This is the second time I am reviewing a piece from the great horror master Edgar Allan Poe. The first was The Fall of the House of Usher. That review was so much fun to write! After all, it was one of my favorite horror stories when I was growing up. On the other hand, I had just learned of the existence of The Masque of the Red Death the other day. Let’s face it, as noteworthy as Poe is, I am just not an expert on his library of works. I received a vague description of the story’s themes from a colleague. It seemed interesting and so I went ahead and read this short story. I was not disappointed.
Here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to put forth a plot summary and then an analysis.
Sound good? But of course it does!
[Spoilers below – oh no, oh no! Spoilers below – oh no, oh no! ]
The Masque of the Red Death takes place in the Middle Ages. A plague is afoot. Countrymen are being struck down by the “Red Death”. This contagious disease is quite nasty. Blood spills out of the pores, decorating the skin with streaks of foul red; hence the term “Red Death”. Prince Prospero will have none of this. He decides that he will not fall prey to this disease, nor will about a thousand of his favorite citizens. To protect himself and his favored parties, he fortifies them in his castle. A rather bizarre castle it is!
There are seven apartments and the only thing that lights up these rooms comes from outside the suites. There are corridors running alongside these rooms. Each corridor/room wall has a window made of stained glass of varying colors. Lit candles sit beside the window glass on the corridor side. The candlelight shines through these colored filters and fills the room with the hue of the corresponding stained glass. Some rooms are warmly blue, others are magnetically purple. Some are a grand ol’ green.
What are the guests to do in these rooms? Party on down, of course! There are jesters and musicians. There is plenty of food and drink. The guests are having a “gay old time” (WILMA!!!!!!!!) They dress in fine costumes. After all, this is a masquerade party!
Oops-a-daisy! I forgot to mention the oddest room of all. The candle shines through a stained glass of red. A velvet hue smothers the room with a frightening reminder of the “Red Death” that lurks outside these castle walls. (“Far beyond these castle walls….”) Black tapestries hang down from the ceiling. In front of them stands a large ebony clock that for reasons to be explained later is quite unsettling. Suffice it to say, this is not a popular room. The partygoers stay away from the room; it is forebodingly empty.
It’s a happening party! Most of the time. The key word in the previous sentence is “time.” The ebony clock chimes loudly on the hour, every hour. When this happens, the music stops and the party people chill out. A contemplative set of moments overtakes them. How bizarre! When the clock goes silent, the party resumes and the frolicking continues.
It is nearing midnight when people take notice of a cloaked figure. This strange character wears a mask that mimics a deceased victim of The Red Death. The face is corpse-like. It has streaks of blood dripping out of its eyes. Prince Prospero is incensed. How dare someone make a mockery of the dreadful disease and its plight of terror! The figure traipses though all the rooms; blue, purple, green, on and on until finally it reaches the red room. The Prince follows. He corners the phantom.
The midnight chimes fill the chamber. The cloaked figure turns to face Prince Prospero. The Prince drops dead. Members of his court rush the red room. They unmask the figure. There is no one inside the costume. Then, everyone dies. All of them! The fortification of the castle could not save them. The Red Death is the victor.
It took me thirty odd years to arrive at a satisfactory understanding of The Fall of the House of Usher. I had only read the “children’s” version when I was young and didn’t tackle the original story until 2015. Even after reading it, I had to refer to certain websites (Poedecoder.com and Sparknotes.com) in order to obtain a comprehensive comprehension. (“comprehensive comprehension” – those two words together, don’t they sound funny?) Let’s see if I can do better the second time around. Instead of taking thirty + years to arrive at position where I am able to submit an analysis, I think this time I will only need a day or two. Two nights ago I read the story and today I will analyze it. Furthermore, I will not use the aid of “poedecoder”, at least not beforehand. This time I will seek out an alternative source – my own mind. Afterwards, I will check with Poedecoder.com and Sparknotes and see if our analyses are similar.
Let me take a deep breath….Done! Okay, here I go –
The cloaked figure is death itself. The party is a microcosm of humanity in general. Many people see life as a mechanism to fulfill their casual whims . They are fortified in their falsehoods of security; rarely realizing the ultimate fragility of their existence. Only now and then do they stop and contemplate their own mortal nature. But these contemplative sessions are brief and the people go on with their amusements. However, it’s a rigged game. Soon or later they will meet death. Death finds us all.
That’s about the gist of it. Let’s see what others have to say, like Martha Womack at poedecoder:
“The prince’s name suggests happiness and good fortune, and the prince, just like all beings uses happiness to wall out the threat of death.”
~ Martha Womack
I agree. I sort of mentioned this, not in the same words but the general meaning is the same. Let’s see what else Womack has for us:
“Poe’s story takes place in seven connected but carefully separated rooms. This reminds the reader of the past significance of the number seven. (The history of the world was thought to consist of seven ages, just as an individual’s life had seven stages. The ancient world had seven wonders; universities divided learning into seven subjects; there were seven deadly sins with seven corresponding cardinal virtues, and the number seven is important in mysticism.”
~ Martha Womack
Well I didn’t get into any of that! Interesting. Anything else, Martha?
“We hear the echoes of the “ebony clocks” that we carry within.”
In other words, it’s our own biological clock that is ticking away. Time is running out on us. There is also a nice bit of analysis going on within Sparknotes.com.
What wisdom to these folks have for us?
“The clock that presides over that room also reminds the guests of death’s final judgment. The hourly ringing of the bells is a reminder of the passing of time, inexorable and ultimately personal.”
Agreed. That’s similar to what I wrote about how the clock chimes to the pause and bewilderment of the guests. The recurring but temporary reflections upon death that come at different life stages – these life events remind us all of the inevitability of death and give us reason to pause. But I don’t think either source, poedecoder or Sparknotes, specifically made reference to how the people of the party would casually resume their partying once the “death reminder” ceased to hold them hostage. We think of death and then we go on and put it out of our minds. Rarely are we ever fully prepared when death makes its final calling. At the same time, both sources have analyses that I did not mention, nor had I thought out. They are excellent reference pages.
Well, that’s all I got. Except perhaps for one more mental note. Should The Masque of the Red Death be considered a haunted house story? I think it qualifies. The whole story takes place in the strange castle that harbors mysterious rooms of mood-enhancing color, a scary clock that chimes to the somber attention of the guests, and a masked phantom of ethereal substance the brings forth death. That all seems pretty haunted to me. What do you think?