Masque of the Red Death

IT WAS MY FIRST HALLOWEEN PARTY  in college, and although it wasn’t my first introduction to the works of Edgar Allan Poe, it was the first time I felt the full impact of a Gothic horror story.

I was dressed as Morgan Le Fay in a long, quilted, deep-red gown with a Woolworth’s concha belt circling my hips. A fake metal sword was wedged under the belt loops. My partner was clad in a light blue tunic and crown, King Arthur. There was an astronaut, a Merlin, and a white-haired Einstein in our circle as we gathered around a low table.

We were all dressed and had congregated in a dorm room waiting for the party to start. Some of us had smoked, some had other drugs beginning to course through our systems. Jeff, our host, who wasn’t in costume yet, suggested we read a story while we waited. He found a comfortable spot among the pillows on the extra twin bed, and pulled out a worn copy of Poe’s collected short stories and began reading, “The Masque of the Red Death.” It began:

The Red Death had long devastated the country. No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous. Blood was its avatar and its seal—the redness and the horror of blood.”

Too excited to sit still any longer, my date, Wart, opened the window and climbed up and out onto the sidewalks that outlined the upper set of dorms. He scampered away, more like a rabbit than a once or future king, delighting in the cool mountain wind for a night of dancing and freedom.

Meanwhile, I was surrounded by a group of people I had known less than two months. We had some classes together, math, music, Greek—the classics. But did I really know them? We were secluded on the side of a hill, at the end of a chain of mountains that crossed down through the continent to end, pretty much, right at our feet.

Candles flickered as the words of the story wound around us. A prince hid a thousand of his “hale and light-hearted” friends within the healthy walls of his abbey, waiting out the Red Death which had killed half the city.

It was a short story, only six small pages, maybe 2400 words. I listened as the reader carved the story out of the air, and brought us all into the richness of it.

To the right and left, in the middle of each wall, a tall and narrow Gothic window looked out upon a closed corridor which pursued the windings of the suite. These windows were of stained glass whose color varied in accordance with the prevailing hue of the decorations of the chamber into which it opened…

Some were mesmerized by the story, others had heads bent to each other, smiling at the intimacy of the moment. I was impatient to begin the party, and find my king. The short story continued.

The seventh apartment was closely shrouded in black velvet tapestries that hung all over the ceiling and down the walls, falling in heavy folds upon a carpet of the same material and hue. But in this chamber only, the color of the windows failed to correspond with the decorations. The panes here were scarlet—a deep blood color.

There were buffoons at the prince’s party, ballet-dancers, musicians, “there was Beauty, there was wine.” They danced and partied behind iron gates welded shut while the populace died outside, bodies contorted with pain, faces oozing blood from their pores.

UNTIL ONE PERSON, at the stroke of midnight, appeared in a costume of extreme bad taste. Clad in the garments of the grave, wearing a mask painted with splotches of red, he made his way through the revelers, who parted to allow the tall, draped figure through, as if it were the Red Death himself. His clothes, his mask, and his demeanor bothered the guests.

Even with the utterly lost, to whom life and death are equally jests, there are matters of which no jest can be made.”

The Prince demands the guest to unmask and follows the gaunt, tall figure through his apartments until they reach the last, black room. The Prince pulls out a dagger, the figure turns and the Prince cries out and falls to the soft sable carpet, dead. The guests immediately throng the figure, and pull at his costume, but find no purchase for their hands.

And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night. And one by one dropped the revelers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall.”

As Jeff closed the book softly, the bell from the Administration building, as if to toll the end of one party and the beginning of another, started to ring. We jumped up and bustled out of the dorms and down to the lit hall, others in colorful costumes, dancing and laughing along the way, joined us and we made a nighttime parade.

SOMETIME DURING THE DANCE, I was in a large circle of people, swirling around and around, when I saw, at the edge of my vision, a tall, gaunt figure in a flowing red cape, with a mask spattered with red…paint. In my dizzying revelry, I could not disconnect it from the Poe story, and I stopped dancing. The figure approached me, knowing that I knew. It was Jeff, of course, but another part of my mind decided it was the Red Death.

Those around us made a space and I danced with the Red Death on Halloween.

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Photo: Steve Forrest. “The Masque of the Red Death” was adapted by Punchdrunk Productions, in collaboration with Battersea Arts Centre, as a promenade theatre performance in Battersea from September 17, 2007 to April 12, 2008.

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