Reading the Masque of the Red Death
during the coronavirus plague
(I read MOTRD a couple of nights ago, for the first time, at a friend’s suggestion. Beats me how this story got past me, as I read tons of Poe when I was in high school, and had a beautiful little edition, bound in leather and printed on bible-thin paper, of the complete tales and poems. So this was my first reading of it.
I wanted to see how much detail I’d retained from reading it two nights ago. Quite a lot, it turns out:)
In the Masque of the Red Death, a horrible plague is boiling around town. You get it, you bleed from your face, you’re dead in half an hour. Prince Prospero thinks, well, fuck this, and let’s keep the party going for as long as we can. So he gathers up all the beautiful people, and there are a lot of them, it’s a good looking kingdom if you have the spondulicks, and sticks them behind A Big Beautiful Wall, so the party is on the inside and the disease and death are on the outside. Just as it should be, if you’re inside the red velvet rope.
A kind of picture of life on earth. Anything off the globe is death: radiation, airless, burning or freezing. Life and the party is here, on the little blue marble, for as long as it lasts.
So they party in the ‘castellated’ fortress, as Poe says. They seal themselves off with ‘massy’ hammers, a word I can only find once in literature, here.
I wish I could spend all my life just buried in those words and enjoying them and thinking about them. When I stop writing for awhile and come back to it I am always in shock at how much I am in love with it, with words, with sentences, with paragraphs, with the material things that are writing, the organization of black marks on a white surface (in my case).
Inside the fortress the guests party and dance — but once an hour, a clock tolls, and the tintinnabulation, the tolling and the rolling of the chimes, chimes, chimes is so weird that people stop dancing and stand aghast, I guess you might say. Then the tolling of the clock stops and they get back to the party.
Our own mortality, our remembering every now and again that we live in time, creatures of time, subjects of time, victims of time.
The party goes on in seven rooms, arranged in order: you have to go through all the ones before to get to any individual room. Each room is painted in a color — blue, yellow, green, purple, orange, white, the curtains match the rug, as it were — and the window matches, but the last room is black with blood red windows.
No room is lit from within, but from outside. There are two colored windows in each room, one centered on the left wall, the other on the right. Outside each window, shining in, is a single torch, sending light through the colored windows. In the black room, with windows of blood red glass, there are no guests: the effect of the torchlight shining through is too ghastly.
In any case, the Prince is happy with this party. All is well. Then the weird guest shows up and ruins everything.
He’s tall, dressed in weird clothes, gives off a bad vibe. He’s very unpopular and so icky and creepy. No one wants to talk to him although they don’t want to disrespect him by questioning how he chooses to present. It’s just that he chooses to present as something dark and foreboding and scary as fuck. But you know: it’s his choice and we totally support him in it.
Did I mention he’s wearing a “masque?” He’s wearing a mask.
Scary A.F. Mask Guy passes from room to room, the guests parting like the sea as the prow of a ship plows through it, fading back to each side as he passes, everyone busy staying the hell away from him, although that’s in no way saying that the party isn’t totally inclusive and not at all discriminatory towards fluid race and gender. Actually, that is what the party is saying, you’re either in or you’re out, and they’re excluding the living from the dead, after all, parsing out the lively from the still, the quick from the stopped.
Prince Prospero sees what’s going on and he’s outraged. Who the hell let Mr Grim Apparition in? Where was the door policy? Who was at the rope? The Prince goes into a rage, as Princes are wont to do. All he wanted to do was have a nice party and get away from death for awhile and now this has to happen. It’s just not fair.
The G.A. passes from room to room, and finally ends up in the black room with the blood red window. The Prince follows him in there with a sword and runs him through — — and the clothes drop away and there’s nothing inside.
And a moment later, the fever hits the Prince, and he drops to the ground screaming and writhing and bleeding from his face, and he dies like that, twisted and bloody on the ground. Probably has a look of shock and horror on his face as he realizes, this wasn’t a human being —
— it was the Red Death itself.
The last thing the Prince in his dying delirium hears outside the black room is his guests screaming and collapsing and dying, on the tolling of the clock, as the virus, that has been infected in every one of them as the apparition in the masque pass through their particular room, sweeps over each one of them, man, woman and child, and kills them all.
From the scientific point of view, this is the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. Temperature inside and outside the walls now matched. Equilibrium had been achieved. Life is disequlibrium, and accident, a wrinkle in the universe’s smooth surface. But time is here to help, and it eventually smooths out all those wrinkles and the temperature of the universe will be constant and uniform from stem to stern. If you like your balances restored, and for your accounts to come out even, you have no choice but to view this story as having a happy ending. The universe was set right.
Viruses don’t hate you, they just like the universe better.
(Note: I wrote this in a thirty minute spurt, more or less, in a Zoom session with the Writer’s Room in New York (writersroom.org)).