By Arpad Okay. House of Penance is a sophisticated take on the period piece, an estate built where the imagined and the supernatural are indistinguishable. There are plenty of real threats for Sarah Winchester to be afraid of, but instead she is haunted by symbols and phantoms. Her self-imposed isolation and disturbing behavior is excused because of her wealth, like a feudal lord, like Shirley Jackson’s family classic, We Have Always Lived in the Castle.
The Lady Winchester is much further gone than young Merricat was, and her surroundings reflect it. The Winchester estate is a castle, more splendid than even the most well-to-do family’s home. It looms over the town nearby like a slumbering Gormenghast. However, this a house that never sleeps. It is constantly undergoing inexplicable renovations. The building never stops, ever. Winchester hates silence so much she’ll ring church bells until her hands bleed. So the house is always growing, enabling Winchester to immerse herself in rituals and ghosts and memories of her family.
If you want to see how far away she is, just look in her eyes. They are always open a bit too wide, white rings surrounding the irides, spilling her secrets. The doomed pilgrim Warren Peck, inversely, his eyes are already dead. He can’t meet our gaze. The unblinking socket where once was an eye still stares out in House of Penance. See the eye’s role as an accessory to murder. Use the eye as a portal to the past. Time and again, we are made to stare into the windows of these bleak souls.
This sinister effect is the product of a seamless creative team. Peter Tomasi’s storytelling is well suited for Ian Bertram’s simple and expressive artwork, and Dave Stewart’s colors cement the otherworldly atmosphere that this book demands. Almond eyes on a waspish face, brutish loaves of men, scars and hollow cheeks. Winchester and Peck could both have come straight from the pages of Vault of Horror, but their story has the lurid intrigue of Sunset Blvd. The lonely old witch. The one murderer in town who is looking to die. So much of the story is still shrouded in mystery. And things seem bound to get much worse.
Dark Horse Comics/$3.99
Written by Peter Tomasi.
Art by Ian Bertram.
Colored by Dave Stewart.
Lettered by Nate Piekos.
8 out of 10