Reading Group #19 ('The Masque of the Red Death')
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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!)
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 ...
(The link is a little wonky. Click the word 'impatient' at the bottom of the page to be taken straight to the story.)
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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 ...