It’s House of Penance issue #4, and we’re deep into Sarah and Peck’s folie à deux now. Or maybe it’s folie à trois, since each of us seems to have been dragged into this with them. As usual though, everyone is seeing something different. For us the house is now crammed with tentacles, which have begun to grow feelers at their tips for uses and reasons blissfully unknown. Lakes of blood form around our characters which they wade through in total ignorance.
Which isn’t to say they’re not seeing anything. They’re both caught up with their own spirits, and their own demons. Sarah gets an unwelcome visitation when the blood covering the house is joined once more by branches of the great hair-woven death tree that bursts from Peck’s dreams. And Peck himself has concluded he’s created a new form of clairvoyance; prediction through subconscious whittling. Something, he’s sure, is coming for Sarah.
There are two options for what that might be. First is the animal-mutilator still haunting the mansion grounds, who may have decided to up his game. I’m always a big fan of stories of supernatural horror in which the supernatural and the horror do not necessarily stem from entirely the same source (see Nightbreed for a good example), and here, where it’s still completely unclear how much of what Sarah, Peck and we ourselves are experiencing meshes up or is even “real” in any sense to begin with, it’s a particularly canny move. The themes of the story strongly suggest Peck is being stalked by a survivor from one of his Native American culls, which is perhaps a trifle obvious, but I can see Tomasi making it work. That’s if I’m right in the first place, of course.
The other threat comes from Mary Winchester. It’s surely no coincidence that Sarah’s sister has mainly abandoned her pure white clothing from last issue for a selection of grey shades this time around. Sarah sees her as an impediment, and Peck sees her as a threat. Neither are entirely wrong, though it’s worth noting that Mary seems to be the only person in the house that can keep the tentacles at bay. When she’s there, falling leaves are simply falling leaves; she walks away and they twist into something else. Perhaps this is supposed to represent Mary’s “sanity” compared to those who live in Winchester Mansion – where of course here “sanity” translates rather directly into “utterly unaffected by gun violence” – and if so, it’s a nice touch.
It can’t last, of course. Too much is going on around her. A tragedy strikes in the nearby town as the wrong person answers for a petty slight with a fatal gunshot wound, the kind of horrific result you’d expect even a shill for the Winchester Repeating Arms Company to be unable to totally deflect. Maybe that’s why the tentacles eventually find her. Or maybe it’s what lies in the elevator shaft. Maybe one even follows on from another. As always, it’s hard to disentangle cause and effect here. The tentacles are wound too tight. The hair lies too thick on the ground.
As well as Mary’s plotting, Peck’s whittling and Sarah’s nightmares, we finally learn what motivates the house’s endless expansion. After all, if all Sarah needed was the steady cannonade of hammer-blows, then she could just pay men to sit in a shack and swipe at the walls. But noise alone isn’t the point. Sarah needs construction. The house can never be finished until it can fit all its guests, and the guests won’t stop coming until people like Mary start to listen. Which they do, on occasion, when enough tragedy is piled up against their own lives. The problem is how many people stood near to those tragedies learn exactly the wrong lesson. No shooting ever leads to fewer guns being sold, even here, where it’s Sarah doing the buying.
It’s here that House of Penance comes closest to criticising not just the insane, monstrous construction of the United States, but its contemporary gun culture. The destruction of lives and communities on top of which the veneration of the Second Amendment is built. Sadly, this seems more and more timely and necessary with each month that passes, and I’m glad the title found time to do it in whilst also being a dark retelling of a historical document, a delightful explosion of twisted and brooding imagery, and a tale about how damaged people come together and how they’re viewed by those undamaged. There’s an awful lot going on here, but it’s not at all confusing. Or rather, it is confusing, obviously and profoundly, but only in the sense of a woozy, sad dream-logic. Everything slots perfectly into place, it’s simply that we’re not supposed to understand the underlying structure. And why would we, given where we’re visiting?
I adore this series. The only disappointment here is that there’s just two more issues to go.
Title: House of Penance
Publisher: Dark Horse
Reviewer: Ric Crossman