Edgar Allan Poe: The Masque of the Red Death (1842)
in Tales of Mystery and Imagination
Everyman 1975 (1908)
The “Red Death” had long devastated the country. No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous. Blood was its Avatar and its seal—the redness and horror of blood.
Of Poe’s many Gothick tales this is one of the foremost and famous, and it unsurprisingly stuck in my mind more than the others I read many years ago. And why, especially when there’s so little to the plot?
Essentially Prince Prospero holes up in a castle with a load of his friends and plenty of provisions, leaving the populace outside to die from a horrible plague — after half a year he throws a masked ball in a suite of rooms — yet Death still manages to enter the castle, regardless of quarantine.
Given the coronavirus crisis it seemed an appropriate time to read this short story, especially as I forgot to mention it in a previous post about literary treatments of contagion until another blogger’s comment brought it back to mind.
The horrific nature of the Red Death is described at the start: when it strikes there are sharp pains, sudden dizziness, then profuse bleeding and dissolution or necrosis, all within half an hour. Poe may have been conflating aspects of cholera, rife at the time he wrote, and pulmonary tuberculosis, which affected Poe’s wife and from which she eventually died; but in truth neither disease resulted in the rapid decease described in the tale. To avoid the plague Prince Prospero summons a thousand “hale and light-hearted” nobles (with sufficient servants, one suspects) to one of his castellated abbeys; the gates are sealed up, leaving Prospero’s surviving populace to whatever fate had decreed for them.
Now, the word quarantine strictly means ‘forty days’ but time is no object for these courtiers — in fact The Masque of the Red Death plays with quite a few chronological signifiers. “Toward the close of the fifth or sixth month of his seclusion” is when Prospero throws his masked ball; it takes place in a suite of seven magnificent chambers, perhaps symbolic of the days of the week; in the end room or apartment there is “a gigantic clock of ebony” with a heavy pendulum and a “clear and loud and deep” musical note as its bell rings the hours. As midnight tolls and the musicians fall silent thoughts creep into the company’s meditations — and at that point the Red Death creeps into the assembled company like a thief in the night.
Poe was supposedly influenced by Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, and if that’s true it definitely shows. The maze-like suite of rooms in which the masque is held in is straight out of the Gothick rule book: running from east to west, the rooms are lit by lancet windows that throw particular colours into them with, significantly, the final one having a ghastly red tinge to it.
- The apartments were so irregularly disposed that the vision embraced but little more than one at a time.
- There was a sharp turn at every twenty or thirty yards, and at each turn a novel effect.
- To the right and left, in the middle of each wall, a tall and narrow Gothic window looked out upon a closed corridor which pursued the windings of the suite.
The masked company shun the westernmost room but it is here that, wielding a dagger in anger, Prospero chases the interloper — who is masked with a death’s head with gouts of blood over winding cloths. But it is too late: the Red Death has stalked through all the rooms and contagion has touched all the company.
As well as the Walpole novel and its imitators, Poe’s short story is more influenced by fairytale, I’m convinced, than merely the notion of an Italianate castle besieged by an external enemy. For The Masque of the Red Death (originally with mask in the title instead of masque, alluding to Death’s face covering instead of the costumed ball) is none other than a sinister version of The Sleeping Beauty.
Consider these points: there is an external threat, decease from a spindle in one, from death’s sting in the other; as if to underline the parallel, Prospero chases the intruder with a stiletto dagger; both spindle and the pestilence are banished from a castle, but to no avail; Freudian interpretations suggest the pricking of Beauty’s finger is symbolic of the breaking of the hymen, or even the onset of menstruation, often a frightening event for girls and maybe what was really predicted at Beauty’s birth; in Prospero’s case the red chamber, where the prince meets his gory end, indicated his foolish challenge of death but which resulted in a fate which he’d brought upon himself.
Finally, the enchantment that followed Beauty’s encounter with the spindle, a commutation of death, nevertheless aped death for the princess and the whole court, with the impenetrable thorny briars springing up around the castle reminders of the sharp spindle. For Prospero (his name of course belying his own and his court’s fate) it is not suspended animation that results but the finality of death itself. If only he’d followed advice about physical distancing as well as self-isolating…
Poe’s language, while echoing the familiar archaisms of much early Gothick writing, to me doesn’t smack of any allegorical approach that some have detected in the tale. Instead it feels just another aspect of his morbid obsessions, exacerbated by the second cholera epidemic (1826–1837) which had recently devastated Europe and North America and by the ever present possibility of contracting tuberculosis — or consumption, as it was then called — in which phlegm flecked with blood was often coughed up by sufferers. Whatever its origins, this tale still haunts my imagination, and I suspect I’m not the only one.