Set for release by Dark Horse Comics on April 13th, HOUSE OF PENANCE is a brand new creator-owned horror tale from prolific writer Peter J. Tomasi and artist Ian Bertram.
Featuring a blend of horror, history and fiction, the series is based around The Winchester House – a real life construction made infamous due to its original owner Sarah Winchester’s compulsion to include a variety of architectural curiosities – and focuses on the bereaved Sarah’s battles with her inner demons as she skirts on the edge of insanity.
We’ve been lucky enough to take a look at the first issue, and suffice to say you do not want to miss this one, and in order to dig a little deeper into the series, we’re thrilled to be able to sit down and have a chat with its writer, Peter J. Tomasi.
Big Comic Page: Thanks so much for your time, Peter. So, what was it about this story in particular that appealed to you as a writer?
Peter Tomasi: The basic themes of obsession and redemption were the two strongest hooks for me, Craig, because there’s so much inherent drama and conflict in them when it comes to building a story that you hope as a writer will grab the reader.
BCP: Tell us a little about Sarah Winchester and the events that led to the construction of her “mystery house”.
PT: To boil it down, Sarah was married to William Hirt Winchester and had a daughter, Annie. After their deaths, which Sarah reportedly believed was due to a blood curse brought on by the lives taken by the Winchester rifle – she travelled from Connecticut to San Jose, California until she felt the time was right to construct a house 24/7 for over 30 years. Several reasons have been mentioned as to why she built the house in such an extreme manner (doors and stairs to nowhere), but no one knows for sure. I came up with an angle on the story that I felt was very organic to the DNA of Sarah’s life and specifically dramatized obsessiveness and redemption in a way that would psychologically and physically hit the reader hard and drop them down the wormhole for a six issue rollercoaster ride of terror.
BCP: What kind of research did you have to do in order to help capture the distinctive feel of the house and of Sarah’s lifestyle?
PT: There wasn’t a ton of material actually, but whatever there was I devoured. The main thing was getting the chance to walk through the doors of Sarah Winchester’s house in San Jose, California and experience that amazing idiosyncratic home first-hand. To see it, touch it, smell it…dare I say it, her personality and state of mind comes through those walls and wraps itself around you in a big way, especially if you go in with an underlying understanding of her life and psyche.
BCP: The first issue also introduces a mysterious stranger into Sarah’s world. What’s his story?
PT: Warren Peck is a character I created who is also looking for his own kind of redemption after all the blood he’s spilled in his life. Peck’s our eyes and ears – our bloodied tour-guide in a way, who introduces us to the strange world of Sarah Winchester and her Victorian House.
BCP: From our perspective, Dark Horse Comics are pretty much the ‘go to guys’ in terms of horror comics these days. Was that a deciding factor in you initially approaching them about this series?
PT: Absolutely, Dark Horse is a great platform for this genre, but I was working with them on republishing two previous creator-owned projects (Light Brigade and The Mighty) when I broached the subject of this project with my editor, Daniel Chabon, who’s been a great cheerleader and amazing point man every step of the way with HOUSE OF PENANCE.
BCP: How much of the visual aspect of the book is you, and how much is down to the artist, Ian Bertram?
PT: I consider myself a very ‘visual’ writer since I started writing as a screenwriter, but all I can say is that Ian Bertram has taken my descriptive words and brought his incredible imagination and talent to bear and crafted a beautiful and horrific book that even if I wasn’t part of the team, I can honestly say it would blow me away. Ian’s awesome ability to humanize the small intimate moments along with the horrific moments is exciting to see, and coupled with Dave Stewart’s fantastic coloring — well what can I say, I feel so lucky to have this story brought to life with some of the most talented artists in the business.
BCP: From what I can see, the horror in this first issue is very much predicated on making the reader feeling uncomfortable without necessarily showing them anything truly ‘horrific’. Is that grounded approach going to continue for the rest of the series, or are things going to become a little more tangible as the story progresses?
PT: That approach for the first issue was very deliberate. I feel if you hit readers with crazy stuff without establishing the characters who are going to be experiencing the horror it limits the emotional investment a reader will have in the story. I want people to care about Sarah and Peck, empathize with the current hell they’re going through physically and mentally, so when we let loose and Ian brings the crazy it’ll be that much more intense.
BCP: From your perspective, what would you say was the most important aspect in crafting a good horror comic?
PT: Character, character and character. Like I said earlier, if you don’t care about the people being put through the scares then it just becomes a string of scary gags that doesn’t have any emotional heft or engagement. A good horror story/film only works when you can put a part of yourself into the characters shoes and experience it alongside them, it’s only then that the horror lingers with you long after you’ve read or seen it.
BCP: And finally, what would you say to someone unsure about whether to pick this one up in order to convince them?
PT: To be honest, Craig, I think if a reader is interested in taking an incredibly obsessive, redemptive, and in the end, horrific journey with some amazing characters I feel are going to get under their skin and stay there forever in a story that is as timely today as it was back at the turn of the last century, then this is the book for them.
BCP: I think that pretty much says it all. Thanks again for your time, and best of luck with the rest of the series.
HOUSE OF PENANCE #1 goes on sale April 13th from Dark Horse Comics, and can be pre-ordered from your Local Comic Shop up until Monday the 21st of March using Diamond Code FEB160051.