But Prince Prospero was happy and dauntless and sagacious. When his dominions were half depopulated, he summoned to his presence a thousand hale and light-hearted friends from among the knights and dames of his court, and with these retired to the deep seclusion of one of his crenellated abbeys.
— Edgar Allan Poe, “Masque of the Red Death,” 1842
In this time of plague and the raw experience of our shared vulnerability to a devouring virus, we can look to literature for, if not comfort, perhaps insight.
Edgar Allan Poe is, of course, our best instructor, and no work of his is more appropriate at this time than “The Masque of the Red Death.”
A dire little fable that strikes at the heart of our present dilemma as a society and as a species, Poe’s short fiction is a tour de force of gothic horror, vividly set against the excess and entitlement of aristocratic wealth and power.
As such, it is enduring. For all the abstraction and remoteness of its medieval or renaissance setting, the vanity and privilege of the Prince and his court are familiar fare to today’s reader.
So too are the descriptions of the plague’s effects on the human body, evoking as they do the modern-day horrors of the Ebola and Marburg viruses.
Yet for all of Poe’s achievements in the telling, what makes “Masque” a truly great work is not the weirdly atmospheric setting, its grotesques, or the implacable advance of disease, but rather that it is a deeply moral tale.
This isn’t a story of fear, but rather of its sophistication as horror — and all horror fiction of any consequence and achievement is moral.
Horror is a combination of both fear and revulsion. True horror succeeds not merely because of the terror it evokes, but also because of its power to affront our sense of decency and rightness in the world. It is provoked by the corruption and violation not just of the body, but of the spirit, the soul, the self.
Reading “Masque,” we experience horror across this spectrum of human experience. We are unsettled by the decadent chambers and disorienting sensuality of Prince Prospero’s “crenellated abbey.” We anticipate with dread and fascination the plague’s inevitable appearance and advance. And we are outraged by the court itself, with its abdication of social responsibility and its retreat into appetite and indulgence in the face of widespread calamity.
We experience horror not just at the disease, but also at the character and ethics of the aristocrats who would escape it.
Of course, they cannot escape, and the horror of their self-entrapment is instructive. It reveals the depths and limits of our humanity: The fallibility beneath the bravado, the selfishness and vanity beneath the patina of power and nobility.
The Prince — arrogant, corrupted, venal — is, fittingly, the first to succumb to the Red Death, when it attends his greatest and final masked ball personified as a spectral pauper’s corpse in rags.
In this regard there is not only no escape for the wealthy and powerful, but also a punitive sort of justice in the Red Death’s fatal visitation, deep within the abbey’s labyrinthine walls.
Poe’s gothic masterpiece shines a baleful light on our own time and place — a world in the grip of a modern pandemic that we are damn lucky is not more like Ebola or Marburg in its effects; a world that is just as wealthy, decadent, corrupted, exploitative and unjust as the Prince’s.
In this world of ours, such words as “coronavirus” and “COVID-19” are dreadful invocations.
By these words we live not merely in fear of suffering, loss and death; we are also confronted by horrors that assault our very sense of rightness, decency, security and hope.
We are deeply vulnerable, and it is horrifying. Nature does not care. We are not special — mere biology lays us low, regardless of the heights of our intellect, the achievements of our culture. The cull is widespread and inexorable.
The world we have made, too, is a horror show, rife with injustice and inequity that in the pandemic era have been thrown into sharp relief.
You know of what I speak.
The lonely deaths at home. The hospitals, losing medical staff and patients alike amidst pathetically avoidable shortages of ventilators and personal protective gear. The higher death rates among communities that are poor, marginalized, elderly and weakened.
The mass graves.
Today, the streets of our cities, towns, and suburbs are stalked by a silent, invisible killer.
It espies us in our workplaces, on public transit, in restaurants and bars. It follows us home, slipping through our doors undetected.
Most of us it seems to merely observe — standing, as it were, over our beds at night, a ghastly voyeur to our breath, our pulse, the stirrings of our undisturbed dreams.
Others it toys with, a cat batting about some small, helpless creature. We gasp for breath, are gripped by fever — and those of us that survive its assaults are left scarred, deep inside, in ways we barely understand.
Some of its victims are found only after it’s far too late, suffocated to death in their own beds.
And yet, we are lucky, as a whole. We have a chance to learn from this — from the horror it represents and reveals, about us and our world.
We can learn from these horrors, and grow as a society, as a people, as a species. We can cultivate our compassion, our preparedness, and our ability to care for ourselves and each other, and make this a safer, more wholesome, healthy world for all.
We get to have another chance, because, as agonizing and cruel as COVID-19 has been, it is not quite the Red Death, or some terrible, modern-day equivalent.
Not quite. Not this time.