The Masque of the Red Death

A story that has long haunted me is Edgar Allen Poe's The Masque of the Red Death. It's a story about denial, about the lengths people will go to to evade reality and about how such attempts can produce a kind of deranged ecstasy and can even seem, for a surprisingly long time, to have worked. But the party can't last forever.

The tale is set in an unidentified Medieval land that has been ravaged by a plague, the "Red Death." The country's ruler Prince Prospero, "happy and dauntless and sagacious", attempts to escape the pestilence by hiding out in an abbey with a thousand of his retainers.

This was an extensive and magnificent structure, the creation of the prince's own eccentric yet august taste. A strong and lofty wall girdled it in. This wall had gates of iron. The courtiers, having entered, brought furnaces and massy hammers and welded the bolts. They resolved to leave means neither of ingress or egress to the sudden impulses of despair or of frenzy from within. The abbey was amply provisioned. With such precautions the courtiers might bid defiance to contagion. The external world could take care of itself. In the meantime it was folly to grieve, or to think. 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."

No-one is allowed in; but significantly, no-one is allowed out, either. The implication is that if any of the guests fell victim to an overwhelming desire to escape, to finally look the Red Death in the face, to get it all over with, it would mean not only their destruction but that of those who remained inside the fortress.

The courtiers embark on a mammoth party in a set of decadently appointed chambers. They almost manage to shut out the memory of the plague, except that in one of the rooms there is a rather sinister clock:

Its pendulum swung to and fro with a dull, heavy, monotonous clang; and when the minute-hand made the circuit of the face, and the hour was to be stricken, there came from the brazen lungs of the clock a sound which was clear and loud and deep and exceedingly musical, but of so peculiar a note and emphasis that, at each lapse of an hour, the musicians of the orchestra were constrained to pause, momentarily, in their performance, to hearken to the sound; and, while the chimes of the clock yet rang, it was observed that the giddiest grew pale, and the more aged and sedate passed their hands over their brows as if in confused reverie or meditation. But when the echoes had fully ceased, a light laughter at once pervaded the assembly; the musicians looked at each other and smiled as if at their own nervousness and folly, and made whispering vows, each to the other, that the next chiming of the clock should produce in them no similar emotion; and then, after the lapse of sixty minutes, there came yet another chiming of the clock, and then were the same disconcert and tremulousness and meditation as before.

The clock is an excellent touch, I think. It represents reality periodically breaking through the consensus of denial. Everyone starts worrying as the enormity of their predicament bears down on them. There are some sounds you can't ignore, even if you're determined to put your fingers in your ears. Maybe this time. But the clock falls silent, the mood passes and the dance resumes again. I can't help thinking, though, that each time the smiles are a little more fixed, the jollity more forced and the conviction that the Red Death can be kept out just a little less impregnable.

When the clock finally strikes midnight the revellers become aware of an uninvited guest, wearing a skull-like mask and a blood-bespattered robe. Challenged, he reveals himself to be the Red Death himself; and everyone drops down dead. "And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all."


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