A thief in the night

‘Holbeins Totentanz: der Sterndeuter’ (Holbein’s Dance of Death / The Astrologer)

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.

Edward Burne-Jones: The Garden Court (https://wp.me/s2oNj1-prb)

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.

19 thoughts on “A thief in the night

    1. Oh dear, too many spoilers?! Seriously though, Jeanne, does this haunt you as much as it did me? I just felt that, with Covid-19 still affecting many of us, a revisit was well overdue, though I fear that other Poe stories are now clamouring for my attention…

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    1. Not so weird, I’d have thought: it’s like the frame of Boccacio’s work has been shorn of the stories with the focus on just the beginning and end of the gated community’s existence. As much as Poe’s contemporary experience of cholera and TB he would have been harking back to the Black Death which, like the Red Death, was fairly rapid in its course from onset to pain and death.

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  1. I don’t think I’ve read this one before but it could well be set in the present. I do remember a story in one of my childhood books (not sure which), about this king or prince who’d been cursed to die and basically locked himself in his palace like this, but eventually death finds his way in–no escape from fate it seems however much one hides.

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    1. I wonder if you’re thinking of Hans Christian Anderson’s ‘The Nightingale’, Mallika, in which the Emperor of China pines for the song of a real nightingale and who is both visited by and pardoned by Death. But it’s not set in the present…

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      1. Oh yes, that was one too. But not the one I was thinking of, this was probably a tale from the Mahabharta which I read in a comic–I asked my mother but she didn’t remember, but I did find this on Wikipedia:

        As the evening sun had set on the seventh day, the king decided to eat the fruit thinking that his hour of death was stalled. He found an insect in the fruit and picked it up and placed it on his neck saying that if it was Takshaka the snake let it bite him. It was truly Takshaka in the disguise of an insect who then appeared in his true form, coiled himself around the neck of the king, bit the king and killed him.[10]

        I remembered that he hid in his palace because he was cursed to die–it seems by snake bite, and this was how it got him.

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        1. That’s a perfect parallel, with Takshaka as the equivalent of the Red Death, the insect form like the mask of the personified plague. That must be a common tale motif then: Michael Crichton’s SF novel and film The Andromeda Strain had the very same plot.

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            1. The only other Crichton I’ve read is the rather irritating and frustrating Timeline which had interesting SF credentials but which fell down on the anachronistic language and ground to a halt with the silly action-packed conclusion and ultimately forgettable characterisation. Don’t bother watching the film version either.

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            2. I enjoyed The Great Train Robbery (the book), and didn’t mind Timeline all that much. I’ve also read Congo, Rising Sun and one of the Jurassic Park ones–not the first, and while some aspects were a touch too dramatic (I guess he wrote them with a film in mind), there were some interesting ideas explored.

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