Tuesday, March 23, 2010


“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.”

Rightly considered the founding-father of the modern horror story, Edgar Allen Poe wrote a number of stories that are among some of the best tales of horror ever committed to paper – including, but not limited to, The Tell-Tale Heart, The Fall of the House of Usher, The Cask of Amontillado, The Black Cat, The Pit and the Pendulum, Ligeia and The Masque of the Red Death.

A brief, atmospheric and chilling tale, The Masque of the Red Death concerns a certain Prince Prospero who, when the countryside is ravaged by the Red Death, summons ‘to his presence a thousand hale and hearty friends’ who proceed to seal themselves into one of the Prince’s abbeys in order to wait out the pestilence.

“There were buffoons, there were improvisatori, there were ballet dancers, there were musicians, there was Beauty, there was wine. All these and security was within. Without was the Red Death.”

For months to come the inhabitants of the abbey content themselves with an endless party, until Prospero throws a masquerade. But one of the masked revelers decides to wear a totally inappropriate costume ‘The figure was tall and gaunt, and shrouded from head to foot in the habilments of the grave. The mask which concealed the visage was made so nearly to resemble the countenance of a stiffened corpse that the closest scrutiny must have had difficulty in detecting the cheat….But the mummer had gone so far as to assume the type of the Red Death. His vesture was dabbled in blood – and his broad brow, with all the features of his face, was besprinkled with the scarlet horror.”

Naturally somewhat annoyed by this, Prospero orders his courtiers to “seize and unmask him – that we may know whom we have to hang, at sunrise, from the battlements’. Unfortunately for all concerned, and firstly Prince Prospero himself, the masked figure is not simply a guest playing a tasteless joke, but the actual Red Death come to claim them all.

And that’s about it. Moreover, for most of the story’s short duration, a good half of the pages are taken up with ever more lavish descriptions of Prospero’s rooms and the effects that a simple striking clock has upon the revelers. And yet The Masque of the Red Death is such a brilliantly constructed tale, with an almost palpable sense of doom pervading it from the first words to the last, that ‘modern’ interpretations of its narrative and pace are both meaningless and pointless.

As a condemnation of the upper classes it is matchless, as an exercise in creating mood it is without peer and as a quick, creepy read by the fireside (preferably with a howling wind outside) there isn’t another story of its kind to touch it (except those written by Poe himself).

The justly lauded 1964 film version directed by Roger Corman and starring Vincent Price, expanded much upon Poe – bringing in Satan worship, a romantic sub-plot, narrative elements from yet another Poe story, Hop-Frog and lush cinematography from Nicholas Roeg - but the original short has a gothic power all of its own and a lingering eeriness that prefigured such writers as H.P Lovecraft and M.R James.

A classic supernatural tale and one that any writer of the fantastic should be familiar with.

“And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.”

No comments:

Post a Comment