Masque of the Red Death: Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death”

First published in 1842, Edgar Allan Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death” is a gothic short story that’s fascinated readers for well over a century, leading writers like Bethany Griffin to use it as inspiration for other creative works.

Synopsis: It’s set in a fictitious prince’s castle or abbey, where he and other wealthy nobles have secluded themselves from the outside world as a plague called the Red Death decimates the population. To relieve their boredom, Prince Prospero holds a masquerade in a maze of seven rooms (much like the Debauchery Club in Griffin’s book). Each one is decorated in a different color, the furthest one black with red lights.

The guests are so creeped out by it that few dare enter. The creepy factor skyrockets when a mysterious figure emerges looking like he just stepped out of the grave. The prince is enraged that someone would wear such a heinous costume so he threatens the figure with a knife.

Then he drops dead.

The guests attack the figure but to their horror, they discover there’s no one under the costume. One by one, each of the guests succumbs to the Red Death.

Meaning: Experts have debated whether Poe’s “Masque” is an allegory about the unavoidability of death or a loose interpretation of Poe’s fall from a wealthy foster family to a struggling, unstable writer with a dying wife. Although the Red Death isn’t an actual disease, it may refer to tuberculosis (then called consumption), which killed his wife, or cholera, which spread through Baltimore in 1831.

Speculation about the Red Death–and its horrifying symptoms–is part of what keeps readers fascinated all these years later.

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