The Masque of the Red Death
The tastes of the duke were peculiar. He had a fine eye for color and effects. He disregarded the ‘decora’ of mere fashion. 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 he was not.
What do you do when your hobby is plagues, how they shifted entire civilizations, how the world reacted to them, WHEN YOU’RE IN THE MIDDLE OF AN *ACTUAL FUCKING PLAGUE*? Literally no one wants to hear me discuss how the Black Death led to the development of the modern garden cemetery in Europe BECAUSE THAT SHIT IS SCARY AND DEPRESSING RIGHT NOW AND EVEN *I* DON’T WANT TO HEAR ABOUT IT. I’m usually someone who gravitates toward the darkness, but I know that I need to check that impulse or risk being overwhelmed by the sheer amount of it right now. I can’t do my research because my research is death, and death is coming. The shit is not history or metaphor anymore, it’s here.
So, I look to art to make meaning. And in this case, Edgar Allen Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death. This is a short, dark, pointed story from 1842. It’s a staple of American Gothic works, and it's been showing up in popular culture for the last month as we face a modern plague.
If you haven’t read this story since middle school, let me catch you up real quick: a deadly pestilence called the Red Death has swept the land, leaving half of its people dead. The Red Death causes the sick to bleed from their face, a horrifying scarlet letter that scares others from helping them. A wealthy duke, fearing contagion, flees to his fortified abbey. He brings 1,000 nobles with him, and they weld the gate shut behind them so no common people can infiltrate the abbey and infect them. LOL U KNOW WHERE THIS IS GOING, RIGHT?
These folks party 24x7, except to stop to listen to an ominous clock that chimes on the hour. They have a gaudy and expensive ball (or Masque), in which they dress in tasteless costumes that are bizarre, wanton, terrible, and disgusting. At midnight, however, a new guest shows up. This figure, a mummer, wears the shroud of death, the vestments of the grave, and the mask of a corpse afflicted with the Red Death. And you know what - that was TOO FAR! TOO CLOSE TO HOME, BRO!
The Duke angrily chases the mummer through the castle, trying to kill him with a dagger. When he gets close enough, however, he is seized by the Red Death and dies on the spot. When the partygoers close in, they rip the mask off of the mummer to discover . . . there’s nothing there. It’s the actual RED DEATH, and they all die. BOOM! GOTCHA BITCH!
There’s so much in this story - the allegory of death, and how it comes for all of us; a story of class warfare and savage punishment of the selfish wealthy; a reminder that no matter who we are, we are all susceptible to certain consequences of humanity. Plague kills the rich as quickly as the poor. Of course, 1842 was still a time of rampant, unchecked disease. Germ theory hadn’t been discovered, and diseases like cholera, typhoid, tuberculosis, and actual fucking bubonic plague still killed scores of humans on the regular. Death by disease was a lot more familiar in 1842, but as you know, it’s feeling timely as fuck right now.
As I write, I’m holed up in San Francisco’s quarantine, basically waiting for COVID-19 to hit the city. I have two kids, which means that life must go on: we’re getting up in the morning and doing home school. We’re cooking, cleaning, watching TV, playing games. Inside the house, it doesn’t feel like the end of the world, it feels like a rainy day. And yet, just outside my little castle, disease is ravaging the world. I try not to think about it, and for the most part when I’m with the kids, I don’t. I’m too busy yelling at them for making fart jokes in their class group chat to worry about the imminent decline of society.
I wanted to write a Capital E Essay about The Masque of the Red Death and selfish vanity of wealthy assholes who think they can escape Mother Nature’s vengeance while they rely on working people to feed, clothe, and take care of them in illness. I read a bunch of articles about how rich prepper idiots are buying apocalypse bunkers, how the assholes of Manhattan flocked to the Hamptons and brought the disease with them but no hospital beds, how Hawaii begged mainland tourists to stay away lest they worsen the already deplorable state of healthcare on those islands. I thought about rich assholes who campaigned for Donald Trump are now probably fleeing to their retrofitted missile silos in New Zealand. I thought about politicians who stuck their heads in the sand and told the public that this was no big deal, then caught the virus and spread it to their colleagues. They are our Duke Prosperos, our fleeing nobles. It feels good to sneer at them, but it doesn’t help anyone.
As much as I wanted to make this about the Prospero fall-guys of the world, The Masque hits closer to home. It’s really about me, in my little castle. The tall, swaying mummer wearing the shroud of the grave and the face of a corpse is an anxious ghost that stalks me in my own home. The Red Death steals into my house at midnight while I’m trying to fall asleep to garbage reality TV on Netflix. The Red Death is the Apple News Alerts on my phone - DEATH TOLL INCREASES - and the endless chimes of my group texts - “omg did u hear what trump said today! He’s going to get us all killed!” The figure of the Red Death is the creeping realization of the catastrophe that lurks without, sliding into my field of vision just as I’ve managed to forget about the plague for a minute. It’s the constant, dull pain in my chest that makes me think I have the disease, but in reality I have only the fear of it. Right now, anyway.
My brain is already a chaotic universe of bizarre and gruesome scenes, where plagues and burials and cults and ghosts and ancient vampires orbit my consciousness. This is a by-product of trauma and anxiety, for sure, but I’m also genuinely interested in these things. Academically, empirically, thematically. I organize my life around the bizarre -- it’s the central theme of my writing! Which is just so fucking weird right now. There are things to learn from the past, but my usual brand of upfront macabre + dick jokes + unnecessary political commentary might need to take a seat for a minute. Most of us are trying to keep doing what we do during this crisis, to find some routine and normalcy, and my job is to write. It’s hard for me to do my research, to write about scary things in my normal way right now. It seems appropriate to turn the focus inward and address the fear and anxiety that we’re ALL feeling right now. Maybe I’d just rather see the Red Death as a metaphor rather than the actual, invisible virus that’s racking up a staggering body count right now.