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Literature / The Masque of the Red Death

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"The Masque of the Red Death" is one of Edgar Allan Poe's most famous short stories, first published in Graham's Magazine in May 1842.

Prince Prospero's home country isn't doing too well. A horrible plague called The Red Death is ravaging the countryside. The symptoms most notably include massive bleeding from the pores, especially the face, and death within a half-hour.

Not wanting to be troubled by the dying peasants, Prospero takes himself and a few hundred of his closest friends and sequesters everyone inside one of his secluded abbeys. Well stocked and with lots of entertainment, they hope to ride out the plague.

One night, Prospero decides to hold a masquerade ball in a procession of differently colored rooms. The final room is black and has a large clock in it. Over the course of the ball, guests notice a strange figure with a corpse-like mask and a red cloak. Upon finding out, Prospero is less concerned about the possibility of something sinister going on and moreso about a fashion faux-pas being made at his party and chases the figure into the final room, who thereby removes its mask to reveal itself to be a personification of the Red Death. The clock's pendulum falls, the lights go out in the rooms, and panic ensues.


And then everyone dies.

On the surface it appears to be a relatively simple, straightforward story compared to the heavy likes of The Fall of the House of Usher and "The Pit and the Pendulum". However, close reading of the text reveals a story chock-full of symbolism and thoughts on the nature of death and life.

Sounds like a regular trip down Poe avenue, no?

And darkness and decay and the Red Tropes held illimitable dominion over all.

  • Allegory: Some scholars read the tale as one of these for the progression of life, with each sucessive colored room representing another stage (fittingly, Prospero dies in the final room, which is draped in black). On the other hand, Poe was noted for his disdain of overanalysis, so others advise just taking it as a straightforward horror story.
  • Anthropomorphic Personification: The figure in the Red Death costume turns out to be the Red Death itself!
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  • Asshole Victim: Prospero and his cronies certainly aren't good people; they hide themselves away so they won't have to deal with dying peasents.
  • The Blank: When Red Death's mask is removed, it is revealed he has neither face nor body, and his cloak falls to the floor.
  • Blood from Every Orifice: The most notable symptom of the Red Death is profuse bleeding from the pores, especially the face.
  • Bloody Horror: The calling card of the Red Death. We are reminded of this in one of the story's final lines:
    And one by one dropped the revelers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Prospero's first instinct, upon seeing the figure dressed as the Red Death, is to hang it for reminding them of the plague going on outside.
  • Downer Ending: The Red Death successfully infiltrates the abbey and kills everyone inside it. The last lines of the story are particularly chilling:
    And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.
  • Dying for Symbolism: Prospero's and the revelers' deaths at the hands of the disease convey the message that everyone, even the rich and powerful, can't escape Death and must expire at some point.
  • Eldritch Location: Prospero's abbey is played up to be this, what with its maze-like design and the highly stylized rooms complete with gothic windows and overwhelming color palettes.
  • Hell Is That Noise: The chiming of the clock in the black room to the revelers. Whenever it chimes the sound is so odd and disconcerning that everyone stops what they're doing to listen in awe and horror.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Once the Red Death is revealed, no one can escape the abbey because Prospero welded the doors shut.
  • Humanoid Abomination: The figure in the Red Cloak is revealed to be, in the final moments of the story, not any normal person but the Anthropomorphic Personification of the Red Death itself, before it disperses and kills everyone present.
  • Idiot Ball: You'd think Prospero would be more concerned about the strange figure who appeared out of nowhere during the party rather than what he was wearing.
  • Masquerade Ball: The events of the story takes place during one of these.
  • New Season, New Name: When the story was first published in 1842, it carried the title "The Mask of the Red Death". When a revised edition was published in an 1845, the title was changed to the now-familiar "The Masque of the Red Death", taking emphasis away from the figure and onto the masquerade ball instead, probably to let readers know Prospero and his friends are supposed to be the evil ones.
  • No Face Under the Mask: When the revelers finally rip off the figure's mask, there's nothing underneath except the disease.
  • Plaguemaster: Played With. The figure in the Red Death costume appears to just be a form the disease took on to spread itself into the abbey; it dissolves once it's done its job.
  • Remember the New Guy?: When the clock strikes midnight, the figure appears out of nowhere. None of the revelers like him, especially Prospero.
  • Sealed Room in the Middle of Nowhere: Prospero seals himself and a few hundred of his friends inside one of his abbeys to escape the Red Death. Not that he succeeds...
  • Tick Tock Terror: The seventh room is pitch black and lit only with crimson lighting It is actively feared by the guests and features a looming and ominous black clock. Its bong is so peculiar and intimidating that each time it chimes, the orchestra stops playing and the revelers stop dancing. When the clock strikes midnight, the Red Death arrives. It even stops ticking when the very last person alive succumbs to the disease, as if it was inextricably linked to the tragedy.
  • While Rome Burns: Prospero and his buddies try to party and have a good time while the Red Death savages the rest of the country.
  • You Can't Fight Fate: No matter how hard Prospero tries, he can't keep the Red Death from infiltrating the abbey and killing everyone.
  • Your Costume Needs Work: The guests at the ball are all shocked by the tastelessness the figure displays by dressing as the incarnation of the Red Death. Then someone rips the mask off and finds there's nothing underneath...

Alternative Title(s): Masque Of The Red Death


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