"The Masque of the Red Death" is one of Edgar Allan Poe's most famous short stories, first appearing in Graham's Magazine in May 1842 as "The Mask of the Red Death". Poe rewrote and revised the tale before publication in Broadway Journal in July 1845 with its now-familiar title.
Prince Prospero's home country isn't doing too well. A horrible plague called the Red Death is ravaging the countryside. The onset of the disease is marked by massive bleeding from the pores, especially the face, followed by death within half an hour.
Not wanting to be troubled by the sight of dying peasants, Prospero sequesters himself and a thousand of his closest friends inside one of his secluded abbeys. Well stocked and with lots of entertainment, they plan to ride out the plague in style.
One night, Prospero decides to hold a masquerade ball in a procession of differently colored rooms. The final room is black, with blood-red windows, and has a large clock in it. Just at midnight, the guests notice a strange figure among them, costumed like a corpse who has died of the Red Death. Outraged at this show of poor taste, Prospero chases the figure into the final room — and promptly drops dead. The frightened and angry revelers strip off the figure's costume to find nothing underneath it at all...except the Red Death, now in their very midst. Then everyone dies. When the last guest expires, the clock stops, the lights go out, and "Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all".
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 successive colored room representing another stage (fittingly, Prospero dies in the final chamber, which is draped in black). On the other hand, Poe was noted for his disdain of over-analysis, so others advise just taking it as a straightforward horror story. It's worth noting when Masque was first published in 1842 it carried the subtitle "A Fantasy", which seems to indicate Poe didn't want anyone digging too deep into the meaning.
- Anthropomorphic Personification: The figure in the Red Death costume turns out to be the Red Death itself.
- Asshole Victim: Prospero and his cronies certainly aren't good people; their response to the overwhelming human suffering caused by the Red Death is to hide themselves away and seal the doors so that the sight of death won't disturb their happiness, leaving everyone outside the abbey to fend for themselves. It's unlikely that any of them will be missed when their final fate befalls them.
- 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 a victim of the Red Death, is to have them seized and hanged from the battlements for reminding them of the plague going on outside.
- Downer Ending: The Red Death successfully infiltrates the abbey and kills everyone. The last lines of the story are particularly chilling:And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night. And one by one dropped the revellers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall. And the life of the ebony clock went out with that of the last of the gay. And the flames of the tripods expired. And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.
- Dying for Symbolism: As the story illustrates, no one, no matter how rich and well connected, is proof against death, nor can walls keep out a disease.
- 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 clock in the black room, to the revelers. When it chimes the hour, the sound is so disconcerting that everyone stops what they're doing to listen.
- Hoist by His Own Petard: Once the Red Death is revealed, no one can escape the abbey because they’ve welded the doors shut.
- Humanoid Abomination: The unknown reveler is revealed to be the Red Death itself, before it disperses and kills everyone present.
- Hypocrite: Prospero, most notably when he sets up the black room to have red windows to troll his guests (the sight of each other's red faces is so unnerving that most guests stay out of there) but is outraged when he sees a guest costumed as a corpse with blood on its face.
- 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.
- Meaningful Name: About the only thing we learn about Prospero is that he has wealth. Unfortunately, it isn't enough to save him.
- Menacing Mask: Nobleman Prospero holds a masquerade ball. At midnight, a mysterious reveller appears, wearing a "corpse-like mask" resembling "the countenance of a stiffened corpse". It was the Red Death itself.
- New Season, New Name: When the first edition of the story was published in 1842, it carried the title "The Mask of the Red Death". When the revised final edition was published in 1845, the title was changed to the now-familiar "The Masque of the Red Death", taking emphasis away from the cloaked figure and onto the masquerade ball itself, probably to let readers know Prospero and his friends are supposed to be the evil ones here.
- No Face Under the Mask: When the revelers finally rip off the figure's mask, there's nothing underneath except the disease.
- Oh, Crap!: The reaction of all the revelers when they learn that there is No Face Under the Mask of the figure, and that the Red Death is now in their midst.
- 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.
- Tick Tock Terror: The seventh room features a looming and ominous black clock whose tone is so peculiar and intimidating that each time it chimes, everyone pauses and feels uncomfortable. When the clock strikes midnight, the Red Death arrives. It even stops ticking when the very last person 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 ravages the rest of the country. The narrative even makes clear that they feel proof against the disease; they just don't want to watch the peasants dying.
- You Can't Fight Fate: The Red Death, like Time and Darkness, affects everyone — not even the wealthy Prospero and his guests can keep a (malevolent) force of nature out of their festivities.
- Your Costume Needs Work: The guests at the ball are all shocked by the tastelessness of someone dressing as a corpse who died of the disease they're all trying to ignore. Then someone rips the mask off and finds there's nothing under it...