Comic readers might be familiar with Peter Tomasi's superhero stories at DC, but with his sinister new supernatural series House of Penance, the writer takes a turn toward the dark side.
Set in the West during the early 1900's, House of Penance tells the story of the real-life Winchester House, built by Sarah Winchester as a penance for her family's connection to the Winchester rifle. When she meets the similarly tortured Warren Peck, one of the workers on her constantly constructed house, the story delves into the horror and sins of their past.
Working with artist Ian Bertram and colorist Dave Stewart, Tomasi is releasing House of Penance at Dark Horse beginning in April. Newsarama talked to the writer to find out more about the macabre tale, how closely it's tied to the real Winchester house, and why he thinks the story is so timely.
Newsarama: Pete, where did you get the idea for this story? Because it's pretty out there…
Peter Tomasi: [Laughs.] You know, it started awhile back. My dad lived in Salinas, California, and we had gone to visit his old stomping grounds. I'm a big John Steinbeck fan, and John Steinbeck's house is actually just a few blocks away from where my dad lived. So we went to check it out. And then when we were there, one of the visitors to the place mentioned they had just come from the Winchester Mystery House. They gave us a run-down of the story of the house, and it was nearby, so we went there. But it was closed.
It would take me many years to get back to it, but the story of the house was so intriguing that it stuck with me. This woman's whole mission was to build a house 24/7 for 38 years. It just kind of hooked me from the get-go, and it stayed with me. It was in the back of my head and I never forgot it.
So it's just one of those things where I kept coming up with ideas about what I would do with it. And I ended up fleshing it out and writing a script for it.
Nrama: It's a little darker than what people might be used to seeing from you.
Tomasi: Yeah, yeah, it's definitely dark. There's this dark cloud hanging over it. It's about people hoping to find redemption, and they're all living under this cloud of violence.
And it just felt natural that it would take a dark tone and dark connotation. You can't get to the light until you really go through the dark. And this is probably one of the darker books I've ever written.
Nrama: One of the key figures in the story is Sarah Winchester, who's sort of the overseer in this house. I think her name explains who she is, but can you describe why she feels this need for redemption?
Tomasi: She's trying to wipe away the sin that she feels her family's name is wrapped in, and that she's wrapped in. Obviously, it's tied in to guns, with the Winchester name. And right now, that feels like a timely subject.
But Sarah Winchester really felt like she had to sort of atone for what she believed about how the Winchester name left a mark on her life and her family. She wanted to cleanse it.
Nrama: She also comes into contact with this character Warren Peck. He's fictional, right? But going through a very similar experience as Sarah?
Tomasi: Yes. He's a character I created for this series. He's an ex-gunslinger/sniper for the Union Army. He and Sarah both are going through this dark period together through blood and darkness, and then just hoping to emerge from this tunnel of violence to somewhere of hope and light.
Nrama: So let's back up a second. How much is your Sarah Winchester based on reality? Or did you take the concept and kind of make your own story about her?
Tomasi: Sort of a mixture. There's definitely some stuff that's been written about her looking into mediums back in the day, and some people suggested that she move out West. She originally started in Connecticut. Her daughter and her husband had died, and she felt that the blood spilled from the Winchester rifle was responsible for that, to a degree. So she started to find her way west.
She took root in San Jose. And that was the starting point for her to start building this strange house.
So there are elements of the mysticism or the supernatural that Sarah seemed to believe in. I wanted to weave that into the story even more, and play with people's perceptions — readers' perceptions — about whether what is happening really is happening.
I wanted to keep people on edge about the horror aspect, whether it's actually permeating Sarah's real existence.
And Warren Peck is my creation, but it felt like a natural extension.
There are also all these workers who filled the house 24/7 for all those years. And I thought, how cool would it be if this was almost like a mecca for these people to come and spiritually connect, in the way that they've all spilled blood somehow, and as tenants working on this house continuously.
Nrama: It's striking in the comic book that the house is always being constructed, as evidenced by the sound of hammers.
Tomasi: Yeah, all around them is the sound of construction, even when they're in their bunks sleeping, on the shifts that they're not working. And hearing the "blamming," as I call it, which is the hammers hitting the nails and sounding like gunshots.
So they surround themselves with gunshots as their penance to atone for their own sins of the gun and the knife and anything else they feel they've done to people through the course of their lives.
So finding those fictional threads and tying them with the real threads that I knew about Sarah's life was really a happy accident. They all just fit together in my head in a really cool way that would make a very creepy book.
Nrama: So much of the tone in this is set by the art. Having seen just the inks, it's so striking, even without colors.
Tomasi: Yeah, it could stand on its own in black and white. Ian Bertram, the artist, is awesome. But Dave Stewart, colorist extraordinaire, is going to be doing the colors. He's done the first two issues and they look great.
I was speaking with John Arcudi, the writer of Hellboy and all that great stuff at Dark Horse. I was talking to him about House of Penance and he has read the script a couple years prior and always loved it. He knew it was something I always wanted to get going. Finally, I was able to get it to Dark Horse and they said yes.
I knew the artist needed to be a good fit for this, someone who could increase the creepiness factor and bring a whole other vision and voice to it. And John suggested checking out Ian's art. And I looked at it and really liked the style. So I met with Ian, who happened to live in New York too. And I just knew this was the guy for the book.
He brings great storytelling mixed with this, just, organic horror. I would get pages and it would creep me out. I mean, he just brings so much to it — the emotion and the visceral fear that just comes off the page.