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The Masque of the Red Death (1842)

Or: How the Plague Was Thwarted, and Then Took Revenge

By Tom BakerPublished 4 months ago 5 min read
Lon Chaney Sr. as the "Red Death" in 1925's "The Phantom of the Opera."

What of the mad Prince Prospero, and his designs to remain alive, even during the "Red Death" of the plague?

Outside, the peasantry died a verminous death, covered in sores and heaped, e must assume, into piles of stinking, rotting, cadaverous bodies, heads, "like cordwood," until last rites could be performed, and then the stinking, fly-ridden piles set to the blaze.

Butt his was for the poor, and they alone, already doomed and damned by the inscrutable workings of a vengeful God, were consigned to an oblivion of the ages; to be burned and then rendered into so much ash, their existence upon this cruel earth ever to be forgotten. But no such fate was in store for the mad, malevolent Prospero; oh no, his own personal palazzo was to be decked out and fortified in the finest fashion, armored against the encroachments of death creeping along, like an invisible hand, in the outside world.

To that tend, sealed inside, as if in a luxuriant crypt, the Prince and his guests saw fit to celebrate the ever-quickening pace toward which life meets its inexorable end. Or, they bibbed wine and danced like fools to forget. But, the ebony clock and its heavy, somber chimes at the stroke of midnight, saw them, "perforce cease their perambulations." In other words, they stopped drinking and dancing and listened to the siren song of the grave.

There were seven rooms, each decorated to suggest the wildest and most outre of tastes and the most expensive pleasures. Each was fitted, as it were, with a pane of stained glass, and, in the closed corridors beyond the pane, a burning brazier sent a spectral light through the colored glass, illuminating the room within to a bizarre and outlandish effect. Thus, the visitor to these rooms could pass from a world lit by a shade of green, red, blue, and, finally, one of unearthly, ghastly black.

It was only at the stroke of midnight that the drunken, masked revelers remembered that they, too, had to die; despite their beauty and their wealth, the vast advantage that fate had afforded them by the privilege into which they were born. For a time, as the bells of the ebony clock chimed, they stopped, seemingly in confusion. Or, perhaps, in remembrance; and, until the final stroke was rung, they seemed suddenly a melancholy lot of damned souls.

Nonetheless, once the hour had been sounded, the revelers once again began their celebrations. Outside, stinking, starving, filthy peasants may die in hovels teeming with rats, their bodies burned upon smoking pyres until only the charred and blackened bones remained to be filled into mass graves--but, within Prince Prospero's sanctuary, there was no suffering, no sickness, no death--only the eternal gala celebration of a life that one might, in their most fantastic moments, conceive of as going on FOREVER.

But, alas...

It was here that the Red Death, dressed in the finery of the grave, crept in cautiously, stealthily, oh so stealthily, covered in the cerements of the tomb, the cloak of despair, and masked as one whose face bore the pallor and likeness of the dead, came into this abode, I say, in search of the knavish, cruel, impenitent Prince Prospero. To deliver to him a special gift.

The revelers make to seize the man. They follow this outrageously costumed party-goer through each of the colored rooms, until, finally, they are at the final, ghastly room, the one whose light is colored in shades of sepulchral black. The Prince draws his dagger to administer his own brand of justice upon this dangerous and insulting upstart, this man that has brought the dark image of disease, death, and decay into the sanctuary that Prospero has struggled with so much difficulty to fortify himself against.

He falls over, clutching his breast, his face a rictus of pure shock as the ghost is grabbed, instantly, from out his quivering, dying form.

The party-goers and celebrants rush forward to grab the costumed cadaver. Inside the cloak they find--nothing. The mask of DEATH was worn by no face, no HUMAN face that is. And, as the tale closes: "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 revellers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall. And the life of the ebony clock went out with that of the last of the gay. And the flames of the tripods expired. And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all."

Death cannot be thwarted. He may be stealthily dodged for a short while, but, eventually, the phantom reaper will make his presence known, appearing, as Prince Prospero observes, as a "thief in the night"; and this is why his cloak is empty, his masque of tragedy worn by no human face. It is because it is us, it is a thing common to every man and woman ever born, ever Son of Adam, Daughter of Eve. Each, one day, in his own inimitable fashion shall wear that cloak, wrap its cold, stinking, icy cloth around our inert, bluing flesh, and slip on that same mask, suggesting the livid hue of the newborn dead.

And there will be no sunrise then.

Instead, Midnight it will always be.

The Red Death is inexorable. He is also INVISIBLE. And not because he is a ghost. But because he is each and every one of us.

"Ashes to ashes, they all fall down."


About the Creator

Tom Baker

Author of Haunted Indianapolis , Indiana Ghost Folklore, , Midwest Maniacs, Midwest UFOs and Beyond, Scary Urban Legends, 50 Famous Fables and Folk Tales, Notorious Crimes of the Upper Midwest : http://tombakerbooks.weebly.com

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