An American Legend Becomes an Anti-Gun Fable in ‘House of Penance’
The new comic is terrifying and tragic
by MATTHEW GAULT
The woman hunches in the dark, pulling the bullets apart. “Brass and powder,” she says. “Powder and brass.” She pulls the brass from its casing, pours the powder into a bucket and the places the brass in a separate bucket. The house creaks and red tendrils of living blood creep along the edges, just outside of her vision.
“BAM, BAM, BAM,” the sound, like gunshots, fills the air as the widow works.
“Such simple, inexpensive ingredients,” the widow says. “To snuff out a life.” The widow is Sarah Winchester, heir to the Winchester Repeating Arms company. Her dead husband’s father built the company that built the gun that won the West. The Widow is rich beyond her wildest dreams, but she can’t enjoy it. The ghosts of those felled by Winchester’s rifle haunt her. They urge her to turn her home into a “House of Penance.”
The Winchester rifle was a big deal. Without getting bogged down in technical details, the rifle bridged the gap between the barrel-loaded black powder nightmares of the colonial era and the modern guns we use today. This was a weapon that owners could easily load and fire in rapid succession.
Oliver Winchester made a fortune off the rifle — especially the 1873 version and his son, William, inherited it all when Oliver died in 1880. But William had tuberculosis and he followed his father to the grave just one year later, leaving his wife Sarah with a 50 percent ownership stake in Winchester Repeating Arms.
She got more than $20 million outright and earned about a $1,000 a day from the company. That’s roughly equivalent to what a minimum wage worker earns in a year in 2017. Overnight, Sarah Winchester was filthy rich.
She didn’t take it well. The rest of Sarah’s story is a mix of legend and truth, the kind of American story that created a tourist destination and gets played on late-night cable shows with names such as Weird America and Haunted California.
Sarah took her vast fortune and moved with her sister and niece to San Jose, California and bought a house sitting on 160 acres of land. Then she started to build additions to the house and didn’t stop until she died almost 40 years later.
According to unverified legend, an East Coast medium told Sarah that the souls of those murdered by the Winchester weapons had cursed her family. Sarah and William’s only daughter died just after childbirth and, the legend said, Sarah believed the medium and thought a blood curse had settled on her family.
To sate the spirits, she built a massive mansion in San Jose. As long as she kept building, the spirits would leave her be. When construction stopped, she would die.
So Sarah spent her fortune adding onto the house and it grew to an incredible size by the time of her death. Today, the house’s 160 rooms cover 24,000 square feet. To get there, Sarah hired carpenters to work for 24 hours a day, in shifts, seven days a week for 365 days of every year. After an earthquake in 1906, she fired the nightshift.
Most of this is true. Sarah Winchester did build the house and it still stands as a tourist attraction and historical site in San Jose. Her motivations, however, are in dispute. Some say she slept in a different room every night to confuse the harried spirit. Some say she was a spy attempting to confuse her many enemies. There are hundreds of stories about the house and the woman and it’s likely we’ll never know the full truth.
House of Penance, a new comic book from publisher Dark Horse, supposes Sarah really was the victim of a blood curse. The fantastic book crafts a historical horror story about the cost of gun violence and the power of grief to transform lives for the better and for the worse.
House of Penance portrays poor Sarah as a woman actually haunted by malevolent spirits. Peter J. Tomasi’s script breathes life into this American legend. He plays fast and loose with the historical facts, but hey, this is a horror comic not a history class and all Tomasi’s changes are in service to the story he’s telling.
In the book, Sarah employs a rolling army of former murderers, killers and soldiers to work on the house. They’re drawn to the place as if it were a lighthouse in the middle of a dark night. The penance isn’t just Sarah’s, but every troubled soul who ever took a life. When they show up at her door, she takes their guns and puts them to work hammering away at constructing her massive mansion.
“Each ‘blam’ of a hammer reminds these workers of the blood they have spilled, be it innocent or guilty,” Sarah says. “Listening to the sound of a gun twenty-four hours a day is their penance — my penance — for embracing all that a gun has to offer.”
Trouble comes when one rough stranger, William Peck, shows up at her door with a wound in his side so bad it almost kills him. He says he’s just passing through, but Sarah’s mission draws him in and soon he can’t leave. Peck was a company man with a good eye. He sat in the trees and watched people through a glass, waiting for the right moment to strike.
Unfortunately, his victims were mostly innocent folk who wouldn’t leave town when the railroad came through. “Big plans have a way of rolling over little people,” the spirit of one of his victims tells him.
“Had a name for it,” Peck tells Sarah when he’s explaining his old job. “Sounded nice and proper like it explained all the blood away … ‘Manifest Destiny’ the government man called it.” He would say the words over the graves of his victims, but it never explained the blood away. Not really.
Ian Bertram’s art is wonderful and well suited to the story. He’s like a mix between Junji Ito and Frank Quietly and his illustrations infect the book. The people look strange, almost like caricatures or dolls. They aren’t like people at all. They’re drawn in that way you usually only see in comics, where the look of a character seems to capture their whole personality.
Better are Bertram’s illustrations of the house and the creeping horror around its edges. Ghosts haunt House of Penance and Bertram works little reminders of it into every panel. Tendrils of living blood pulse beneath floorboards and creep up the shoulders of men who don’t seem to see them. It’s creepy.
House of Penance is a wonderful, if not true to life, retelling of one of the American West’s best legends — that of the woman driven mad by her grief, tortured by spirits and forced to spend her vast fortune to wash away the blood. Sarah’s not Lady MacBeth, the spot will come out. But it’ll cost and, in the end, she chooses foolish hope over madness and the void.
“The twentieth century ahead of us will be one of peace and forbearance,” she tells Peck. It’s almost as if her naivety paved the way for a whole new century of fresh horrors.