Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s sandbox, from those who inspired him to those who were inspired in turn.
This week, we’re reading Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” first published in the May 1842 issue of Graham’s Magazine. Spoilers ahead.
To and fro in the seven chambers there stalked, in fact, a multitude of dreams. And these—the dreams—writhed in and about, taking hue from the rooms, and causing the wild music of the orchestra to seem as the echo of their steps. And anon, there strikes the ebony clock which stands in the hall of the velvet.
The Red Death, most fatal and hideous of plagues, has long devastated the country. “Blood was its avatar and its seal—the redness and the horror of blood.” Sharp pain and vertigo are the first symptoms, followed by hemorrhage from every pore and swift death, for the whole course of the illness is a mere half an hour. Nor can the victim hope for succor from his fellows; the blood soaking his clothing and streaming from his skin marks him too clearly, and all flee from the contagion.
At the height of the epidemic, Prince Prospero gathers a thousand of his courtiers and retreats to a fortified abode, a castellated abbey girdled by a lofty wall. Once inside, courtiers weld shut the gates to prevent both ingress and egress. Well supplied with provisions and entertainers, they can wait out the plague in comfort. After all, “the external world could take care of itself,” and “in the meantime it was folly to grieve, or to think.”
Six months into this seclusion, Prospero stages a masked ball even more lavish than his previous entertainments. It takes place in a grand suite of apartments furnished according to his uniquely bizarre taste. Seven chambers run east to west in a zigzag, so there is no direct line of sight one to the other. Their windows admit neither sunlight nor moonlight, for they open into closed corridors. Opposite each window is a tripod supporting a brazier which supplies the only light to its corresponding apartment, for there are no candles or lamps allowed inside. Still odder, each apartment is decorated in one color, and the windows of all but one are stained to match. From east to west the apartments are blue, then purple, then green, then orange, then white, then violet. The westernmost apartment is dressed in black velvet and features a gigantic ebony clock, and its blood-red windows throw a ghastly light on all who enter.
On the night of the ball, few venture into the black apartment. The rest are crowded with revelers and mummers attired in the most splendid and grotesque costumes imaginable—there is “much of beauty, much of the wanton, much of the bizarre, something of the terrible, and not a little of that which might have excited disgust.” All is gaiety except at the turning of each hour, for then the ebony clock sounds a note of such peculiar tone and emphasis that the musicians cease their playing, the waltzers their waltzing, the mummers their writhing gyrations. Some pale, some pass hands over their brows, some fall into meditation. Then the clock goes silent, and the careless riot resumes.
At midnight, as the clock’s twelve strokes resonate through the apartments, the subdued revelers notice a new arrival. He is tall and gaunt, dressed in grave clothes and a mask that cunningly mimics the stiffened face of a corpse. This costume may have passed scrutiny, even earned approval, but for the bloodstains on the clothing, the blood spattered on the mask. To sport these marks of the Death they’ve all fled is a mockery too gross!
Prospero, furious, calls for the newcomer to be unmasked so the company can see who will hang from the battlements at sunrise. But the intruder inspires such nameless awe that none dares to impede his slow, stately progress through the apartments, blue to purple to green, orange to white to violet.
Enraged out of his own fear, Prospero draws his dagger and pursues the intruder into the westernmost chamber. The offender turns to face him—the Prince cries out, drops his dagger and falls dead on the ebony carpet! Desperate, courtiers seize the offender, only to find that the bloody clothing and mask are “untenanted by any tangible form.”
Now all must acknowledge that the Red Death has come like a thief in the night. One by one the revelers drop “in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and [die] each in the despairing posture of his fall.” The ebony clock goes forever silent. The brazier flames expire.
“And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.”
What’s Cyclopean: Prospero is happy and dauntless and sagacious; his conceptions glow with barbaric lustre. (We’re not sure “sagacious” is actually appropriate here, while “hide in a box with friends and good food” isn’t the stupidest reaction you could have to an apocalyptic plague, it doesn’t exactly reflect astonishing wisdom either. It might reflect a superhuman ability to command architects and masons…)
The Degenerate Dutch: The celebrants at Prospero’s party care nothing for whoever’s left outside.
Mythos Making: Poe’s decadents are ancestral to Lovecraft’s own—the pair from “The Hound” would fit right in at the Masque, where they’d probably spend all their time in the clock room being gothier-than-thou.
Libronomicon: The glare and glitter of Prospero’s hideout has since been seen in “Hernani”—that’s a romantic drama by Victor Hugo, later turned into a riot-inspiring opera, then critiqued for its baroque sensibilities in Les Miserables. Only a Poe-esque parody of Les Mis is required to complete the self-referential circle.
Madness Takes Its Toll: Some think Prospero mad; his followers don’t believe it, but they have to hear and see and touch him to be sure he isn’t.
It started in third grade, when one of my favorite nuns introduced me to leprosy. No, she didn’t give me the disease, or have it herself. She would, however, go on at loving length about how lepers had to wear bells as they staggered around shedding digits and noses like an autumn oak sheds leaves. I asked if the bells were to scare away birds, like with cats. No, the bells were to scare away people, because if a leper so much as brushed against you (with his filth-encrusted rags, standard leper uniform), you were going to GET IT and start shedding body parts yourself. Also, dogs would lick your sores as you lay in the street. I wasn’t sure if this was supposed to console you, the leper, or just give the dogs TONGUE LEPROSY.
I was convinced I’d catch leprosy. Then some well-meaning adult tried to explain leukemia, and I came away believing everyone’s heart was half red, half white. If the white part started taking over, eventually eating up all the red, you were meat. Now I was convinced I’d get leukemia, unless bubonic plague got me first. Or TB. My uncle had TB once, and I had taken a drag on his pipe all unknowing. Shouldn’t he have been wearing a bell? Then I went to a birthday party where the celebrant’s brother cut and served the cake while incubating HEPATITIS. All us kids had to get gamma globulin shots or else drop dead, our faces turned saffron with jaundice.
My hypochondria eventually swerved into a fascination with plagues. If I’d known what an epidemiologist was, that’s what I would have wanted to be when I grew up. No surprise that “The Masque of the Red Death” was my favorite Poe story. Razor-edged pendulums and premature burials, maelstroms and body-snatching ghosts and (righteously) vindictive black cats were scary, but they had nothing on the Red Death. It was almost as bad-ass as the Andromeda Strain, another early favorite. Except the Red Death made you bleed to death, while the Andromeda Strain instantly clotted and desiccated your blood. Kind of a complementary duo. These days we have real-life spectres in the hemorrhagic fevers, of which Ebola reigns as ghastly king in the public imagination.
For Poe, there were many real-life diseases to dread. Yellow fever broke out often enough to earn the nickname “American Plague.” If you were one of its more unfortunate victims, it could cause deadly bleeding. Cholera had hitched a trade-route ride to North America by the 1820s; it was capable of killing a person within a day—certainly of making its diarrhea- and vomiting-besieged victims wish they’d die. There was no treatment for rabies, one of the many speculated causes of Poe’s death. Pulmonary tuberculosis is another. Also known as the great white plague and the white death, it claimed a big chunk of the annual death toll in 19th century America. Probably there were few people untouched by it, either personally or through association—whether or not TB earned bragging rights for killing off the great writer, it definitely got to torment him. His actress mother died of it while Edgar was still toddling. His child-wife Virginia succumbed to it, still sadly young after eleven years of marriage. Consumption was a good name for it, as it slowly withered sufferers and bleached them bloodless pale. But blood could also be its Avatar and Seal, coughed up from lesion-riddled lungs, a symptom terrifying enough to inspire the wholesale exsanguination of Poe’s Red Death.
Darkness and Decay and the Red Death! It was and remains a triumvirate with which to conjure fear. Lions and tigers and bears, so what? Ditto great white sharks and box jellies and inland taipans. The most deadly animals on Earth are the mosquitoes, flies, fleas, lice and ticks, but only secondhand, as vectors of the true champions: viruses, bacteria, microparasites. What you can’t see can most certainly kill you, especially if you’re among the majority of humans too poor to retreat to a fortified abbey when the Pale Horse is galloping Death around the country. The one-percenters, wealthy and powerful like Prospero, have always had the option of running from pestilence. Not that it always worked, for they might carry pestilence along with them or meet it along the way from pesthole to palace.
Prospero lucks into five or six months infection-free, and that’s some luck too, considering how many courtiers, servants and entertainers he brings with him. The story doesn’t mention any priests in his entourage, but he hasn’t come to the abbey to pray or mourn. Or think. Talk about princely privilege.
To give the Prince credit, he isn’t a total stranger to thought—I mean, he must have had some philosophical scheme in mind when he planned his grand suite, some symbolism. Whatever the other six colors represent (the passage of a life from innocence through experience is one interpretation), the red-lit black room practically screams “I’m Death! Or Hell! Which could be the same thing!” No wonder a huge ebony clock is its principal decoration. Death is the ultimate product of Time, and the clock hourly proclaims Time’s sovereignty—in the gayest of the other rooms, you can’t escape its solemn tones, its reminder your gaiety cannot last.
Prospero probably gets a Goth kick out of the tolling, the memento mori. He couldn’t have taken it seriously, as “Masque” itself does. The Red Death comes “like a thief in the night.” Poe’s readers should have instantly recognized the phrase. It appears several times in the Bible. Here’s Thessalonians 5:2-6 “For yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night. For when they shall say, Peace and safety; then sudden destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape.”
Nothing new in the idea that plagues are a favorite vehicle of divine retribution. Does Poe not-so-obliquely hint that a just God punishes Prospero and Company for their callous self-indulgence? Or does he mean us to realize the Red Death is no god’s tool—perfectly if horrifically natural.
Take it from him who knows: The bugs always get you in the end. Black Death, White Death, Red Death. For theirs is the Kingdom, and the Power. And the Glory? I don’t believe microbes care about Glory.
Which is either the scariest or the nicest thing about them.
It’s tempting, to the modern mind (or at least to my mind), to try and develop an etiology of the Red Death. It has similarities to the Black Death, blood-dripping pores all too similar to “god’s tokens,” the unmistakable red marks of the medieval plague. It’s a faster killer than the Black Death though, and a more complete one, so the latency period must be longer or no one would have time to catch it. The worst plagues in human history have had a death rate in the 90% range; we do not of course record anything with a 100% fatality rate. Which makes the Red Death either bioengineered (unlikely in the 19th century) or supernatural—and thus not amenable to epidemiological analysis.
And a modern education doesn’t particularly reduce the terror of such things. We’re still not prepared for the next serious epidemic, and options for human intervention add to the potential nightmares. A natural illness needs to keep enough hosts alive to survive and thrive itself; a supernatural or weaponized one has no such limitations.
Poe, I suspect, has the supernatural in mind, perhaps even the deific. And above all, his gothic goal is mood—death and decadence and hopeless attempts to flee the one through the other. I’ve sometimes rolled my eyes at Poe; in this case that feels a little like Prospero’s laughter. Why would you put a memento mori clock in your underground mansion? Probably for the same reason the ultra-rich fill their properties with scuba mazes. Why do the prince’s guests think they’ll escape from droplet-based transmission in a bunker where they can breathe? Dunno, why do Silicon Valley fair folk think they’ll be safe from climate change in New Zealand?
The aristocracy will always find shocking things to spend their money on, and will always believe they can stave off death and decay. I’m reminded of the shelters of the Cold War—or the Coldest, for that matter. If your walls are solid enough, why not believe you can hold off the apocalypse itself? Some stories fantasize about survival behind those walls, maybe even building a new order there, unencumbered by the old. Poe, for all his awesome imagery of hue-lit chambers and fabulously masked guests, suggests no such illusions. Somewhere under all that baroque imagery is a stark statement: no. It won’t work. The thing about the party at the end of the world is that the world ends anyway.
So Prospero’s guests hide from that truth behind their masks. What do his servants think, do you suppose? His entertainers, temporarily protected from the death outside as long as they meet the needs of the revelers? For them, the work must be the mask—and they fall the same way their masters do, with no distinction made.
What is it about masks? We want to see them, to know what people imagine of themselves, and we want them pulled away, to see people as they are. And we’re horrified when there is no mask, when the terrifying façade turns out to be bare truth.
Next week… we had a plan, which was totally undermined by Anne mentioning that John Langan wrote a “Masque” riff. Join us for “Technicolor,” which you can find in Langan’s Wide, Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies collection.
Ruthanna Emrys is the author of the Innsmouth Legacy series, including Winter Tide and Deep Roots. Her short story collection, Imperfect Commentaries, is now available from Lethe Press. You can find some of her fiction, neo-Lovecraftian and otherwise, on Tor.com, most recently “The Word of Flesh and Soul.” Ruthanna is online on Twitter and Patreon, and offline in a mysterious manor house with her large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.
Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story “The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com. Her young adult Mythos novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen along with sequel Fathomless. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.