“The ‘Red Death’ had long devastated the country. No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous. Blood was its Avatar and its seal – the redness and the horror of blood ….”
So begins “The Masque of the Red Death,” a short story written by Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) in 1842.
In the very next paragraph, we learn: “But the Prince Prospero was happy and dauntless and sagacious.” After the plague had depopulated half of his realm, the prince brought together “a thousand hale and light-hearted friends from among the knights and dames of his court,” took them into one of his well-fortified abbeys, filled it with bountiful provisions, and then sealed all the exits and entrances.
Poe wrote, “With such precautions the courtiers might bid defiance to contagion. The external world could take care of itself.” Translation: Prince Prospero and his cronies would eat, drink and be merry within the safety of the Medieval abbey, while beyond its thick walls the Red Death would continue to devour the commoners.
After five or six months had passed, the prince decided to entertain his thousand guests with a masked ball in the “imperial suite,” an odd configuration of seven rooms arranged so that the revelers could see only one room at a time. Each room was dressed in its own color, proceeding from east to west: blue, purple, green, orange, white, violet and – last of all – black. Against the western wall of the seventh, darkest, western-most room stood a huge ebony grandfather clock.
The prince’s “plans were bold and fiery, and his conceptions glowed with barbarous lustre [sic]. There are some who would have thought him mad. His followers felt that he was not.”
The night of the masked ball turned out to be a thrill of food and drink and music and dance. “There were much of the beautiful, much of the wanton, much of the bizarre, something of the terrible, and not a little of that which might have excited disgust.” The one interruption was the hourly chiming of the grandfather clock, which brought the revelry to a brief standstill, only to resume a moment later with even greater abandon.
By the time the clock struck 12, the Red Death had made its way into the abbey, dressed in a shroud and wearing a corpse-like mask. Within minutes, not a single reveler remained alive. The Red Death “had come like a thief in the night … and Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.”
What most of us remember about Poe are such horror tales as “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Pit and the Pendulum.” These stories offer far more than a good scare; through the sheer intensity of their language, they force us to peer into the heart of the darkness of our own souls.
Poe rips off the thin mask of our civility and demands that we confront our most malignant urges, our most paralyzing fears. His tales of torture and mutilation and savage revenge lead us to question the very meaning of our humanity. At the same time, these stories bring us to the edge of the abyss of our own mortality; Poe seems to be obsessed by the inevitability of his own death, and we who read Poe cannot avoid feeling this dread of the onrush of nothingness.
While “The Masque of the Red Death” carries much of the horror and dread of Poe’s better-known tales, this story – in striking contrast to most of his journeys into the macabre – abounds with symbols that cry out for allegorical interpretation: the seven rooms in which the ball is held, each with its own color; the huge ebony grandfather clock that brings the merriment to a temporary halt with its ominous gong-like chiming every hour on the hour; the masks that the courtiers wear at the ball. The symbolism is, of course, ambiguous, so that readers will read their own lived experiences into Poe’s fiction.
I first read “The Masque of the Red Death” decades ago, and would not have gone back to it were it not for a recent coronavirus phone conversation with my friend, Dr. Ronald Kurtzman. Just before we hung up, Ron, an English major in college, urged me to take another look at Poe’s short story, suggesting that it would offer me some profound insight into our nation’s ineffectual response to today’s plague, COVID-19.
Poe’s “Red Death” is a made-up disease; nevertheless, the tale derives its dark power from the all-too-real plagues that have periodically threatened humankind throughout recorded history. In this story, Poe taps into the buried fear of devastating disease that lies deep within our subconscious – or perhaps within the even-more-deeply-imbedded unconscious of us all.
Writing this story back in 1842, Poe foretells how our current plague has divided Americans at a time when only unity can save us. Large numbers of our political leaders seem to see themselves as Prince Prospero, “happy and dauntless and sagacious,” walled off in their fortified abbey of ignorance and indifference. While many will call them mad, their followers do not think so. And thus we persist in our national folly of denial, long after the coronavirus has established itself as Public Enemy Number One.
America is not some Medieval fiefdom. If we are to survive the multiple crises that could well undo our democracy, we must find a way to bridge the gap between “us” and “them” and affirm that we are each other.
JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim, in Barrington. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.