"There was an uneasy cessation of all things..."
Edgar Allen Poe, "The Masque of the Red Death"
Last week: Louisa May Alcott, Little Women, Chapter 34 & 35 (1868)
This week: Edgar Allen Poe, “The Masque of the Red Death” (1842)
Next week: Walt Whitman, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” (1856)
At noon precisely on the first Monday of the month, the Dutch Ministry of Justice and Security tests the “public warning siren” for 1 minute 26 seconds. (The local name is luchtalarm, a reminder that these are air raid sirens, 4200 of them. For that reason, they are never sounded on Remembrance day.)
This Monday I was standing directly underneath the alarm at Den Haag Centraal Station when it went off. A completely surreal experience — a deafening siren sounds, and the crowds walking to and fro across the square did not hesitate, not a missed step. I coasted on my bike as I went by couples, families, people walking, catching the tram, checking their phones… as though the sunshiny brisk Monday air was not filled, tremulously, with the Official Sound of Panic. It goes without saying that I may never get used to the sound of air raid sirens. My mind says, “Oh it must be the noon,” but my body says “Take Cover”!
Then, around the corner I came across a group of protestors who had dropped to the ground and play acted dead at the first sound of the sirens. Like an Act Up protest, they stretched across the bridge — and so pedestrians carefully wound through the people now lying on the ground, traffic was stopped, and cyclists hopped off to walk their bikes around the bodies. One woman hopped up with a bullhorn when the siren ceased: “Dit is geen oefening! This is not a drill! Sound the siren for the Klimaat!” Her voice filled the silence after the noise, and still, few stopped to listen.
This week, as I watched the people walking through the sunshine with their Monday downtown strut, I thought of the text I had up for today: “The Masque of the Red Death” by Edgar Allen Poe (1809-1849), published in 1842. This was a story I paused on teaching for many years as we suffered through the pandemic. I brought it back this year, since Poe is having a bit of a moment, thanks to Netflix.
“The Masque of the Red Death” is a good introduction to the American Short Story at mid-nineteenth century. Last week, I talked about how Louisa May Alcott, and briefly, her character Jo March, wrote lurid, thrilling short stories for 25 dollars a pop, before morally retreating to the safety of the sentimental novel. Edgar Allen Poe had no such trajectory. He pursued the thriller and detective story, ever darker, ever more haunting, ever more clever, all the way until his own early demise.
While the short story is thought to have originated in Germany during the Romantic period, as a reworking of the sketch and folktale for the printing press, the American magazine and newspaper market took up this form and big-sized it, like we do. The sketch was performative, with no backstory, short and meant for the stage; the tale was for the fireside, long, meandering, focused on the power of the narrator. A new genre, the American Short Story emerged as a hybrid product: Short, self-contained, with a plot intended to be consumed in one sitting or read aloud, and with no cultural background required for enjoyment. Something to read on the train.
The rise of the periodical press in the early nineteenth century (one estimate has 600 magazines circulating by 1850), coupled with an explosion in the literate populace, gave this new genre the perfect ground to thrive. Additionally, it provided a way for American writers to make immediate money from their creations, as content-providers (Sound familiar?). The stories that survive (and so many did not!) offered both ART and ENTERTAINMENT: self-contained symbolism, a satisfying and swift denouement (in mystery stories, especially), and hints of the fantastical or absurd — the kind of wonder that is hard to sustain in a novel. The best short stories leave us a little ambiguity or a little moral quandary, i.e. something to talk about, to chew on. They are happy to be read aloud, aimed at the general reader. Everyone in the family, 9-99, can be entertained and educated. Here’s today’s tale as a read-aloud:
Poe wrote an Ars Poetica, or a definition of his poetics, The Philosophy of Composition. Here is his recipe, foremost for poetry, but also relevant to this story:
Choose One Novel (New) and Vivid Effect
“Of the innumerable effects, or impressions, of which the heart, the intellect, or (more generally) the soul is susceptible, what one shall I, on the present occasion, select?”
Add an Incident or tone to construct the effect:
“Having chosen a novel, first, and secondly a vivid effect, I consider whether it can be best wrought by incident or tone—whether by ordinary incidents and peculiar tone, or the converse, or by peculiarity both of incident and tone—afterward looking about me (or rather within) for such combinations of event, or tone, as shall best aid me in the construction of the effect.”
Keep it to one sitting:
“If any literary work is too long to be read at one sitting, we must be content to dispense with the immensely important effect derivable from unity of impression—for, if two sittings be required, the affairs of the world interfere, and everything like totality is at once destroyed.”
Make it Beautiful.
For the “Masque of the Red Death” — #3 and #4 are quickly evident. It’s a short little thing (2445 words), but it packs a lot of gorgeous description and a haunting architecture of colors and rooms and costumes.
As for the singular effect, he comes right out and says that he is going for the jugular, our fear of death:
“There are chords in the hearts of the most reckless which cannot be touched without emotion. Even with the utterly lost, to whom life and death are equally jests, there are matters of which no jest can be made. The whole company, indeed, seemed now deeply to feel that in the costume and bearing of the stranger neither wit nor propriety existed.”
In the story, “when half of his dominions were half-depopulated” by the Red Death, a deadly and quick “pestilence,” Prince Prospero called 1000 of his healthiest court members to a secluded abbey, and welded the iron gate behind them.
This was an extensive and magnificent structure, the creation of the prince’s own eccentric yet august taste. A strong and lofty wall girdled it in. This wall had gates of iron. The courtiers, having entered, brought furnaces and massy hammers and welded the bolts. They resolved to leave means neither of ingress or egress to the sudden impulses of despair from without or of frenzy from within. The abbey was amply provisioned. With such precautions the courtiers might bid defiance to contagion. The external world could take care of itself. In the meantime it was folly to grieve, or to think. The prince had provided all the appliances of pleasure. There were buffoons, there were improvisatori, there were ballêt-dancers, there were musicians, there were cards, there was Beauty, there was wine. All these and security were within. Without was the “Red Death.”
There is a time lapse in the story of 5 or 6 months — I always wonder at this point in the story — what was that like? In our pandemic, each “phase” was so different. What society emerged within those walls? What was happening without? Were people sad to be secluded there? desperate to escape? missing their friends and relatives who are dying at a distance? Were they bored? The Prince calls a Masquerade, and builds a set of 7 rooms, arranged so that there is no way to see around their corners, each one themed by color, with a deadly red and black room at the end. The layout and decor are so complex in these rooms that the narrator gives over 685 words describing the decor, and another 330 describing the costumes, which the Prince also designed. Control-freak?
Prince Prospero is fabulous, larger than life character. Here are a few words we get for him: happy, dauntless, sagacious, eccentric yet august taste, his tastes were peculiar, he had a fine eye for colors and effects…
His plans were bold and fiery, and his conceptions glowed with barbaric lustre. There are some who would have thought him mad. His followers felt that he was not. It was necessary to hear and see and touch him to be sure that he was not.
The party is a smash, a “gay and magnificent revel.” “There were much glare and glitter and piquancy and phantasm.” At the end of the sequence of rooms stands a gigantic ebony clock, and once an hour it sounds.
when its minute-hand made the circuit of the face, and the hour was to be stricken, there came forth from the brazen lungs of the clock a sound which was clear and loud and deep and exceedingly musical, but of so peculiar a note and emphasis that, at each lapse of an hour, the musicians in the orchestra were constrained to pause, momently, in their performance, to harken to the sound; and thus the waltzers perforce ceased their evolutions; and there was a brief disconcert of the whole gay company; and, while the chimes of the clock yet rang, it was observed that the giddiest grew pale, and that the more aged and sedate passed their hands over their brows as if in confused reverie or meditation. But when the echoes had fully ceased, a light laughter at once pervaded the assembly; the musicians looked at each other and smiled as if at their own nervousness and folly, and made whispering vows, each to the other, that the next chiming of the clock should produce in them no similar emotion; and then, after the lapse of sixty minutes, (which embrace three thousand and six hundred seconds of the Time that flies,) there came yet another chiming of the clock, and then were the same disconcert and tremulousness and meditation as before.
Yes, I thought, this is exactly how I felt at the sounding of the sirens last Monday. The cognitive dissonance, the reminder that war is on the continent, the “official end of the pandemic,” the protester’s attempts to get us to look up and think about the climate — all another chime of the clock. Many literary analyses have attributed this arrangement of 7 rooms to the 7 decades of life expectancy in the 19th century. Poe clearly gives us symbols of the passing of time, and the inevitability of death. Pandemic or not, everyone in the party will die one day.
Should I tell the end of the story? Is it needed? A little hint — this is the banger of a last sentence:
And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.
Spoilers: Prince Prospero tried to control every last detail, but no one can seal themselves away from death. There is a figure who arrives at the party in a costume of poor taste — he comes as the Red Death itself, and every last person at the party who sees him, and his blood stains, retreats to the corners in fear. The Prince did not approve this costume. He did not invite this guest. Because the point of all this hiding away and partying and revelry and denial was to forget. To forget the dying outside the walls. To forget the pandemic. To let the “external world” take care of itself. To “not think.” The story has the virus stroll right in and steal the show.
So Prince Prospero tore through the 7 rooms after fear incarnate, “through the green to the orange, — through this again to the white — and even thence to the violet,” strikes fear with a dagger and dies instantly. The crowd surges to tackle Death, and finds it “untenanted by any tangible form.”
Like a good American Short Story, I’ll leave things there with a little ambiguity left over. Next week, we talk about hope and the certainty of the future! Promise.