The story goes like this…
In 1884, still grieving from the deaths of her daughter and husband, Sarah Pardee Winchester, heir to the Winchester Repeating Rifle empire and accompanying fortune, moved to San Jose, CA, and bought an 8-room farmhouse on 160 acres of lush farmland. And then she began to build… and build… and build… and build…
No one knows exactly why. Some say she did it to create a place for the souls of those killed by the Winchester guns could find a resting place. Others say that she did it as a place to hide from those very same spirits seeking vengeance on their deaths. Other less-fanciful explanations include that she had too little architectural training and too much money to spend. But build she did…
For thirty-eight years, construction continued, day and night, 24 hours a day, through fair weather and foul. Up until her very death in 1922, and when the hammering finally stopped, that 8-room farmhouse had growing into a 160+-room mansion that people still visit to this day.
That’s the story they tell you…
Now, writer Peter J Tomasi has spun a darker, more chilling tale, where the angry spirits threaten to punch through the flimsiest of barriers held in place by the constant construction, and the crew building the house is made up of ruthless killers, desperate for absolution, their hammering echoing like gunshots through the house, day and night. In House of Penance, Tomasi has taken the mysterious hidden figure of Sarah Winchester and forced her to confront her demons on a daily basis, as she seeks forgiveness and the return of her loved ones from the forces she believes hold them captive.
The Winchester House legend is fertile territory and has been mined in the past, but never as deeply and disturbingly as it has been here. The evil that she feels stalking here takes tangible form, with tentacles and questing blind fingers that threaten to entangle everyone around them. Characters descend unseeing into pools of blood, and the arcane layout of the house ultimately mirrors Sarah’s own journey.
But it’s not just Sarah’s journey alone. Indian killer Warren Peck becomes Sarah’s sounding board, her confidante and much more, as he unknowingly seeks his own path of redemption, from the ghosts that haunt him, as well. A gunslinger who must fling away his guns and find out what penance he must serve to redeem his soul. Together, they have to confront the demons that are ultimately borne, not out of the past, but out of themselves.
But it’s not just Tomasi’s words that make this volume so effectively chilling, it’s the brilliant work done by artist Ian Bertram. It’s a simple thing to draw a house, but Bertram captures a Winchester House of the imagination, giving it the sense of shifting when we aren’t looking, a house that a man might get lost in and never be seen again. Sure, he’s taken liberties with the layouts, but this is a house where servants needed a map due to the ever-changing construction.
Channeling his inner Rick Geary, Bertram takes it a step further, physicalizing the paranoia and madness that haunts these two characters and infests the house itself, giving it a creeping, tangible presence that practically oozes out of the page. A slithering, lurking mass of viscera that only they can see as it creeps and caresses and threatens to swallow pages whole. He’s particularly effective with several multi-page spreads that lift the tale from chilling to majestically epic in its dark reach. Kudos to colorist Dave Stewart for understanding the impact his colors have here, and leveraging his palette well.
If you’ve never heard the legend or visited the mansion, read this and get a flavor for what might have been in those haunted days around the turn of the century. And if you have visited the house (or worked there, as I did for a summer), you should definitely read this collected volume. But leave the lights on. It will leave you wondering what was around the corners and under the floorboards, watching you… and waiting…
“Every day the black chasm doesn’t claim you is a good day, Mister Peck.”
“A fight to the finish, hmm? One big, happy ending.”
“I don’t believe in happy endings.
An ending, by its very nature, cannot be happy.
An ending is simply an ending.”
“Sometimes, that’s good enough, Mrs. Winchester.”
“Yes. Sometimes, it is.”
Verdict: FIVE Secret Stairwells to Nowhere out of FIVE.