Poe, the Masque of the Red Death,
and their correspondence with Modern Society


Hugo N. Santander1
University of Manchester


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Prophecy might be the most uncanny manifestation of the human mind. The Book of Revelations, the Centuries of Michel de Nostradamus and the Three Secrets of Fatima are all ambivalent messages about the destiny of humankind. Whereas their main purpose is to admonish readers about the consequences of vengeance, arrogance and impiety, their veracity relies in a dim manifestation of destruction.

More mysterious than the prophetic inspiration of seers and children is the literary work that anticipates reality. In 1898 the sailor and writer Morgan Robertson published Futility, a novel that describes the sinking of theTitan , the most luxurious boat of the world , which is sunk by an iceberg in the North Atlantic ocean. It anticipated for fourteen years the building and sinking of the Titanic. Prophetically setting a world war in 1940, H.G. Wells wrote The Shape of Things to Come in 1933, a Science-Fiction novel that describes the raise to power of a technocratic class and the raids of the Luftwaffe over London. Wells also wrote the adaptation of his novel for William Cameron Menzies' film Things to Come (1936), which today can be easily mistaken for documentary footage about the London Blitz.

In 1842 the North American poet and writer Edgar Allan Poe wrote The Masque of the Red Death, a short story about Prospero, a wealthy Italian prince who dies in an effort to avoid pest contagion. One hundred and sixty years after its publication, The Masque of the Red Death resembles the fears of our civilised world.

The first lines of Poe's narration announce the deadly combination of poverty and AIDS in the so-called Third World: «The "Red Death" had long devastated the country. No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous. Blood was its Avatar and its seal-the redness and the horror of blood. There were sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores, with dissolution. The scarlet stains upon the body and especially upon the face of the victim, were the pest ban which shut him out from the aid and from the sympathy of his fellow-men.» Globalisation has been established as the most refined and selective world-class system in social history. Slavery has been replaced by cheap labour. The most prosperous nations have become the pawnbrokers of millions of men and women who earn an average monthly salary of US$100.00 for a fifty-hour labour week. Their prosperity relies, as a matter of fact, on the interest rates of their loans. The goods and products from Asia, Africa and Latin America are sold to the prosperous societies under draconian conditions -where they must compete with overprotected local economies. Most of the democracies of the world are mises en scène that disguise the corruption of wealthy oligarchies -families of landholders, merchants and tyrants who hardly hesitate at the moment of selling out their motherland's resources for a legal contribution to their bank accounts in Switzerland or Monaco.

Poor nations are shut out from the aid and from the sympathy of the civilised men. Their misery is unknown, deformed and idealised. During the recent years AIDS has decreased in the prosperous nations, whereas its deadly effects continue seizing men, women and children in the underdeveloped world. During his visit to Africa the Pope advised sexual continence and fidelity to the members of his congregation. Soon after, European gay and lesbian activists accused the Catholic Church of hindering the use of latex condoms. The reality, unknown to those more fortunate protesters, was that African people who hardly can survive would rarely consider spending their meagre income in preservatives. To the eyes of the most civilised world the mass of the poor have not even become the lepers. Devoid of electricity and education their very existence is denied. And yet, this underdeveloped world houses the forth fifths of the human population. In spite of the achievements of science and technology, our political organisation revives ancient history. As in the darkest times, the world is split between the members of an empire and the inhabitants of unknown, ferocious, desperate and barbarian world.

«But the Prince Prospero was happy and dauntless and sagacious… He had a fine eye for colors 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 that he was not.» Poe even foresees the qualities of the current leaders of our civilisation. Our opinions about a world-wide coalition against terrorism are divided. While pacifists argue that the collateral damage caused by the wealthy nations' bombing campaigns may spread further terrorism, the supporters of the Bush administration insist on his capability to control and suppress suicide attacks. Their satellites and weapons are not only the most sophisticated of the world; they inspired the respect or fear of enemies and friends.

«When his dominions were half depopulated, he summoned to his presence a thousand hale and light-hearted friends from among the knights and dames of his court, and with these retired to the deep seclusion of one of his castellated abbeys. 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 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 ballet-dancers, there were musicians, there was Beauty, there was wine. All these and security were within. Without was the "Red Death."»

As Australia locks migrant's children in concentration camps, Europe neo-nazi parties press for harder anti-immigration policies. If cheap labour was desperately required by Europe during the decades that followed Second World War, it has become now redundant. Globalisation laws allow multinational companies to build their factories in underdeveloped countries, where employees comply for a scanty salary. US fruit harvests are picked up by Central American illegal emigrants on an annual basis under the connivance of local and Federal authorities. As Prince Prospero, President Bush builds a wall, a multibillion-missile system with the purpose of sheltering America against the threads of the external world. After the sympathies and fraternity displayed during the cold war decades, the richest nations of the world seal their iron curtains. «The external world could take care of itself,» is a sentence that justifies the indolence of Prince Prospero, whose main intention was to repel the incursions of his subjects: unhappy men and women who enticed by his happiness and wealth might break in and spread havoc in his rooms. His fears correspond to the fears of our generation. Every hour wretched human beings lose their lives crossing the seas that protect the soil of the most prosperous nations. Last weekend, for instance, the press published the testimony of Vito Diodato, the captain of one of the fishing boats who rescued seven immigrants off the coast of Italy. Fifty men, women and children drown close to a 1,500-tonne navy patrol boat, which «refused requests for assistance and was slow to react when the immigrants' boat was capsized by a large wave… The most shocking image was that of a black woman trying to get a bottle for her son, quarrelling with the other passengers and ending up being punched in the face… I saw her drown four hours later, after clinging for a moment to a lifejacket she had grabbed in the water.» The ideology that drives a woman to sacrifice her son's life and her own for a slot in the well-off world is the same ideology that shapes the isolation and selfishness of the industrialised nations today: neo-colonialism.

«It was toward the close of the fifth or sixth month of his seclusion, and while the pestilence raged most furiously abroad, that the Prince Prospero entertained his thousand friends at a masked ball of the most unusual magnificence.»

Wealth, luxury and excess consecrates a small area of the world over most of the world. The Media embellishes over-abundant societies, turning them into the main scenarios of history. An artificial feeling of being-there and no-being there grows in and out of modern societies. «How do I get to Broadway?… I want to get to the center of things», asserts one of the characters of Manhattan Transfer2 after his arrival to America. Broadway, notwithstanding, is portrayed by Dos Passos as a common crowded street, where people walk to and fro. Neo-colonialist ideology is only shaken by catastrophes and natural disasters. In 1985 twenty five thousand people died in Colombia, as a result of a natural disaster. Three days later the Colombian Media was proud to point out that for a week Colombia had been the centre of attention of the world-that 'world' was reduced to a handful of newspapers from Japan, Western Europe, the US and Australia.

After having invited his friends and relatives, Prince Prospero celebrates his masquerade in six of the seven chambers of his fortress, for «in the western or black chamber the effect of the fire-light that streamed upon the dark hangings through the blood-tinted panes, was ghastly in the extreme, and produced so wild a look upon the countenances of those who entered, that there were few of the company bold enough to set foot within its precincts at all. It was in this apartment, also, that there stood against the western wall, a gigantic clock of ebony. Its pendulum swung to and fro with a dull, heavy, monotonous clang; and when the minute-hand made the circuit of the face, and the hour was to be stricken, there came 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 of the orchestra were constrained to pause, momentarily, in their performance, to hearken 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 the more aged and sedate passed their hands over their brows as if in confused reverie or meditation.»

Whereas we discuss the judgment and will of our leaders, we recognise Time as the supreme ruler of our existence. Poe centres his narration on a solemn dark clock, a harrowing reminder of the boundaries of life. The old, as the young and giddy, are stricken by its clangs. Despite the efforts of plastic surgeons and genetic engineers, millions of human beings die every day. The statistics of life expectancy are deceitful, for they favour the countries with the lower birth rates. Nobody knows the time; nobody knows the circumstances. Death cut the existences of men and women regardless of their age, creed and nationality. Spiritual guides and philosophers such as Jesus, Buddha, Socrates, Boethius and Montaigne emphasised the advantages of coping with life without fear. But our societies, as our leaders sharply understand, rely on fear: fear to be derided, fear to be prosecuted, fear to be depressed, fear to die. Losing fear of death means losing respect for a system that produces and controls fear. Defence budgets are approved according to the intensity of politicians' fears. Greed grows as the wealthy fear to return to a less wealthy state. The migrants of the underdeveloped world risk their lives as a response to their fear of starvation. But fear, as hope, is a haphazard speculation about the future. Human life goes in the poorest nations in spite of war, hunger and disease. On the other hand the 'safest' nations of the world have proved to be vulnerable to international and local terrorism. The reality is that nobody can control the fate of a universe subject to destruction.

On September 11 of 2001, the clangs of Poe's clock of ebony were strongly heard throughout the world. The psychological impact on the US population not only demanded a dialogue about the political organisation of the world, but also a metaphysical reflection about the purpose and meaning of existence. Instead, dogmatic ministers and hard-line politicians reduced the problem of radical Islam to a struggle between good and evil. As the executives of the arm industries get richer and more powerful, the citizens of the most prosperous nations fall back into their metaphysical numbness.

«But when the echoes [of the clock] 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… until at length there commenced the sounding of midnight upon the clock. And then the music ceased… And thus, too, it happened, perhaps, that before the last echoes of the last chime had utterly sunk into silence, there were many individuals in the crowd who had found leisure to become aware of the presence of a masked figure which had arrested the attention of no single individual before. And the rumor of this new presence having spread itself whisperingly around, there arose at length from the whole company a buzz, or murmur, expressive of disapprobation and surprise --then, finally, of terror, of horror, and of disgust… The figure was tall and gaunt, and shrouded from head to foot in the habiliments of the grave. The mask which concealed the visage was made so nearly to resemble the countenance of a stiffened corpse that the closest scrutiny must have had difficulty in detecting the cheat. And yet all this might have been endured, if not approved, by the mad revellers around. But the mummer had gone so far as to assume the type of the Red Death. His vesture was dabbled in blood --and his broad brow, with all the features of the face, was besprinkled with the scarlet horror.»

«When the eyes of Prince Prospero fell upon this spectral image (which with a slow and solemn movement, as if more fully to sustain its role, stalked to and fro among the waltzers) he was seen to be convulsed, in the first moment with a strong shudder either of terror or distaste; but, in the next, his brow reddened with rage.»

«"Who dares?" he demanded hoarsely of the courtiers who stood near him --"who dares insult us with this blasphemous mockery? Seize him and unmask him --that we may know whom we have to hang at sunrise, from the battlements!"»

«It was in the eastern or blue chamber in which stood the Prince Prospero as he uttered these words. They rang throughout the seven rooms loudly and clearly --for the prince was a bold and robust man, and the music had become hushed at the waving of his hand.

It was in the blue room where stood the prince, with a group of pale courtiers by his side. At first, as he spoke, there was a slight rushing movement of this group in the direction of the intruder, who at the moment was also near at hand, and now, with deliberate and stately step, made closer approach to the speaker. But from a certain nameless awe with which the mad assumptions of the mummer had inspired the whole party, there were found none who put forth hand to seize him; so that, unimpeded, he passed within a yard of the prince's person; and, while the vast assembly, as if with one impulse, shrank from the centres of the rooms to the walls, he made his way uninterruptedly, but with the same solemn and measured step which had distinguished him from the first, through the blue chamber to the purple --through the purple to the green --through the green to the orange --through this again to the white --and even thence to the violet, ere a decided movement had been made to arrest him. It was then, however, that the Prince Prospero, maddening with rage and the shame of his own momentary cowardice, rushed hurriedly through the six chambers, while none followed him on account of a deadly terror that had seized upon all. He bore aloft a drawn dagger, and had approached, in rapid impetuosity, to within three or four feet of the retreating figure, when the latter, having attained the extremity of the velvet apartment, turned suddenly and confronted his pursuer. There was a sharp cry --and the dagger dropped gleaming upon the sable carpet, upon which, instantly afterwards, fell prostrate in death the Prince Prospero. Then, summoning the wild courage of despair, a throng of the revellers at once threw themselves into the black apartment, and, seizing the mummer, whose tall figure stood erect and motionless within the shadow of the ebony clock, gasped in unutterable horror at finding the grave-cerements and corpse-like mask which they handled with so violent a rudeness, untenanted by any tangible form.»

Poe's prose becomes macabre. The story of prince Prospero warns the reader about the imminence of death, and about the futility of those who close their gates to the dangers of the world.

«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.»

Poe's last paragraph is admonitory, rather than apocalyptic. Most of Prospero's vassals outlive him. The pest fades off, and with the coming of the spring a new generation of men and women peoples the country. Centuries later, in a distant country, a poet writes the story of a healthy man who defied the generosity of fortune. His absolute power persuaded him of his capability to control life and death. Reluctant to relieve the sickness and poverty of his vassals, he retired to the safest place on earth: his mausoleum.


[1] Docente de la Universidad de Manchester, Inglaterra. Autor de la novela «Nuevas Tardes en Manhattan».

[2] Doss Passos, John. Manhattan Transfer (Londres: Penguin, 1986), p.16.


© Hugo N. Santander 2002
Espéculo. Revista de estudios literarios. Universidad Complutense de Madrid

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