In Bethany Griffin’s rendition of Masque of the Red Death, the citizens of Prince Prospero’s kingdom are plagued by a mysterious “Weeping Sickness” that’s decimated the population. Survivors must wear specially crafted masques that filter out the contagion, and even then, their breath and blood must be tested before entering certain establishments. No one is safe.
It isn’t until near the end of the book that the Red Death–a new, even more grotesque illness–is mentioned.
Although the Red Death is a fictitious disease made up by Edgar Allan Poe, it bears similarities to a number of epidemics that have swept the Western world in the past few centuries.
Consumption: Closest to Poe’s heart is consumption–now called tuberculosis. It’s what caused his young wife’s death and is deadly to about half of those who contract it. We now have a vaccine to prevent it, but cases still surface and they are hard to treat due to antibiotic resistance. It mostly affects the lungs, but can affect other parts of the body, as well.
The disease has been around since ancient times, but was first identified in the 1820s and named in 1839, all during Poe’s lifetime. As late as the 1940s, sufferers were encouraged to enter sanitoriums to “recover,” though many died.
The Black Death: More accurately called the bubonic plague, it decimated the European population in the 14th century. Symptoms included swollen lymph nodes that resembled blisters. These bled and oozed (gag!) and were followed by a high fever and bloody vomiting. It was most likely caused by fleas on rats from China. Recently, scientists have debated whether fleas could survive cold European winters, and are currently debating new theories. Many think the Black Death was actually a grouping of opportunistic diseases.
The most recent confirmed outbreak was in the western United States in 1995. (Scary, huh?!)
Cholera: Poe may have witnessed an outbreak of cholera in Baltimore caused by poor sanitation (it can also be ingested through seafood). Its symtoms include “profuse” diarrhea and vomiting. (Oh, yay.) Most sufferers die of dehydration. Children are most susceptible.
Now please excuse me while I Lysol my entire house.