Reading Group #19 ('The Masque of the Red Death')

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Reading Group #19 ('The Masque of the Red Death')

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1veilofisis
oct. 13, 2011, 9:00pm

Here we are, friends.

2naimahaviland
oct. 13, 2011, 10:15pm

I'm sure I have this in my library & tonight I have insomnia, so let's get started :)

3naimahaviland
oct. 13, 2011, 10:55pm

This story is the embodiment of Poe's genius. His use of color to drive the plot, even as his characters are drawn through the colored rooms. That hideous imagery of the last room! Just wonderful. It's interesting to consider that the story is not character-driven, as today's fiction is (except for the prince). The opening description of the Red Death sounded just like Ebola. But, Really the story could be seen as the story of human existence. Don't we all go thru life in manic denial, only to occasionally be stopped cold by something that reminds us of our mortality?

4ErisofDiscord
oct. 13, 2011, 11:38pm

Yeah. We think we have it all under our control and then something slips in and we have nowhere to run to. Freaky.

5alaudacorax
oct. 21, 2011, 8:55am

Haven't got round to re-reading this yet, but it's yet another where I'm having difficulty disentangling the short story from a Vincent Price film - particularly as my memories of it are so strongly in colour.

6housefulofpaper
oct. 21, 2011, 6:44pm

What struck me was the character of Prince Prospero in contrast to Manfred in the Byron poem, because they are both strong-willed egotistical Romantic heroes or anti-heroes who are defying their fate. Manfred faces death on his own terms, in the end, but Prospero is literally brought low - felled. I'm not clear whether he succumbs to the disease, or collapses on facing the embodiment of death. There is the sense of a theatrical tableau in that climactic point.

Knowing how Poe's wife died, and actually how prevalent the disease was in the 19th Century, I imagine that the Red Death is a nightmare vision of tuberculosis.

Although the initial set up is apparently medieval (the late-medieval Italy of Boccaccio's Decameron, together with Rabelais' Abbey of Theleme would be the inspiration, I think) the solidity of the scene begins to give way - when were clock mechanisms as described in the story a practical possibility? Are the revellers actually waltzing or does this simply mean "dancing"?

I came to this story too late in life for it to really get under my skin (which in some ways I regret). However the ending, in its tone and philosophy, strikes me as being close to Shelley's "Ozymandias", which I did manage to first encounter at an impressionable age:

"Nothing beside remains/Around the decay of that colossal wreck,/ boundless and bare/ the lone and level sands stretch far away."

(That was quoted from memory. I'll leave in the one misquoted word and incorrect punctuation and line breaks. It's appropriately 19th Century - although they made fewer mistakes!)

7alaudacorax
oct. 23, 2011, 2:17pm

#6 - Wikipedia has quite a detailed entry on early clocks - quite interesting. Like 'Usher', though, this seems to exist in its own, fictional time and space (or 'Poe's own, fictional time and space') and it's difficult to pin down to anything definitely historical.

The story itself is quite simple and its strength, for me, is its atmosphere - that nightmare quality; but I can't really analyse how Poe is doing it. The clock obviously has a lot to do with it, though. I think -- it's difficult to tell whether the big, old clock plays such a role in later written and screen fiction because there's something intrinsically nightmarish about it or because Poe has taught us to see it that way. The use of colour, as Naima writes, is something quite special, and must have been even more so in Poe's day; but I can't quite work out why it's nightmarish though I do find it so.

Possibly, Poe is unsettling us by having all sorts of aspects of the story being 'not quite right' so that they have a cumulative effect. For instance, he tells us that some of the guest's costumes go a little too far, without actually telling us how; the layout of the rooms is irregular and unusual; the sound of the clock chiming is definitely a bit awry, of course; the prince and his guests' complete unconcern for his subjects is always in the background; even the idea of having the rooms lit by the same colour light as their decor strikes me as a bit weird - everything seems to have an element of 'wrongness'. And Prospero himself (why 'Prospero'?) is given a suggestion of madness.

The trouble is, I have so much mental baggage to untangle from this one that it's difficult to bring an 'innocent eye' to it. For years it's been tied up in my brain not only with the Vincent Price/Roger Corman film (plus images of weird, psychedelic colours), but with Bergman's 'The Seventh Seal' and Ravel's 'La Valse'.

Perhaps I should have been reading it again instead of writing this ...

8veilofisis
oct. 29, 2011, 8:27am

Alright, friends, it's time to move on. Something very different. By, er...Robert E. Howard (no, not Conan). A story I'd been looking for a link to online for a while, because I'm not sure it's sitting in all of our collections. It's called 'Pigeons from Hell' and it is SOMETHING ELSE, people. New thread is up. I'll post the link there, too.

http://web.archive.org/web/20080513211605/http://arthursclassicnovels.com/arthur...

(The link is a little wonky. Click the word 'impatient' at the bottom of the page to be taken straight to the story.)

9veilofisis
oct. 29, 2011, 8:28am

Ooh, and this our first Halloween read, isn't it? Fabulous! :)

10alaudacorax
Editat: oct. 29, 2011, 8:49am

#8 - As usual, I haven't got round to a second, more thoughtful reading of this one yet, but I'll be trotting along behind, somewhere.

Actually, I also read this a couple of months back when I bought my Wordsworth 'collected Poe', but it doesn't seem that easy to lay open its inner workings.

#9 - Ooh, and this our first Halloween read, isn't it?

Saw a witch in my local supermarket a few days back. Black dress, black cloak, tall pointy hat ... the works. She was checking the stock on the shelves. I was thinking of speaking to her but she looked a little p***ed off with the whole business and I was a little worried about ending up green and hopping.

Edited for innumeracy

11alaudacorax
Editat: nov. 12, 2011, 7:15pm

I think Naima put her finger on it when she wrote of Poe’s genius: the more I study this the more marvellous it is and the more I think Poe is rather above most short story writers out there – in any genre. There so many subtleties to this story and I’m going in circles wondering if Poe put untold hours of hard slog into it or did they spring ready-formed from his natural talent.

For instance he chooses so many words that bear extra nuances to continually keep that horrific opening paragraph in your mind: his uses of the words ‘blood’, ‘crimson’, ‘stained’ in the description of the rooms are obvious echoes, but he more subtly keeps referencing the human body and its vulnerability and potential disease and death - the ‘heart of life’ beats ‘feverishly’; ‘lungs’ and ‘limbs’ appear as well as the repeated ‘heart’; the guests ‘writhe’ (twice) rather than ‘move’ amongst each other; the seventh chamber is not ‘hung’ or ‘draped’, but ‘shrouded’. And what about his use of ‘dissolution’ for ‘death’ in the first paragraph – an ambiguous word if ever there was one. Once it was put in my mind, I couldn’t escape the idea of Prospero and the guests being ‘dissolute’ in the sense of ‘immoral’ or ‘decadent’, but every time that idea popped into my mind I was whisked back to that opening paragraph – surely what Poe intended, but so, so subtle.

I wanted to write about his playing with ideas of time to build up the idea of an ominous countdown to something; and I could probably woffle on at tedious length about his use of sound and rhythm, too; but this post would get endless (and I’m too lazy). I’ll just say that this piece on its own would be enough to convince me that Poe is one the great writers. Looking for comparisons, I think this is fully the equal of a Keats poem or a Mozart concerto.

ETA - And he packs so much (in so many senses) into such a short story.

12frahealee
set. 28, 2018, 10:21am

>6 housefulofpaper: My first exposure to this story was in my 20s, not the earlier pre-teen phase. Not having seen any films based on its plot, nothing interfered with my memory of it. It was mostly the interior visual of my own mind that stuck with me, not knowing as much then as I do now about Poe's personal life, his own timeline and tragedies, what the earlier writing was trying to convey, contrasting with what the latter works tried to say. So much peeling of the layers was going on right under the surface. The Shelley poem was brought to my attention earlier this year and it was a writing pal's favourite, so I looked into it, studied it, admired it, but never tied it into this story. I like that potential. The higher you rise the harder the fall, the more you think you matter, the faster the sand sweeps away your imprint or legacy. The meek shall inherit the earth so to speak, and are given more power in their humility than the power of riches and fame. This likely mattered a great deal to Poe, surrounded by the lavish but always feeling the outsider. Warms my heart.

The time element was not so much structural for me, or without knowing how to describe it, it was not a literal functional thing, but instead a method of keeping the tension high. All human beings have a ticking clock inside them, and some fear it more than others. Poe was exposing that weakness within us all. My assumption about the name Prospero was that Poe took the prince, as a stand-in for The Tempest ... the storm within, raging, but the character himself vulnerable to exterior forces and knocked down a peg or two, from his earlier grand existence. Here, the prince succumbs. Shakespeare's man learns his lesson and survives the fallout, all the wiser and more compassionate for it.

I like reading all of the comments boasting of Poe's supreme talents in poetry and storytelling. I have always loved his influence on me and on the culture around me, never knowing or feeling the need to question why. I can just never get enough. That insatiable quality is why his collection sits by my bed within reach at all times. Not my bible, not my Canadian literary heroes, not my Brontes or Austens or Steinbecks or Blakes. Poe. Always Poe.

13WeeTurtle
des. 18, 2018, 6:51am

I finally read this thing! And perhaps expected too much as I was surprised at how short it was. I, too, saw parts of the Vincent Price film and that's what actually gave me the inclination to read the original story. Until then, I had only known "Masque of the Red Death" as a Ravenloft D&D adventure (Ravenloft is the D&D setting for the Gothic and Weird). I was surprised when I encountered a film with the same name. I'm not sure I would have read it even after that it, at the tail end of the film, 3 mysterious figures appeared. I don't think they were in the story, so I'd like to see the film in whole. (There was some manner of Vincent Price marathon as well as a horror movie fest so I was flicking between two channels constantly.)

I'm still not sure what to think of the story, as it was short and didn't strike me as very unusual or odd, but that might be my previous exposure to other such things so my weird/horror bar tends to be fairly high. I did find the clock interesting, and I think I've yet to hear a clock in any movie or story that didn't have at least some greater relevance beyond the hour. It makes me think of the film for The Last Unicorn where a clock marks a secret passage at a certain hour, or the clock in A Christmas Carol when the spirits come and go. They are somewhat creepy things, especially the larges ones with pendulums. I remember watching another thriller movie and the camera wound keep looking at the clock, or, more specifically, the pendulum. At one point, the clock stops and the pendulum stops mid-swing. It's ghost time! A clock ticking is something that tends to blend in the background, like white noise we don't notice until it stops. Then we get that anxious creep wondering why.

14alaudacorax
des. 18, 2018, 7:39am

>12 frahealee: - My assumption about the name Prospero ...

I don't believe that Poe chose that name without reason, but I've never to my satisfaction got to grips with what his thinking might have been. But this is one of my handful of all-time favourite short stories, so some time I'm going to have to sit down and read both works together and really think hard about it ...

>13 WeeTurtle: - ... that might be my previous exposure to other such things ... I've yet to hear a clock in any movie or story that didn't have at least some greater relevance ...

Obviously, from my posts above, I think this story is brilliant, so I won't labour that point, but I suspect (I hinted at this in >7 alaudacorax:) that the clock thing and your 'previous exposure' all come indirectly from Poe, especially given the combination of Poe's status as the great earlier American writer and the dominance of American/Hollywood cinema.

15WeeTurtle
des. 18, 2018, 5:10pm

>14 alaudacorax: Like watching Casablanca for the first time and the whole movie feeling like a rerun of itself?

I find it interesting how with internet and things like youtube that things are popping up out of context (like people saying that Michael Jackson and Freddy Mercury swiped clothing ideas from Justin Beiber). It didn't occur to me that it would happen with books as well!

16conhantaottp
des. 19, 2018, 2:55am

good

17conhantaottp
des. 19, 2018, 2:56am

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18alaudacorax
des. 19, 2018, 5:44am

>15 WeeTurtle:

Damn! You've reminded me I completely forgot about something! I was listening to some music on the radio a day or two ago - think it was a Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) symphony, but I'm not sure - and a couple of bars kept cropping up that I'm sure were straight out of The Phantom of the Opera. It was very disconcerting and I was going to look it up in the schedules. Then the phone rang ...

Well, it's 'sort of' Gothic ...

19alaudacorax
des. 19, 2018, 5:46am

>16 conhantaottp:,>17 conhantaottp:

Altogether now, let's wish conhantaottp a Merry Christmas - have we all got our wax doll and packet of pins?

20housefulofpaper
des. 19, 2018, 3:14pm

>18 alaudacorax:

A quick search of the Internet suggests A London Symphony, but puts Pink Floyd's "Echoes" forward as a stronger candidate for being Lloyd Webber's...inspiration?