Edgar Allen Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death is a Gothic tale of horror and of the comeuppance of the nobility who revel while the poor die of the plague. I hope you enjoy this modernized but faithful adaptation.
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. It caused sharp pains, sudden dizziness, profuse bleeding from the pores, and finally death. The scarlet stains upon the body and especially the face of the victim, were the symptom which shut him out from the aid and from the sympathy of his fellow men. The whole seizure by, progress and termination of the disease took only half an hour.
Nevertheless, Prince Prospero was happy, undaunted and perceptive. When his dominions were half depopulated, he summoned a thousand healthy and light-hearted friends from among the knights and dames of his court, and retired with them to the deep seclusion of one of his fortified abbeys. It was an extensive and magnificent structure, the creation of the prince’s own eccentric yet dignified taste. A strong and lofty wall girdled it in. The wall had gates of iron. The courtiers, having entered, brought furnaces and heavy hammers and welded the bolts. They resolved to leave no way of in and no egress to any falling to the impulses of despair or of frenzy within. The abbey was amply provisioned. With such precautions, the courtiers bid defiance to contagion. The external world could take care of itself. In the meantime it was folly to grieve or to worry. The prince had provided all means of pleasure. There were buffoons, improvisers, ballet dancers, musicians, beautiful people, and wine. All these and security were inside. Outside was the red death.
Toward the close of the fifth or sixth month of his seclusion, while the pestilence raged furiously abroad, Prince Prospero entertained his thousand friends with a masked ball of most unusual magnificence.
It was a voluptuous scene. The masquerade was held in seven rooms—an imperial suite. In many palaces, such suites form a long and straight line of rooms, while folding doors slide back nearly to the walls on either side, so that the view of the entire space is scarcely impeded. This suit was very different, as might have been expected from the prince’s love of the bizarre. The apartments were so irregularly arranged that one’s vision embraced little more than one at a time. There was a sharp turn every twenty or thirty yards, and at each turn a new effect. To the right and left, in the middle of each wall, a tall, narrow, gothic window looked out onto a closed corridor which followed the windings of the suite. These windows were of stained glass whose colour varied in accordance with the prevailing hue of the decorations of the chamber onto which it opened. The easternmost room was hung, for example, in blue—and its windows were vividly blue. The second chamber had purple ornaments and tapestries, and here the panes were purple. The third was green throughout, and so were the casements. The fourth was furnished and lighted in orange, the fifth white, and the sixth violet. The seventh apartment was closely shrouded in black velvet tapestries that covered the ceiling and hung down all the walls, falling in heavy folds to a carpet of the same material and hue. In this chamber only, the colour of the windows failed to correspond with the decorations. The panes here were scarlet—a deep blood red. In none of the seven apartments was there any lamp or candelabrum, amid the profusion of golden ornaments that lay scattered to and fro or depended from the roof. No light of any kind emanated from a lamp or candle within the suite of chambers. But in the corridors outside the suite, there stood a heavy tripod outside each window bearing a brazier of fire that projected its rays through the tinted glass and glaringly illumined the room. This were produced a multitude of gaudy and fantastic appearances. In the westernmost and black chamber, the effect of the firelight that streamed upon the dark hangings through the blood tinted panes was extremely ghastly, and cast so wild a look upon the countenances of those who entered, that few of the company were bold enough to set foot within it.
In this apartment, a gigantic clock of ebony stood against the western wall. Its pendulum swung to and fro with a dull, heavy, monotonous clang. When the minute hand had made the circuit of its face, and the hour was to be struck, a sound came from the brazen lungs of the clock that was clear, loud, deep, and exceedingly musical. It chimed with such peculiar notes and emphasis that, at the top of each hour, the musicians of the orchestra were constrained to pause, momentarily, in their performance, to listen to the sound, the waltzers were forced ceased their revolutions, and the entire happy company was briefly disconcerted. While the chimes of the clock rang, the giddiest of them grew pale, and the more aged and sedate passed their hands across their brows as if in confused reverie or meditation. But when the echoes had fully ceased, light laughter at once pervaded the assembly. The musicians looked at each other and smiled as if at their own nervousness and folly, and made whispering vows to each other that the next chiming of the clock should produce no similar emotion in them. Then, after sixty minutes had passed, the clock chimed once more, causing the same discomfort, nervousness, and meditation as before.
In spite of these things, it was a happy and magnificent revel. The tastes of the prince were peculiar. He had a fine eye for colours and effects. He disregarded the decore of mere fashion. His plans were bold and fiery, and his conceptions glowed with barbaric lustre. Some thought him mad. His followers did not. It was necessary to hear, see, and touch him to be sure that he was not.
He had directed, in great part, the decoration of the seven chambers for the occasion of this great fete. His own guiding taste had given character to the masqueraders. To be sure, they were grotesque. There was much glare and glitter, provocative and phantasmic. There were arabesque figures with unsuited limbs and appointments. There were delirious ideas of the kind a madman would fashion. There was much beauty, wantonness, and bizarreness, something of the terrible, and more than a little of the disgusting. To and fro in the seven chambers there stalked a multitude of dreams. These dreams writhed in and about, taking their colour from the rooms, and causing the wild music of the orchestra to seem like the echo of their steps. Soon enough, the ebony clock which stood in the hall of black velvet would strike. Then, for a moment, all was still and silent save the voice of the clock. The dreams were stiff, frozen as they stood. But the echoes of the chime died away—they endured for only an instant—and a light, half subdued laughter floated after them as they departed. Again the music swelled, and the dreams lived, and writhed to and fro more merrily than ever, taking colour from the many-tinted windows through which light streamed from the braziers. But to the chamber which lay furthest to the west of the seven, none of the maskers ventured, for the night was waning away. A ruddier light flowed through the blood coloured panes, and the blackness of the sable drapery appalled, and to one whose foot fell upon the sable carpet, there came from the nearby clock of ebony a muffled peal more solemnly emphatic than any which reached the ears of those who indulged in the more remote revelry in the other apartments.
The other apartments were densely crowded, and the heart of life beat feverishly in them. The revel went whirling on, until midnight midnight was sounded by the clock. Yhen the music ceased, the revolutions of the waltzers were quieted, and there was an uneasy cessation of all things as before. But this time, there were twelve strokes to be sounded by the bell of the clock. So it happened, perhaps, that more thought crept, with more of time, into the meditations of the thoughtful among those who revelled. So too, it happened, perhaps, that before the last echoes of the last chime had utterly sunk into silence, many individuals in the crowd had become aware of the presence of a masked figure who had caught the attention of no single individual before. The rumour of this new presence spread itself whisperingly around, and a buzz arose from the entire company, a murmur of disapproval, surprise, and, finally, terror, horror, and disgust.
In such an assembly of phantasms, it might be supposed that no ordinary appearance could have excited such a sensation. In truth, the night’s masquerade gave the revellers nearly unlimited license, but the figure in question had gone beyond the bounds of even the prince’s indefinite decorum. There are chords in the hearts of the most reckless which cannot be touched without emotion. Even with the utterly lost, to whom life and death are equally jokes, there are matters of which are not to be joked of. The whole company seemed to deeply feel that the costume and bearing of the stranger had neither wit nor propriety. The figure was tall and gaunt, shrouded from head to foot in the garments of the grave. The mask which concealed its visage was made so nearly to resemble the countenance of a stiffened corpse that the closest scrutiny would have had difficulty in detecting the fraud. Yet all this might have been endured, if not approved of, by the mad revellers around him, had not this person gone so far as to assume the look of a victim of the red death. His clothes were dabbled in blood, and his broad brow, and all the features of his face, sprinkled with the scarlet horror.
When the eyes of Prince Prospero fell upon this spectral image which, with a slow and solemn movement, as if more fully to sustain its role, stalked to and fro among the waltzers, he convulsed for a moment with a strong shudder either of terror or distaste. In the next, his brow reddened with rage.
“Who dares?” he demanded hoarsely of the courtiers who stood near him, “to insult us with this blasphemous mockery? Seize him and unmask him, so that we know who we have to hang at sunrise from the battlements!”
Prince Prospero stood in the easternmost blue chamber as he uttered these words. They rang throughout the seven rooms loudly and clearly, because the prince was a bold and robust man, and the music was hushed at the wave of his hand.
The prince stood in the blue room, with a group of pale courtiers at his side. At first, when he spoke, this group made a slight rushing movement in the direction of the intruder, who at the moment was near at hand, and, with deliberate and stately steps, approached the speaker more closely. But the mad pretensions of the figure had inspired a nameless awe in the entire party, and no one put forth a hand to seize him. Unimpeded, he passed within a yard of the prince. The vast assembly, as if with one impulse, shrank from the centers of the rooms to the walls, and he made his way uninterrupted, but with the same solemn and measured step which had distinguished him from the beginning, through the blue chamber to the purple, the green, the orange, the white, and finally to the violet, before any movement had been made to arrest him. Prince Prospero, maddened with rage and shame of his own momentary cowardice, rushed hurriedly through the six chambers, though none followed him, due to a deadly terror that had seized them all. He held his drawn dagger, and approached, in rapid impetuosity, to within three or four feet of the retreating figure. The masked man, reachin the far wall of the velvet apartment, turned suddenly and confronted his pursuer. There was a sharp cry, and the dagger dropped gleaming upon the sable carpet, upon which, an instant later, Prince Prospero fell prostrate in death. Summoning the wild courage of despair, a throng of the revellers threw themselves into the black apartment, and, seizing the man, whose tall figure stood erect and motionless in the shadow of the ebony clock, gasped in unutterable horror at finding the grave-cerements and corpse-like mask which they handled so violently, uninhabitted by any tangible form.
Now they acknowledged the presence of the red death. He had come like a thief in the night. One by one, the revellers dropped in the blood bedewed halls of their revel, and died in the despairing postures in which they fell. The life of the ebony clock went out with that of the last of them, and the flames of the braziers expired, and darkness and decay and the red death held illimitable dominion over all.
Image by Harry Clarke from the digital collection of the British Library