Friday, 28 October 2016

Horror Week 2016: “The Masque of the Red Death” by Edgar Allen Poe

You don’t have to look any further than kids’ campfire stories to realize that the best scary stories are timeless. Good horror can seize you by the throat no matter how much time has passed since its inscription. Perhaps that’s why, autumn after autumn, year after year, readers return to the works of Edgar Allen Poe, a 19th century master of the macabre.

When Mario asked me to be part of this project, I knew I wanted to revisit “The Masque of the Red Death.” Even though this story was written in 1842, it continues to be hauntingly timeless, touching on the same horror themes that scare readers still today. Better yet, enough time has passed that it’s now in the public domain, and anybody can read it for free.

In 2016, it may often feel like the world is ending, and that’s a theme we visit often in contemporary fiction. I can think of at least two modern bestsellers that explore the idea of a plague that eradicates society, prompting an apocalypse: The Stand by Stephen King, and Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. Poe’s “Masque,” however, is one of the earliest. In this story, the Red Death’s excruciating pain is matched in terror only by its guarantee of death.

Who can cheat death? In Poe’s story, the Prince Prospero thinks he can. The wealthy and eccentric nobleman elaborately furnishes seven rooms with every luxury and diversion his bizarre mind can think of, invites his healthiest fellow nobles inside, and welds the door shut. “The external world could take care of itself,” Poe’s narration cavalierly tells us.

But this is a horror story, and as you might expect, things go awry. Poe’s chilling tale seems to suggest that no amount of wealth or robustness of character or bravery or selfish disdain for the suffering outside one’s own sphere can keep out the insistent, sinuous hand of death, and perhaps these characteristics may seem to hurry death along. The theme of “The Masque of the Red Death” is the persistence of time, in the form of an enormous, ebony clock whose echoing chime causes courtiers to freeze in place. We can cushion ourselves against our fears with comfort and opulence, but time never ceases ticking, and death will, sooner or later, come for us all.

Lauren Orsini is a professional journalist and avid student of fan culture. Her writing has appeared on Forbes, Anime News Network, and numerous other outlets. Her blog, Otaku Journalist, is a resource for aspiring geek and fandom reporters.

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