When Dark Horse touted a brand new IP from famed DC writer Peter Tomasi, I was interested. When they revealed it was going to be a dark, western horror, I was downright giddy. Two of my favorite genres, westerns and horror, together, in one place? Sign me up. Tomasi’s House of Penance is now on issue #4, and I finally feel as though I can both recommend it, and love it.
The series is definitely what I would call a slow burn, with the first couple of issues opening a lot of questions, without an implicit promise for answers. In fact, in all honesty, by the middle of the third issue, I wasn’t sure I was going to continue with the series, but Tomasi manages to slip a hook in which has captivated me utterly.
The story centers around the widow, Sarah Winchester, one of the heiresses to the Winchester fortune. She is in the middle of building a monstrous mansion, in more ways than one. The construction is handled by ex-convicts and other ne’er-do-wells, working at all hours of the night, with plans and designs that are ever-shifting and nonsensical. The house features staircases that ascend into walls, doors that open to nothingness, and elaborate ballrooms with imported flooring.
In many respects, the house is the physical embodiment of Sarah’s mental state, constantly shifting, changing and structurally unsound. It’s impossible to not be reminded of King’s Overlook Hotel, as, by the third issue, the house itself feels like a character in its own right. While the construction is ever hammering and sawing, through all hours of the night– to both remind the workers of their misdeeds, and distract Sarah from her own grief — I’m beginning to wonder if it’s simply by Sarah’s demand, or if the house itself needs to be constantly changing.
Which is very important given that Sarah, by contrast, is not yet shown to have much by way of personality. She is a woman tormented by horrendous grief and clearly teetering on the edge of total mental collapse, but as of now, her mania is her primary defining characteristic. Much like Perkins-Gilman’s heroin in The Yellow Wallpaper, Sarah’s most frightening trait is her conviction that she is completely sane and entirely in control, despite vast evidence to the contrary.
Acting as counterbalance to Sarah’s mania is the classic Western “man with a dark past,” Warren, who has happened across the Winchester home. Much like the story, Warren feels very flat until the middle of the third issue, when his character is suddenly granted more by way of personality. It is clear that he, too, wrestles with as frightful of demons as Sarah, and indeed, his mental state might not be any more stable than Sarah’s, he merely appears to have more by way of control.
If I’ve mentioned “the middle of the third issue” a few times, it’s because that is when Tomasi finally reveals just a smidge of his hand; he may not fully rip the rug out from under the reader, but he certainly has tugged it rather hard. Initially, it seems unclear whether or not Sarah and Warren are both merely victims of their own dementia, or if there is, in fact, an external force haunting the two of them. By the third issue it’s still not entirely clear, but therein lies the brilliance.
By using Sarah’s nightmares, Warrens torments, and the house’s constant banging away, Tomasi manages to create a very unstable setting. As Sarah bounces between coherence and madness, her actions are escalating to a point of no return, and we are going along with her.
Part of this is is helped by artist Ian Bertram’s panels, in which almost every one features the “bam! bam! bang!” of the hammers. By the end of each issue, I can almost hear the incessant hammering, which seems to make Sarah far more sympathetic than she should be. Likewise, his ever encroaching tendrils (snakes) of blood, provide a very real, very terrifying reminder that there may be more than just Sarah’s and Warren’s fragile mental states at work, here.
I’m not a huge fan of Bertram’s work, by in large, though. On occasion, it’s difficult to follow the action from panel to panel, because of the style of his work. You could argue that it helps elevate the confusion and mania within the pages, but I don’t feel as though it’s entirely intentional. I had similar complaints for issues he has done for DC, as well.
As mentioned, the series takes a bit to warm up, but if you’re willing to wade into the river of insanity that Tomasi is weaving, you’ll find a genuinely unsettling story taking shape. It’s enough of a promise that I am eagerly awaiting the next issue.