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Mask of the Red Death: A Fantasy by Edgar…

Mask of the Red Death: A Fantasy (original 1842; edition 1969)

by Edgar Allan Poe, Federico Castellon (Illustrator)

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3841028,030 (3.93)30
Title:Mask of the Red Death: A Fantasy
Authors:Edgar Allan Poe
Other authors:Federico Castellon (Illustrator)
Info:Aquarius Press (1969), Edition: First Thus, Hardcover
Collections:Misc Limited Editions
Tags:Aquarius Press

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The Masque of the Red Death by Edgar Allan Poe (1842)



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I’ve always felt a strong connection to Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death, perhaps because I listen to loads of medieval music, perhaps because I enjoy the art and history and philosophy of that period, or, perhaps because I’ve always been drawn to literature dealing with issues of life and death. Whatever the reason, I love this tale. Here are my reflections on several themes:

The Reality – The tale’s Red Death sounds like the Black Death of 1349 where a family member could be perfectly healthy in the morning, start feeling sick at noon, spit blood and be in excruciating pain in the evening and be dead by midnight. It was that quick. Living at the time of the Black Death, one Italian chronicler wrote, “They died by the hundreds, both day and night, and all were thrown in ... ditches and covered with earth. And as soon as those ditches were filled, more were dug. And I, Agnolo di Tura ... buried my five children with my own hands ... And so many died that all believed it was the end of the world.”

The Denial – Let the Red Death take those on the outside. Prince Prospero took steps to make sure his castle would be a sanctuary, a secure refuge where, once bolted inside, amid a carefully constructed world of festival, a thousand choice friends could revel in merriment with jugglers, musicians, dancers and an unlimited supply of wine. And then, “It was toward the close of the fifth or sixth month of his seclusion, and while the pestilence raged most furiously abroad, that the Prince Prospero entertained his thousand friends at a masked ball of the most unusual magnificence. It was a voluptuous scene, that masquerade.” Classic Edgar Allan Poe foreshadowing.

The Number Seven – The prince constructed seven rooms for his revelers. And there is all that medieval symbolism for the number seven, such as seven gifts of the holy spirit, Seven Seals from the Book of Revelation, seven liberal arts, the seven virtues and, of course, the seven deadly sins (gluttony, lechery, avarice, luxury, wrath, envy, and sloth), which sounds like a catalogue of activities within the castle walls.

The Seventh Room or The Black Chamber – Keeping in mind the medieval symbolism for the color black with associations of darkness, evil, the devil, power and secrecy, we read, “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, and produced so wild a look upon the countenances of those who entered, that there were few of the company bold enough to set foot within its precincts at all.” We are told the prince’s plans were bold and fiery and barbaric, but, as we read the tale, we see how even a powerful prince can be outflanked by the fiery and chaotic side of life itself.

The Clock – This seventh chamber has a huge ebony clanging clock. A reminder for both eye and ear that the prince can supply his revelers and himself with an unlimited supply of wine but there is one thing he doesn’t have the power to provide – an unlimited amount of time.

The Unexpected Masker – When the clock clangs twelve times, a tall, gaunt, blood-spotted, corpse-like reveler appears in the black chamber. Poe, master storyteller that he is, pens one of my all-time favorite lines: “Even with the utterly lost, to whom life and death are equally jests, there are matters of which no jest can be made.” Not a lot of merriment once the revelers start dropping like blood-covered, despairing flies.

The Psychological Tale – We read how there are some who think the prince mad. After all, what is a Poe tale without the possibility of madness? Additionally, when the revelers attempt to seize the intruder with his grey garments and corpse-like mask, they come away with nothing. If these revelers were minutes from an agonizing plague-induced death, how sharp are their senses, really? To what extent is their experience the play of the mind?

( )
1 vote GlennRussell | Feb 16, 2017 |
In one of my Literature textbooks, this is the story the book chose to best set the example of how important setting can be to a story.

Poe's incredible talent in setting mood through the most miniscule of details is powerful as he establishes dread, irony, and a hefty infusion of Gothic feel by detailing the colors of a series of rooms and what they represent to the audience and characters. The symbolism of the clock is musical and alluring; the ominous clang and the dancers reactions, with its dong indicating the time, further spells out a foreboding mood and tone.

Even the pattern the rooms are walked through speaks volumes. The first room as light blue can symbolize brightness and innocence, skies and springs and births and new beginnings. Each of the seven rooms has a window, all with the color matching the interior of their walls, the exception being the final, seventh room: black.

Poe has stated that stories are best enjoyed if they can be read in one sitting. The Masque of the Red Death is indeed short, only a few pages long, and so it should speak volumes that Poe chose this short space to go into detail about the rooms. He goes into the most detail about the black, final room as its significance - death, the ultimate end, the irony - is the most important element of the story. It is also in this room that the clock beckons and waits.

Without getting into details about any of the characters, Poe concentrates on setting and the most important and only qualities about the prince that the audience needs to know - his fear of the Red Plague and death, his ultimate arrogance in the face of death, believing he can seal it off and defeat it by abiding within his castle walls.

The party-goers feel the same, reassured by the self-imposed power the prince claims, dancing around at midnight behind their masks, stopping only when the clock chimes its ominous call, feeling a small hesitation but quickly ignoring it again as they resume merry dancing and happily embracing false securities. Death as the ultimate, inevitable force erupts onto the party. The prince then proceeds from room to room in a circular order, indicating from life to different stages of color, to the inevitable black which is the end room, from which there is no escape.

Poe was an original type of writer who aspired to make a solid career as a literary critic. Confident in his writing ability and seeking to inject freshness into words by developing the world's first detective story and gothic pieces which whispered doses of irony, he isn't the type to resort to already used phrases or cliches. Because of this, I find high relevance in the ending paragraph, where he writes:

And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night.

Instantly I recognized "come like a thief in the night" as the biblical words spoken by Jesus when referring to the apocalypse. It would come without warning and begin the reign of death, as He comes "like a thief in the night."

A powerful tale about the finality of an ending which can't be avoided, Poe is to be admired for capturing such a significant range of emotions using creative settings in a short span of pages. ( )
  ErinPaperbackstash | Jun 14, 2016 |
Rich in symbolism, a fast and entertaining read on the inevitability of death. ( )
  bdtrump | May 9, 2015 |
A hauntingly gothic tale showing that no one is safe from death and disease. Not the arrogant, the rich or the privileged can escape it's clutches. It's only a matter of time. Tick, tock. ( )
  Cynical_Ames | Sep 23, 2014 |
I have never read anything by Edgar Allan Poe before, and I've always been a bit worried about attempting to because of the hype around his writing and the reputation he has in literature.
I found this short story amazing! It's beautifully written in a poetic, descriptive way, and even though there isn't really much of a horror aspect, the atmosphere created by the language used has you gripped from the beginning, expecting the worst. ( )
  charlottejones952 | Sep 2, 2013 |
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The "Red Death" had long devastated the country.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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A single short work. Do not combine with collections containting other stories
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Prince Prospero and a thousand of his followers shut themselves away in a vast abbey to avoid the dreaded Red Death.

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