COMIC REVIEW: House Of Penance #1

A little bit of history is needed for House Of Penance, I think. What’s the point in being a reviewer if you can’t tell stories yourself once in a while? This one starts with Sarah Pardee, a Connecticut woman who, somewhere around her 23rd birthday, married William Wirt Winchester. Yes, of those Winchesters, unless you’re thinking of Supernatural, in which case: no, it’s the gun people. William made an absolute killing out of killing, but that couldn’t save their only child, who died of illness whilst just a few months old. His money couldn’t save him either; William died of tuberculosis eighteen and a half years after marrying Sarah.

Sarah was utterly distraught by this second bereavement, to the point of consulting a clairvoyant to try to process her loss. The clairvoyant served up what I think can fairly considered some fairly odd advice: go west, and build a house. Build a house, and never stop building it, because the house isn’t just for you, but for the angry ghosts of every person murdered by your husband’s weapons, and if you ever stop making new rooms for them, you will die.

So Sarah went to San Jose, and she never stopped building, not even when an earthquake tore three of the seven stories away from her mansion. More or less every morning (accounts differ) for thirty-eight years, Sarah would summon her foreman and give him a hand-drawn sketch of what she wanted done that day. Of course, Sarah had no training in architecture, and that combined with the need to continually build without taking time to form a coherent plan led to a vast, sprawling structure, filled with bizarre and even dangerous features.  Rooms have windows looking into other rooms, staircases stop suddenly with nowhere to go, doors open onto blank walls, or worse, open air. A fabulously expensive crystal window was placed in the house, designed to refract sunlight so that the room is bathed in rainbow light. But it’s set into an internal wall, so no-one’s ever seen it work.

Maybe that isn’t accidental, though. Sarah’s goal wasn’t a coherent house, it was to not be murdered in her bed by the furious revenant of a gunshot victim.  At least some of the strangeness about the house was a calculated attempt to confuse her pursuers. That’s why she slept in a different bedroom every night. That’s why all but one of the toilets in the 148-odd room house (no-one can actually work out the exact number, even though the mansion still stands today) was fake. How exactly this is supposed to stump the vengeful dead, I’m not sure, but there’s absolutely no doubt this was a deadly serious business for Sarah. Construction didn’t stop until her heart did.

Given such promising material, Tomasi’s doorway into the world of the Wyrd seems obvious: what if the ghosts tormenting Sarah Winchester weren’t simply in her head? Except that isn’t the route House of Penance takes at all. There’s not a single spirit, spectre, ghost or goblin in the whole first issue. Just a woman tormented by her past, and determined to make amends by deactivating as many guns and bullets as she can get her hands on. The focus on Sarah’s tormented life – two parts acting as though her family were still alive to one part shrieking in terror that the ghosts might be coming for her after all – makes it clear that in a very real sense it doesn’t really matter whether the spirits Sarah believes in are real or not. What matters is she believes in them. The unsettling atmosphere is built not from bumps in the night or glimpses of pale women in hallways – well, except for Sarah – but through her unsettlingly strange behaviour. Ian Bertram and Dave Stewart take this brief and run with it, doing strong work with a grey palette and smart use of shading, along with a version of Sarah Winchester that feels off-kilter with the workmen surrounding her. The world within the Winchester walls looks plenty uncanny without needing to pull in anything overtly supernatural.

Sarah isn’t our only protagonist here, however. There’s also a bounty hunter who makes his money killing Native Americans. This, too, is essentially a history lesson – just one of the dozens of ways in which Native American tribes were forced to abandon their lands in the wake of the mass westward migration of the European settlers. His presence here acts as a counterbalance of sorts to Sarah’s mission: the one who slings guns and the one who slings guns away. But there’s more to it. Sarah’s desperate hope that she can switch destruction for construction and thereby balance the books runs into the problem that it’s only the destruction her husband wrought, and the money he made because of it, that allows her to afford her gigantic, Byzantine folly in the first place. Moreover, Sarah went through so much redwood lumber in building the mansion a local train line had to be diverted to accommodate the raw materials. The building of the house was made possible only by the demolition of local woodland.

Our gunslinger approaches a similar paradox from another direction: in clearing away Native American tribes from the land they’ve lived on for generations, he’s aiding in the construction of the USA. Indeed, he is critical to it, or at least his role is. You simply couldn’t have anything remotely approximating the States as they exist today without a horrifying commitment to the destruction of Native American life and lives. From Myles Standish onwards, the story of the construction of the US is one of destruction and death. It’s Sarah Winchester’s dilemma writ large, and in even more blood. This issue makes the point concisely: the SFX for a six-shooter is the same as for a hammer: BLAM. Every bullet is a nail.

That’s a lot to throw up in the air in just one issue, but there’s plenty of time for Tomasi to juggle it successfully going forward. Certainly as an opening statement House of Penance #1 is genuinely impressive, and tremendously intriguing. There’s so much going on in these twenty-four pages you don’t even need ghosts.

Which doesn’t mean they’re not going to show up, obviously.

Title: House of Penance

Publisher: Dark Horse

Rating: 4/5

Reviewer: Ric Crossman

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