Cold Reads: The Masque of the Red Death by Edgar Allan Poe
Cold Reads celebrates Writer of the Month! Throughout August, we will be studying the works of Edgar Allan Poe and celebrating his massive contributions to the horror genre.
Perfect in every possible way, Edgar Allan Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death" remains to this reviewer a tour de force of horror and literature. In some ways it exceeds "The Tell-Tale Heart" in its greatness and beauty, making it the perfect tribute to end this month of appreciations to a master.
The hideous Red Death may be ravaging the land, but this mere trifle does not disturb Prince Prospero in the least. Gathering his closest of friends in his secure abbey, the prince holds a magnificent costumed ball to alleviate the minds of his guests from the bothersome reaper who knocks at the door. But as the music swells and the great ebony clock rings out its eerie chimes, a mysterious guest makes himself present amongst the crowd...
Poe draws heavily upon imagery and colors in this tale, providing rich, luscious detail that makes the story seem to have a dream-like and unreal aura about it. The many rooms of the castle are all hued in different shades, everything from the paneling to the floor drenched in greens, blues, yellows, and velvets. The most sinister room of all is the black room. Its grim structure and ghastly darkness is only lit by the glow of a scarlet window, giving it the appearance of a drop of blood on a festering bruise. This is the room where the great musical clock resides in, the ringing of which causes all the castle's inhabitants to cease their motions and draw their attention to the strange song. It represents the death they are all trying to avoid so desperately, always the subject of their lurid fascination as well as their intense horror.
The masquerade itself is a great metaphor for society's ignorance of death. Instead of aiding the people of his village by caring for the diseased, Prospero chooses to literally seal himself off from the rest of the world in order to maintain the merriment he has become so accustomed to. The masquerade is similar to the origins of Halloween: people dressing up in outlandish costumes in order to blend in and go unnoticed by the spirits of evil. But as seen in the bloody conclusion, no man or woman remains untouched by Death, regardless of whatever social "mask" they may wear.
The arrival of the Red Death at the ball is operatic in scale. The costumed specter in red floating about the dark chambers of the Gothic castle is an image likely not to be forgotten by most. The tale is flawless in each element, one of the main reasons being its brevity. It slowly builds the simple storyline and surreal setting to a thrilling climax that seems to arrive with the resonant smash of a gong but somehow all the while maintaining the tune of an eerie lullaby. And that is what "The Masque of the Red Death" ultimately is: a macabre dance with the dead set to the mad fiddle of a genius named Poe.
As seen throughout this month, Edgar Allan Poe was a literary giant in his time and continues to be so to this day. His tales of mystery and imagination still have the power to enthrall, entice, and horrify readers of all ages and backgrounds. For a man who suffered as torturous a life as he, he has given the world poems and stories that possess a powerful beauty behind all the twisted shapes and shadows that occupy them. The man, the work, and the legacy will never be forgotten. And the world is all the better for it.