The story of the Winchester House is known to many and has been told in various formats, but I believe House of Penance adapts the story in the best way imaginable. We are treated to the inner workings of a guilt-ridden woman whose fortune was built upon death. Just like her real-life counterpart, Sarah Winchester continues to build her house to escape the ghosts that haunt her. Typically, these adaptations show us that the ghosts are real and haunting her, but, here, this story diverges from that typical technique. We aren’t certain whether the otherworldly entities are real or are a figment of Sarah Winchester’s conscious. It’s this Lovecraftian aspect of unknowing that allows us, as the reader, to truly understand the real-life internal plight of this woman.
The Lovecraftian aspects of the story truly make it unique. Sure, you can see Lovecraft's influence on horror in many different mediums of entertainment, but this book is something different. The Eldritchian arms that rip through the pages, especially in the final chapter, the sharp edges and seemingly otherworldly geometric shapes and curves are like an homage to the themes of knowing and insanity that Lovecraft is known for.
The illustrations are another thing to behold; no space is left blank unintentionally. Every white space has a purpose, and anything that takes up space is used to its fullest effect. This is a story that relies on the visuals as much as the dialogue and prose itself. It's a testament to the medium that it uses every tool at its disposal to provide the haunting story of attempted redemption. This story could not have been done any other way. The color palette throughout is also a thing of beauty and should be praised. The different hues of red seamlessly inserted in every page make everything subdued and hyper-stylized. It creates an ambiance of foreboding and worry; it makes the reader understand that there is something within the panels, lurking throughout.
Being haunted by the ghost of your past is easily one of the most profound lessons of any story, and this one is about running from your sins, one way or another. It's at the discretion of Tomasi that we're able to understand the hauntings we, as the reader, will endure if ever we were to run from them. There's a scene where Sarah and Peck are conversing in a barn, where he asks her about the continuous building, their third conversation after their discussion of Shakespeare, and we see Peck washing his hands. He's scrubbing them as the red blood-like blotches appear. It's reminiscent of Lady Macbeth washing the red away from her hands, and it’s here that we understand that although the blood may never truly wash away, it’s what we do that can make up for it.
That’s kind of the point with the story: Penance is a choice. Sarah is, in a sense, innocent of the legacy of her husband, but she has profited from it. She has taken the money and lived a good life with it. This legacy is just as much her burden as it is her husband’s, and the death of those victimized by the legacy of the Winchester’s is a burden on the life she lives. Peck’s story is one of blood and death, and it’s one that wouldn’t have existed without Sarah and her husband; he is a byproduct of that legacy, just as much as any other man that is working for her. There's one more lesson, one more message to be learned from this story. It's one of violence and regret. When you have the power in your hand, do you use it to bring peace or destruction? That power can only bring destruction when used. To bring peace, it must be left alone. Unfortunately for us all, that power has been used, and we can't stop using it. We can only atone for what we ourselves have done.
House of Penance is more than just a horror story of ghosts and Eldritchian horror. It's one that holds a mirror up to society and asks us whether we're prepared to deal with the same kind of haunting.
Creative team: Peter J. Tomasi (writer), Ian Bertram (artist), Dave Stewart (colorist) Nate Piekos (letters), Danial Chabon (editor),
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
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