I’m not dead!
Today I am writing to you about The Masque of the Red Death.
This is a short story by Edgar Allan Poe that was published in 1982. In a nutshell, it is a story about a prince who wants to avoid the plague. He does so by holding a party in an abbey (Good lord this gives me flashbacks to news stories during COVID-19).
This is a very popular story and has been adapted more times than I can count. One version even starred Vincent Price. It has also been mentioned and referred to in countless other media.
Prince Prospero (Great name) is afraid of dying from the plague, as many people would be. The plague is referred to as the Red Death, due to the epic bleeding from the pores. So, he sequesters himself and a bunch of other noble-born people into an abbey. While there they hold elaborate parties across the abbey’s seven rooms. The last room is pretty foreboding and not a lot of people are brave enough to enter.
After midnight a new face appears, disguised as a Red Death victim. Prospero freaks out as this party crasher moves through each of the rooms. Eventually, he confronts the crasher and dies as a result. The Red Death costume is shown to contain absolutely nothing.
My Thoughts – General
I know I said this in the brief intro to this letter, but it bears repeating, holy shit this gives me COVID-19 news story vibes. I remember seeing so many stories all over YouTube in particular about COVID house parties. Admittedly Prospero’s party had a different vibe, he was killing time with his healthy friends while he waited for everyone outside to die of the Red Death. But even so, this hurts.
But that aside, this story has been analysed a lot, by smarter people than me and I agree with a lot of what is said. The Red Death can be a symbol for the inevitability of death, he can be a symbol for disease, it’s going to get into your rad party regardless.
This story is fantastic, not subtle, but wonderfully written with striking imagery, a simple impactful plot and simple but believable characters.
My thoughts – Characters
The main character of this story is Prince Prospero who is described as “happy and dauntless and sagacious”. Honestly, I think the word sagacious is probably in reference to the fact he is supposed to be learned not smart. Having a party during a plague isn’t smart, even if you don’t let new people in once you’ve started.
Overall, the dude is portrayed as pretty arrogant and very uncaring of the populace at large.
Due to this being a short story, character development doesn’t happen, Prospero ends the story in the same place he starts it. Though it could be construed that this is more a morality tale and Poe hoped to make the reader aware of undesirable character traits. Aka being a selfish douche will get you killed.
However Prospero is realistic, people are selfish and he acts in a very believable way. He’s afraid so he hides, his fear makes him angry when he sees the Red Death victim costume and he lashes out. While I didn’t like Prospero I certainly found him believable and his fear was relatable.
My Thoughts – Setting
The setting for this story is very gothic. It’s literally in an abbey that looks like a castle. So automatically you have a lot of gothic vibes going on. But Poe makes the setting unique with how it is organised for the party. Each of the seven rooms is different colours blue, purple, green, orange, white, and violet. The last room is the most striking, however, with it being black but illuminated by a deep red light. Poe was not subtle.
In this last room is a clock and every hour that it chimes the party stops until the chimes are finished and then restarts. The damn thing is ominous as all hell. Like I said Poe was not subtle in this story, the clock being a symbol for the passing of time, the party being life and noting how we stop once a year to mark the passage of time before getting on with the party.
My Thoughts – Plot
The plot is very simple, dick head throws a party while everyone dies outside, but whoops death got into the rad party, dude is mad, dude dies, everyone dies.
But being simple is not a bad thing, not at all, it makes the story impactful, its message is clear and Poe was fantastic at crafting imagery and suspense. I don’t know if it is fair to call the story predictable, it has been adapted over and over again and is referenced a lot, so it’s hard not to go into this story and not recognise tropes etc. But that’s not to say the story is predictable.
It’s worth noting that the story has been adapted and referenced so much because it’s a damn good story.
The stakes are pretty obvious, Prospero wants to know who the hell crashed his party in a distasteful costume. The mystery of who the uninvited guest is is compelling and the payoff at the end is great.
My Thoughts – Theme
Despite the story being simple, there has been a lot of discussion about how to interoperate the theme. It’s no secret that Poe was not a fan of dictatorships, and the story is not shy about showing how those with power can abuse it for selfish ends.
Honestly, I’m not sure what the actual central theme is. Prospero sucks, he doesn’t care about the common folk dying outside, he thinks he’s safe with his rich buddies and he’s bored so he throws a party. He’s not painted in a great light. But he’s not exactly a villain either. He’s a scared chap, isolating himself and his buddies from a disease.
The story taps into our fears of death, disease, of having an invisible enemy who can come and go as they please while doing devastating damage. But giving death/disease a physical form in the costume Poe effectively turns it into a monster. But the story does more than that, there is the obvious societal tension in that the rich can isolate and party while the common folk are left to die outside, unable to protect themselves (though the rich were ultimately unable to protect themselves either). Which reflects our own experience during the recent pandemic, where those who worked white coller jobs were for the most part able to isolate and work from home while many blue coller workers were unable to.
Overall I am a big fan of this short but impactful story and recommend you read it in its original form as well as its adapted ones.