events is more confusing than ever. How does Sarah tell the former killers from the current ones? How does the house tell the good spirits from the bad?
The artwork here is just as strange and off-kilter. Not just because the crimson tendrils infest almost every panel now, but because I’ve finally realised what Bertram’s characters remind me of: carved chess pieces. Which makes sense, given the fixation here on construction, and on hands, and on black and white, and on how you don’t get to create anything without chipping away at something else. Six kinds of wood in the ballroom. A tree knitted from the hair of the dead.
(The hair reminds us of string, just like the tentacles do, wrapped around Peck’s hands even as he tries to scrub them clean. Everyone here is interwoven puppets.)
This really is something special. A story not just prepared to take its time making sense, but to tease the idea of never making sense. A wonderful bleak dream of a myth of a strange true story, filled with sadness and scariness and strange, scribbled lines. I can’t remember something scratching at the corners of my brain so much since Twin Peaks, and even that comparison doesn’t do justice to how original this feels. Halfway through its run, House of Penance is an absolute treat.
Title: House of Penance
Publisher: Dark Horse
Reviewer: Ric Crossman