Pestilence is a masked man: The Masque of the Red Death and The King in Yellow
In these chaotic times, we have many things to worry about. Climate change, poverty, violence, political unrest, the list goes on. However, we are far from the only generation dealing with despair. Taking a look back at history, humanity always has had to live with chaos. ‘’May you live in interesting times’’ is often used as a way to wish ill on someone, ironically enough.
However, there are certain periods in history that are marked by the issues they struggled with. Just as World War I and II plagued the beginning of the 20th century, various other wars and diseases overwhelmed their respective eras.
Such dramatic events often mark the media of their time. We can see the influence of the Great War on the literature and art scene of those days, just as we can see the effects of the Black Plague play through in Medieval art.
The year is 1842. Virginia Eliza Clemm Poe is suffering from the devastating effects of tuberculosis. Her husband, literary powerhouse Edgar Allan Poe is so shaken by his wife’s illness that he becomes inspired to write a story about disease and the inevitability of death. Edgar, in true Gothic fashion, tries to make sense of his misery in the only way he knows how. The title of the story is chosen to be The Mask of the Red Death.
It tells the story of a mysterious plague, the titular Red Death, that is sweeping the nation. Its symptoms include sweating blood, sharp aches and dizziness. Those that have fallen victim to the disease die within half an hour. A group of a 1,000 nobles have walled themselves in a large monastery and decide to wait out the plague in opulence and luxury. They weld the doors shut, effectively closing them off from the horrors of the outside world, where thousands are dying.
The happy and careless Prince Prospero decides to hold a masquerade ball, centering around seven rooms that are decked out in different colors. The first six rooms are respectively colored in blue, purple, green, orange, white and violet. It is the last room that is most grotesque: completely covered in black nothingness, only illuminated by one blood red light. None of the 1,000 nobles dares to go into the last room. There is only one piece of décor in this room: a large ebony clock, chiming each hour, filling each guest with dread and making the room fall silent.
Suddenly, when the clock strikes midnight, the guests notice a dark figure hiding in the darkness of the room. The figure wears a blood-splattered funeral shroud and a mask that looks like a corpse that was stricken by the Red Death. Prospero becomes enraged and demands to know who is hiding behind the mask, so they can hang him. The masked person crosses the various rooms, until he comes upon the last room. Prospero follows him, but when he finally faces the figure, he falls dead to the floor. The crowd of nobles decide to forcibly undress the unknown person that killed their Prince. But, to their horror, they find nothing underneath. It is only then that they realize this figure is the manifestation of the Red Death, and every last noble contracts the plague and dies.
It is often said that the Red Death was allegorical for man trying to stave of his death, an impossible feat. The Red Death is mostly speculated to be tuberculosis, a disease that took the lives of Poe’s brother, mother and later, his wife.
More than 50 years later, at the end of the 19th century, a book with similar themes is written by Robert W. Chambers. In this collection of short stories, however, it is not the masked figure of the Red Death that kills its victims, but a character known as The King in Yellow. The four stories, The Repairer of Reputations, The Yellow Sign, The Mask and In the Court of the Dragon center around the mark of the Yellow Sign, an eerie symbol that controls minds, and the people that encounter it. The stories are set in a fictional 20’s New York and Paris, where legal suicide chambers are found on the street and a mysterious play called The King in Yellow is troubling the lives of the people that read it. Once a person has read the first chapter, they find themselves irresistibly drawn to read the entire play, causing them to go crazy and die in a macabre fashion, often by the hand of the King in Yellow himself.
Just as in The Mask of the Red Death, disguises are very important for the antagonists. In Act 1, Scene 2 of the play, the following scene takes place:
Camilla: You, sir, should unmask.
Cassilda: Indeed it’s time. We have all laid aside disguise but you.
Stranger: I wear no mask.
Camilla: (Terrified, aside to Cassilda.) No mask? No mask!
As soon as the main characters read further than the first chapter or encounter the Yellow Sign, they are stricken by a disease, marked by paranoia and hallucinations. They go screaming down the street and find themselves unable to think of anything but the figure of the King in Yellow, who follows them in every thought. The first story The Repairer of Reputations tells of Hildred Castaigne, who becomes a recluse after reading the cursed play. He starts to become friends with the aforementioned “Repairer”, Mr. Wilde, who keeps feral cats and convinces Hildred that he is the Last King in the Imperial Dinasty of America. The disease, however, convinces Hildred that his cousin is trying to steal his throne, and thus, Hildred kills him. When he goes back to Mr. Wilde to tell him the good news, he finds that Mr. Wilde has been eaten by his cats.
The two stories share similar themes, such as the impossibility of escaping death, paranoia, a masked figure that represents Death, and disease. The King in Yellow would become a major inspiration for H.P. Lovecraft’s works. It is notable that these two stories, written more than half a century apart, are so similar in the message that they are trying to convey: do not try to escape your fate, as it will come for you anyway.
Now we have to wonder which events in contemporary times will have the greatest influence on our media now. Of course, we already see that issues such as terrorism and natural decay are shaping our media products, but it is to be seen what will be the Black Plague of our times. Of course, the themes of death and despair still hold true, even today.
It is the last line of The Mask of the Red Death that explains their (and our) situation the best: “And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.”