Every day, around the clock, a widow of the Winchester family oversees construction on a sprawling, labyrinthine mansion. She believes her husband’s and daughter’s deaths to be a curse bestowed upon her family for their legacy of death. So her crew is made up of former murderers, whom she makes cast aside their weapons. Their constant hammering, she believes, will keep the evil spirits disoriented and weakened. And to make their tools, she melts down the weapons her family manufactures. All of this is to keep the sanguine, writhing tendrils from ensnaring her and pools of blood from overtaking her.
The question that lurks beneath the story is one of whether Sarah’s curse is real or an imaginary product of her guilt and grief. She’s the only person who believes in it, even though plenty of people are willing to go along with her plans in exchange for room and board. Couple that with the matter-of-fact, almost disjointed pacing that Tomasi employs here, and you get an unnerving, unique kind of horror comic.
Bertram’s art for House of Penance is insane. From hyper-detailed architecture to squirming, encroaching veins and viscera, he packs the entire book with dizzyingly rich line-work. Stewart spends most of the book flexing different muscles than he usually uses in his work on noir comics; his color work here tends toward flatness. The occasional background texture or gradient to give a sense of light is the exception. Instead of the dark, shadowy look the books he usually works on calls for, here he gets to be bright and warm—at times, to it’s even oppressive, fitting with the book’s New Mexican setting.
House of Penance is an outstanding horror comic. It’s psychological, relying on its own ambiguity and off-kilter sense of voice to unsettle readers. Visually, it’s a sort of surrealist nightmare. It’s unlike anything else I’ve read.
House of Penance (#1-6)
Writer: Peter J. Tomasi | Artist: Ian Bertram | Colorist: Dave Stewart | Letterer: Nate Piekos of Blambot