Tuesday 16 September 2014

The Masque of the Red Death, Edgar Allan Poe

I may have mentioned before that I'm an enthusiastic fan of a good detective story. Like millions of people the world over I enjoy crime fiction. And I have a lot of time for Edgar Allan Poe, the man who created the genre.

Last night, as I struggled to get to sleep, I picked up his Masque of the Red Death, a short story written way back in 1848.

I was hooked from the beginning. It tells the story of Prince Prospero, who lives in a palatial abbey, whilst a terrible pestilence rages across the land.

Blood was its Avatar and its seal - the redness and the horror of blood. There were sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores, with dissolution. The scarlet stains upon the body and especially upon the face of the victim, were the pest ban which shut him out from the aid and from the sympathy of his fellow-men. And the whole seizure, progress and termination of the disease, were the incidents of half an hour.

Of course I immediately started to think about the Ebola epidemic in West Africa.

Prospero, we are told, was happy and dauntless and sagacious. He weathered the storm until his dominions were half depopulated, and then he decided to take action. He summoned one thousand hale and light-hearted knights and dames from his court, and, with them, he retired to the seclusion of his castellated home.

There they shut the doors and lived out their days, neither worrying nor caring about the suffering that was taking place in the world beyond.

After five or six months Prospero decided that he would throw a masked ball for his guests. He arranged the rooms of the apartment within the castle in which the ball was to take place in a succession of colours. The first room was blue, with vivid blue light coming through the stained glass windows, the second was purple and so on until they came to the last room, which was black within, decorated with black velvet and with a blood red light coming through the stained glass windows. Not many people came into this last room, perhaps because the severity of the black and the red made them think uncomfortable thoughts of the Red Death.

At every hour a clock in this chamber would sound the time, and all the festivities would stop whilst everyone listened to its chimes. At the stroke of midnight a stranger entered the apartment dressed as though he were a victim of the Red Death. His face was like the face of a corpse. His skin was stained with blood, and he was wrapped in a garment that looked like a shroud.

Prospero was furious that anyone should have ignored his injunction to party and forget about what was happening outside. Seizing his dagger he commanded his guests to catch the intruder and hang him by the neck until he was dead as punishment for his impertinence.

They pursued the ghostly figure, who fled through the succession of rooms until he was cornered in the last room. As the people laid their hands upon him they discovered, to their horror, that there was no substance, nothing at all, behind the outer garments and the terrible mask. The intruder was the Red Death itself. As soon as they touched the nothingness of its contagious core, they were immediately infected with the disease.

Within half an hour Prospero, and all his guests, lay dead, victims of the contagion.

I don't know how Poe conjured up the notion of the Red Death. The critics have never agreed as to whether he had an actual epidemic in mind. Some thought he may have been thinking about tuberculosis, from which his wife suffered. Others thought that typhoid might have been the inspiration. Or cholera. Or the Bubonic Plague. Had he written it today I think everyone would have been certain that it was the dreaded Ebola virus that he had in mind.

Whatever the way of it, it seems to me that there's lesson to be learnt from Prospero's fate, and that we really ought to be doing everything in our power to stamp out this horrible disease and to make the medicines that exist available to people in Africa as well as the western aid workers who get infected in their midst.

If you'd like to read the story, it's well out of copyright - and then some, you can download it for free as a kindle ebook here: The Masque of the Red Death.

All the best,

Bonny x


  1. I love Poe but didn't know of this book, so thanks for letting me know I can download it onto my Kindle. :)
    I've always read his books translated in Italian, so it's going to be interesting to read his writing style in the original language for the first time. :)

    1. My pleasure. Glad to have been able to help you link up to a free source of his stories. You can find most of his work on Amazon Kindle free to download at no cost. There are also lots of compilations that have been selected and critiqued and put together with new material to which copyright applies, and hence have to be paid for. But if you're happy to read Poe with no added gloss most of it's out there and free for the downloading. Enjoy! Bonny

  2. Sounds like an exciting read!

    1. It's an interesting read given what's going on at the moment. All the best and thanks for stopping by, Bonny