30 Stories, Day 2: The Masque of the Red Death

The Masque of the Red Death

“The Masque of the Red Death” by Edgar Allen Poe

“There were sharp pains, sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores, with dissolution. The scarlet stains upon the body and especially upon the face of the victim…shut him out from the aid and from the sympathy of his fellowmen. And the whole seizure, progress, and termination of the disease, were the incidents of half an hour.”

Synopsis: An omniscient narrator tells of the Red Death, a plague-like epidemic devastating the land, and the land’s prince, Prospero, who ignores the cries of people and shuts himself, along with a thousand nobles, inside a great imperial abbey. Safely separated from the diseased world, Prospero and the courtiers eat and drink and dance in the cheer of a ceaseless masque. Despite the lavish and gay atmosphere there is a wordless unease among them—a certain ebony clock in a room with glaring red windows makes the music die and the courtiers pause at every hourly knell—but all continue largely unbothered until a gaunt figure, clad in grave wrappings and wearing a mask of blood, is noticed. Prince Prospero confronts him and the figure is revealed to be none other than the Red Death, a horrific entity without face or form. All fall to ruin.

Favorite line: “Who dares?”

This is the first (and almost only) spoken line in the entire story. It is uttered by Prince Prospero when courtiers first notice (and take offense at) the figure in ominous costume.

Observations: Told by an omniscient narrator, this story captures something I have never attempted but very much admire: the sort of storytelling voice of old; one used for legacies, fables, and stories told by candlelight at the bedside; one that creates a presence in itself, even if the narrator is nameless and removed. I’ll definitely come back to it if I ever attempt to write anything like that.

Another element that struck me was the play of color in the story: one which might be seen as symbolic, but even if not specifically interpreted still a powerful device. Let me elaborate: there are seven chambers in Prospero’s imperial suite, and each are adorned in a different color: blue, purple, green, orange, white, violet, and black. The black room features red-tinted windows and is the most avoided of the chambers. One needn’t a specific symbolic interpretation to feel the foreboding in those details. The ebony clock also resides in this fearsome room, and sends chills down the courtier’s spines every hour. To me such details are wonderfully portentous, and I get a sense of blood and death even before I know what’s coming.

According to the ever-wise Wikipedia, The Masque of the Red Death is sometimes looked at as an allegory for the inevitability of death. I can appreciate that interpretation, though I think the story stands well enough simply as a gothic bedtime story.

This was a brilliant read for me as I am currently researching epidemics.


 brazier: a barbeque; a portable heater with a stand for lighted coals

perforce: (adverb) used to express necessity or inevitability

habiliment: clothing

vesture: clothing

besprinkled: means what it sounds like. I just love it.

untenanted: unoccupied

mummer: a person who wears a mask or fantastic costume in traditional masked mime

Another story tomorrow, dear readers. Until then!

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