Thursday, May 10, 2018

Edgar Allan Poe's Masque of the Red Death

The Masque (1842), even where it does not describe everything, draws in the way many successful stories do upon a common human treasury of archetypal fears or secondhand experiences. Like the reign of Caligula, which lasted three years but whose fame reaches us nearly two thousand years later, it feels far longer than it truly was.

It begins without compromise:
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 the horror of blood. There were sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores, with dissolution. The scarlet stains [. . .] were the pest ban which shut him out from the aid and from the sympathy of his fellow-men. And the whole seizure, progress and termination of the disease, were the incidents of half an hour.
The prince Prospero shuts himself and his court away from the pestilence.
The prince had provided all the appliances of pleasure. There were buffoons, there were improvisatori, there were ballet-dancers, there were musicians, there was Beauty, there was wine. All these and security were within. Without was the "Red Death."
He succeeds for around half a year. But his unwise interior decoration schemes already foreshadow doom:
Now in no one of the seven apartments was there any lamp or candelabrum, amid the profusion of golden ornaments that lay scattered to and fro or depended from the roof. [. . . ] But in the corridors that followed the suite, there stood, opposite to each window, a heavy tripod, bearing a brazier of fire that protected its rays through the tinted glass and so glaringly illumined the room. [. . .] But in the western or black chamber the effect of the fire-light that streamed upon the dark hangings through the blood-tinted panes, was ghastly in the extreme [. . .]
Also, the seventh apartment has been furnished with a clock. It rather bluntly suggests that time is running out.

AT THE time of the tale, the Prince holds a grand party for a thousand of his dearest friends, and proposes a masquerade, leading to a savagely chaotic scene:
There were much glare and glitter and piquancy and phantasm --much of what has been since seen in "Hernani." There were arabesque figures with unsuited limbs and appointments. There were delirious fancies such as the madman fashions.

But then the clock strikes midnight, and a new guest arrives at the party:
The figure was tall and gaunt, and shrouded from head to foot in the habiliments of the grave. The mask which concealed the visage was made so nearly to resemble the countenance of a stiffened corpse that the closest scrutiny must have had difficulty in detecting the cheat. And yet all this might have been endured, if not approved, by the mad revellers around. But the mummer had gone so far as to assume the type of the Red Death. His vesture was dabbled in blood --and his broad brow, with all the features of the face, was besprinkled with the scarlet horror.

The Wikipedia article warns against reading deeper meanings or messages into this story, and indeed — like part of the novel, Castle of Otranto, that is supposed to be Poe's inspiration — it might well be a mere recounting of a nightmare, or of a waking fantasy.

But I think it appeals also because it evidently sparks ideas that it never literally describes. Above all I like the span across times and places of the story. It is akin in spirit to the memento mori of the Middle Ages, the morbid skull in Hans Holbein the Younger's painting of the Ambassadors as well as Shakespeare's Hamlet, and rumination on the 'wages of sin' by figures as heterogeneous as American preachers and William Hogarth.

The lavish colours and wealth might be a reference to the Catholic Church, too — the gilding of inner corruption. But I'm thinking that mainly due to this week's lavish party at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in honour of the Catholic Church's influence on high fashion.


This tale, like his works generally, is even more striking against the background of Edgar Allan Poe's own life's story, I think. He certainly saw enough death and led a gruelling Dickensian life: in Boston and Virginia as a neglected or badly raised child*, over gambling tables as a youth, in and out of the enlisted army ranks and West Point (if I understand correctly, at least he never saw war), through the early deaths of his mother, brother Henry and wife Virginia from illnesses, etc. And there was his alcohol abuse.


* Worthy of the Child-Rearing Horrors hall of fame:
"the infant Edgar was farmed out first to grandparents and later to a nurse who dosed him and an infant sister with laudanum and gin."
From: "Eulogy for a master" by Hilary Spurling, in The Observer (January 27, 2008)

The Masque of the Red Death (Wikipedia)
Edgar Allan Poe (Wikipedia)

Illustration: From Poe's Tales of Mystery and Imagination. Illustrated by Arthur Rackham (1867–1939). Via Wikipedia

Masque of the Red Death quotations taken from The Masque of the Red Death by Edgar Allan Poe on the website of the University of Virginia.

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