Edgar Allen Poe is… just really brilliant. Just marvelous. He’s one of the best horror writers of all time, and I believe that strongly enough to declare it as an objective fact. He’s just… he’s just really great. When I was student teaching, there was this big book of Edgar Allen Poe’s writing in my mentor teacher’s classroom. I’d grab it during lunch every day and read it to blow off steam. I memorized the poem “The Conqueror Worm” that way. He’s got so many great spooky poems and short stories, and, if you’re like me in that you both love to read and love Halloween stuff, you really should read at least one piece by him every October.
The first story of his I chose to represent in this series is my personal favorite, “The Masque of the Red Death.” It’s a fairly simple short story, but one that is a classic example of old school Gothic Horror. It’s the Middle Ages (many gothic horror stories were set in that time period) and a horrible plague called the Red Death is spreading across Europe, killing people by making them bleed profusely from their skin. A nobleman named Prospero uses this plague to throw the world’s biggest party, inviting other rich people to his swanky castle where they can stay healthy and safe while all the peasants and serfs succumb to the plague. Anyone who isn’t rich is left outside to die while Prospero and his followers enjoy every pleasure they can think of.
One of the unique things about Prospero’s castle is his set of different colored rooms. Each is lit by a candle that is behind a different stained glass – a blue painted room has a castle behind blue glass, a violet has a candle behind violet, etc. The only room whose color of paint differs from the color of glass is the terrifying Red Room, whose walls are pitch black but has a light that is pure blood red. It’s very hellish and shows Prospero is kind of demented.
Prospero holds a Masquerade, and everyone dresses up in different costumes. It’s all fun until a mysterious guest no one recognizes shows up in a very elaborate and very terrifying costume; for he is dressed with a skull-faced mask and red cape, all smeared with blood, looking for all the world like the anthropomorphic representation of the Red Death itself. Prospero is pissed that someone would freak out his guests like this, and hunts down the Red Death throughout the packed castle. He follows the Red Death through all his colored rooms, finally ending in the Red Room.
The Red Death allows Prospero and the other guests to approach him, and they try to unmask him Scooby Doo style – only to realize the skull is real, and they are actually in the presence of a real ghost: the spirit of the Red Death. And, in an instant, every inhabitant of the castle succumbs to the plague and dies.
While the Red Death’s role in the story is rather small, its impact is huge, to the point where another prominent horror icon, the Phantom of the Opera, cosplayed as it in his own novel. While normally death is characterized as either a malevolent or disppasionate entity, the Red Death is presented as an almost revolutionary avenging figure. It is the wrath of the 99%, and a grim reminder that no matter how rich and powerful you may be, you cannot escape the catastrophes of the world. You do not want to cross the Red Death, for it will end you – and you will have had it coming.