San Jose’s Winchester Mystery House is an expansive, winding, maze-like mansion like no other. Hallways and staircases lead to nowhere, doors open to nothing, and the home’s long, winding passages resemble nothing like a normal house. According to legend, Sarah Winchester built the massive mansion in the late 1800s as a dwelling place for the thousands of restless ghosts who’d been killed by the Winchester repeating rifle, one of the most popular and deadly guns in the American west.
In his new six-issue Dark Horse Comics series, “House of Penance,” Peter Tomasi dives into the guilt-ridden soul of Sarah Winchester, her ever-expanding house, and the men who built the unique domicile. In the story, featuring art by Ian Bertram and Dave Stewart, hammers sound throughout the house like gunshots, and every day the dwelling grows, as Sarah and the men who are building the mansion for her run from ghosts, both literal and figurative.
CBR News: What exactly is “House of Penance?”
Peter Tomais: It’s a book about a woman and her chance at redemption, and trying to escape the demons she thinks are haunting her and trying to kill her. The way she’s doing that is by building a house, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week for thirty-eight years. Why is that? Her husband was related to the Winchester repeating rifle, and every drop of blood spilled by that gun is now rising up and attempting to swallow her.
There are horror and fantasy elements in the story. How much of “House of Penance” is history, and how much of it is something you’ve brought to the story?
The horror aspect is something inherent in the story. The history of Sarah’s life is the gun, her connection to the Winchester family, and the blood. It seemed like a natural horror story for me. That’s what she was trying to escape from — all of the guilt, and the ghosts that she feels she had a hand in creating, in a strange way.
The horror aspect came from thinking about it through Sarah’s eyes and why she was building the house, and then transposing all of these ghosts and horrific things that, in my mind, would start to happen to her. I fictionalized that aspect, [but] I always try to stay true to what Sarah would be seeing herself, the demons she was wrestling with.
There are a few references to the Civil War and the second issue features a moment of racial tension. What other things from the time period did you incorporate into “House of Penance?”
Those are the key aspects. I really wanted to play with the racial aspect of it, and also class. Sometimes you write stories like that, and you forget about all of these other elements that are forming characters’ lives that are happening around them at the time. And of course, we’re talking about the late 1800s. The kids who’d been fighting in the Civil War when they were 20 are now these older men.
One of the things that really hit me when I was trying to figure out another through-line on the story was the character of Peck and this gunfighter and how the house would be calling out to them, and how the workers themselves, black and white, are all wrestling with their own redemptions. Everyone in the house is someone who’s spilled blood and is looking for their own redemption by building. It’s like penitence. With the sounding of hammers 24 hours a day, seven days a week, I make a point of it that sounds like gunshots. There’s a lot of “blamming,” as I call it. We use that sound effect a lot. That’s used to haunt these workers throughout the course of the story. That plays into the racial tension that ends up developing throughout the rest of the series.
How much of the supernatural element is real, and how much of it is Sarah Winchester being crazy?
[Laughs] I don’t want to give away too much, but the best way to go into it is to see what this woman’s life has been up to that point and watching her experience these things. Maybe imagination is blending into reality, and vice versa. It was a fine line I wanted to walk, and also allow the reader their own sort of perception.
Hopefully people enjoy it and get incredibly creeped out, as well. The art by Ian Bertram and the wonderful coloring by Dave Stewart is really amazing. I’ve never really been scared by a comic before, and I’d written it. When I saw these pages coming in from Ian, it really had this scratching-at-the-back-of-your-head creepy feeling that you don’t really see a lot when you read comics.
What was your process for making this and integrating the story with the art?
It’s funny, I think all three of my creator-owned comics now have started as screenplays. “House of Penance” started as a screenplay, as did “Light Brigade” and “The Mighty.” “House of Penance” was right up that aisle. I met with Ian, loved his stuff, and just thought that he was a perfect fit for the book.
He read the script, I talked to him about it, and I was ready to break it out into a comic book story. But it’s funny; the last two projects that I did like this, every artist after reading the script wanted to actually stay with the screenplay. It gave them a little latitude. It wasn’t so tight on panel description. It allowed them more freedom than they were used to.
Ian took it and ran with it. We’d go for lunch and we’d break the issues and we’d go over the end point and starting point of each issue. Obviously, a comic and a screenplay are a lot different. We had to make a lot of cuts. I red-lined out a lot of stuff that I thought wouldn’t work for a comic, or was going to be too much for a 24-page book for six months.
Are there any particular challenges or weird aspects to writing an actual historical figure? What’s it like to put dialog in the mouth of someone who was actually alive?
It sounds crazy, but it tends to be like an old shoe. If you’ve done enough of your research and you’ve absorbed not only the character that you’re writing about, but also the time period and the era and everything about it, then, in a weird way, it flows. I’m always plugged into historical fiction, and I’m a big history nut myself. If you do your homework, then the dialogue just flows. You can capture that period in time if you’re really plugged into it.
This is a fairly political question, but the subject matter of the book kind of invites it. The Winchester Mystery House is the result of someone feeling guilty about all of the people who died because of Winchester rifles. Is there anything about contemporary gun violence that you’re trying to say with the book?
I’m always keyed into the characters and their story, their journey. But the amazing thing is, you write it and you get into what Sarah is feeling, and you explore how gun violence affected her life and then affected all of these people around her in the house. You’re writing it, and you’re not thinking about it up front, but then it bubbles up and it starts to run in and out of the story, all over. It was natural to explore the violence of guns, and how it matches up with today.
“House of Penance” is an incredibly timely story for all that’s been happening currently, and that’s horrible. I think it does say something about the times, and how we can go back all those years and people were still worried and concerned and talking about it. It’s a through-line right until today. A river of blood, in a way.
“House of Penance” arrives in April.