Truth proves stranger than fiction in House of Penance. Based on the infamous true story of Sarah Winchester and her bizarre palatial house, writer Peter J. Tomasi delivers a ton of tension along with a dreamlike tale of loss and obsession. This is an unsettling yarn that feels so wholly off-putting that it couldn't possibly be true, and while Tomasi has surely taken some liberties, it still feels real enough to make your skin crawl in the best possible way.
Along with the detailed pencils of Ian Bertram and the colors of Dave Stewart, House of Penance is an inspired and creepy take on one of America's lesser-known eccentrics.
In 1905, Sarah Winchester, heir to the Winchester Repeating Rifle fortune, lost her husband and daughter. That is where our story begins. Peter J. Tomasi, a writer best known for his work in the superhero genre, confidently delivers this Hammer films-inspired debut and though he wrote some damn fun cape comic books, I can only hope Tomasi stays in the horror genre for a good long while. Reading House of Penance sometimes feels like a fever dream and that is 100% Tomasi's intention. Sarah Winchester is our lead in the first issue, but Tomasi only gives us a surface level knowledge of her and her madness; teasing glimpses of her dissembling bullets by hand as well as her refusing to let anyone else bury her dead family. Tomasi dangles just enough in front of a reader's face about Sarah to make them want more, and by God, do I want more.
But while Sarah Winchester is the lead of this book, she has a few equally interesting co-stars. In particular, her insane house, built by the hands of toiling volunteers who have offered up their sins and time to the lady of the house. Draining her family's estate, Sarah has become obsessed with completing her twisting puzzle box of a home, which is given imposing life on the page by artist Ian Bertram and colorist Dave Stewart, who is no stranger to this sort of penny dreadful tone. The workers toil under the watchful eye of Mister Murcer, Sarah's stoic right-hand man, and are constantly at work on the house, working in shifts, as evidenced by the constant banging heard and seen throughout the issue in big, bold block letter sound effects that hammer across multiple pages. Tomasi even throws a wild card of a character into the story in the form of wounded treasure hunter with fresh set of sins to offer up to the Winchester Estate. House of Penance works on a whole lot of levels, each one more interesting than the next, and all of them unsettling.
As Peter J. Tomasi offers up this strange tale of American danse macabre, artist Ian Bertram and colorist Dave Stewart give the story the heavy pencils and sun-baked colors that it deserves. Ian Bertram, whose style can best be described as the gothic version of Nick Pitarra's sketch-like work, amps up the creepiness of Tomasi's script by allowing Stewart to cast certain scenes in heavy, almost completely blacked out shadows, or by simply giving Sarah Winchester the eyes of a china doll; as wide as saucers, but hollow, save for the twinkle of madness that Bertram renders them with.
Bertram's attention to detail really makes the scenes on the interior and exterior of the house soar, but it is colorist Dave Stewart's skill with shadow and his almost too real character expressions that really make House of Penance one of the more arresting reads to date for me. Ian Bertram and Dave Stewart are two very big guns in this debut's arsenal and thankfully for the reader, they know exactly where to aim.
If films like Crimson Peak or true weird tales of history strike your fancy, then House of Penance is certainly the book for you. Even the staunchest of genre fan will find something to love because it is so singularly weird that it demands that you take notice of it. Peter J. Tomasi, Ian Bertram, and Dave Stewart fully commit to this dark tale of an American heiress, gripped by grief, and use it as a firm base for this creepy tale of woe, bullets, and stairs that go nowhere. Horror fans, get in now. The House awaits.
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