This is a continuation of my previous post on the film Winchester (2018) and its earlier comic book adaptations. I want to take a look at a page from Peter J. Tomasi and Ian Bertram’s House of Penance (Dark Horse Comics, 2017) and think about how it brings together several elements of the real and speculative histories associated with the Winchester House, while also adding its own emotional and spiritual undercurrents.
The comic gives us a slightly younger version of the historical Sarah Winchester, who was 41 at the time of her husband’s death and 46 when she began building the Winchester House. This Sarah appears to be in her late 20s or early 30s, with a waifish (or emaciated) Victorian governess look that evokes those Brontean heroines to which she is no doubt indebted. This may be intended to give us a false sense of her frailty or helplessness, particularly surrounded as she is by rough, dangerous men, with no husband, family, or even other women to offer support in her lonely widowhood. That perceived fragility is bolstered by her occasional fits of manic energy and emotional outbursts–what 19th century physicians would have likely labeled “hysteria“. But all of those perceptions are belied in this scene and others, in which we see Sarah not only in control of her faculties and her emotions, but also clear and articulate on her mission: to protect her deceased loved ones from angry spirits, and to provide a place of comfort for those suffering souls, living and dead, who inhabit her house.
Warren Peck, seen here shortly after his first encounter with the vengeful spirits of the house (which take the form of men, women, and children that he has murdered during his time as a soldier and hired gun), is one such suffering soul. Like the other men who have come to work for Sarah, he is drawn by the opportunity for a new life, far away from the scenes of his previous violence, or perhaps by a sense of guilt and the need for “penance” which Sarah offers. Here, Sarah explains why construction on the house must be continuous: the “blamming” of the hammers are a constant reminder of the gunshots that each of these men have heard or inflicted on others for most of their lives, and also a way to distract and confuse those angry ghosts that might otherwise break free of their spiritual bonds and seek vengeance on the living.
This scene also marks the first moment of physical and emotional intimacy between these characters. The usually aloof and mysterious Sarah has just found Warren curled into a fetal position on the floor of the furnace room where he works, and she immediately recognizes him as a fellow penitent and victim of the House’s supernatural forces. In the top and middle panels, we see remnants of the blood-red tendrils that indicate the presence of these ghosts, but which only Sarah, and now Warren, have directly witnessed. As he tries to wash the spectral blood from his hands like Lady MacBeth, Sarah reaches out…to help him, to stop the futile effort, or to acknowledge their new connection? The juxtaposition of her small, delicate hand against his rough, scarred, and grizzled hands points to the differences between them–class, gender, experience–but also to what they have in common: a history of loss, violence, and guilt.
The water that pours over their hands in the middle panel, and continues down onto their heads in the bottom, is both a cleansing and a baptism, but also a reminder of the sorrow that both characters still carry with them. Together they acknowledge their mutual burdens and their now-shared space of spiritual anguish and penance. What isn’t overtly acknowledged is their emerging emotional bond and, perhaps, an attraction that goes even beyond the physical. Neither is capable of such an acknowledgement, given its roots in their own dark histories, but it is a layer to this story that is missing from other versions of the Winchester House’s history. Warren, of course, is completely fictionalized, as are other elements of the comic, including its dramatic ending. Nevertheless, Tomasi and Bertram offer us a story as compelling in its visual and emotional energy as it is in historical speculation.