In times of plague, it is possible that words, stories, accompanied by strings and tambourines, can serve as an antidote, as a kind of spell against contagion and death, as happens in the days of wonder and lust of the Decameron. It is possible that, seen from a distance, the plague can take on the dimensions of a distant event that killed many people and that, through certain documents, can be reconstructed many years later, as happens in Daniel Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year. And so, we will be ready to see and feel the cholera in the canals of Venice or the Black Death in the middle of a love story in Milan and Bergamo, as can be seen in the novel The Betrothed, by Alessandro Manzoni.
And as a continuation of readings, a plague with a state of siege, opera and many rats, in Camus' novel; and the blinding white plague in Saramago's novel. Pests here and there. Yesterday and today. Tomorrow and forever. (Cattle) pests that arrive in Manaure [in La Guajira, Northern Colombia, Transl. N.] and pests that cross the Mediterranean. And of all of them, and of those that are still to be related, there is one, very macabre, very mathematical, perhaps cabalistic, which is the one imagined by the most analytical of writers (at least until that moment in the nineteenth century), the Bostonian Edgar Allan Poe.
And the jingle man (as Emerson called him out, in reference to his poem The Bells), the inventor of the detective novel and the modern tale, wrote a story that may be, not because of its theme but because of its treatment, a symbolic story in which the author escapes from reflection, from the clockwork (although a clock that forebodes tragedies appears on the scene) that he uses in other of his creations. Published in 1842, The Masque of the Red Death, is a composition about a devastating plague that has been raging for a long time with the inhabitants of a country that in the story is not known, but that can be anyone, with castles and aristocrats, with carnival and party, with masquerade and a succession of rooms, seven to be exact, as architecture where the inevitable will happen.
It is a story of Gothic tonality, written by what may be one of the most rationalist authors and user of analytical methods, with operations of mathematical logic combined with pieces of high precision craftsmanship. In Red Death we witness a linear time structure with a real predominance of sentimentality, omens and the sensorial. Moreover, it can be said that it is a story in which the skin, the dances, the pleasure are transcended by the inexplicable. That situation can be called mystery. But not a mystery like that of The Murders in the Rue Morgue, for example, nor like that of Metzengerstein. It's the inescapable presence of death. Why is Poe not so rationalistic in this story?
The story is mounted on the hypothesis, which is the protagonist's, that with a confinement in a space dedicated to pleasure, to partying, to good food, to wine, one could avoid the evil of the plague, the same one that has devastated that region as never before. And the evil was embodied in blood, the scarlet red. Those who suffered from it were prey to acute pain, sudden dizziness, hematidrosis, and at the end of so much misery and fear, death came. Prince Prospero, described as fearless and sagacious, seeing that his domain was running out of people, called a thousand friends, among gentlemen and ladies of his elegant court, and with them he went to confinement in a well-fortified abbey.
The story shows how a safe enclosure, a solid fortification, is achieved, as a prevision that, outside of those who are there, no one can enter. Iron gates well closed. And just as no one could get in after all the guests, no one could get out either. Those who were there intended to defeat the plague, which was outside and which, with so many assurances, they wanted to keep from entering that apparently impregnable fortress.
Outside, the Red Death continued its work of razing. It was known, however, that inside, in the fifth or sixth month of voluntary confinement and, above all, of singular escape from the destructive ways of the Red Death, the prince offered his friends a masked ball, a kind of festive celebration to circumvent the plague and enliven the senses, activate pleasures, and make the body like a machine for feeling, for enjoying, for moving with grace. And the carnival dance (yes, because it was like a kind of inner carnival, a joy for everyone, as a victory over that which would never touch them: the plague, the scarlet death, the dreadful disease) was to be performed, as it was, in an unusual succession of rooms.
And the narrator notes that in the palaces, the rooms are in a gallery, in a straight line, and at this point begins a mysterious introduction to how there, in that construction, the rooms were arranged in another geometry, with bends and curves. Each room, with a specific colour and with curtains, with ways of letting in the light, has a functionality, as well as a singular decoration. The prince had taken care of a good part of the ornamentation, the disposition of the curtains, the class of disguises that would be used in the masquerade. The seven rooms had their story, although one of them, the one facing west, had a sort of arcane, indecipherable force, which in the end will be definitive in the outcome.
The story accounts how the music sounds, how the bodies move, how everything is a kind of dream, of collective joy, because those who are there, like a bunch of privileged people, are far away - or so they think - from the lurking plague that has been fatal. Could it be in that way, with a certain impunity marinated in wine and dance steps, the fatal siege of the plague could be defeated?
Poe, master of the use of technical ingredients such as intensity and tension, in this story takes the reader into the spaces where one dances and listens to music, where one drinks and has a good time. But it is stitching, very subtle, with elements that may suggest that something else can happen, that the sound of the pendulum clock (an ebony clock) interrupting music and dance is not free, that time has a limit there. In the enclosure, in that apparent impossibility for anyone else to enter, is the force of the narrative.
Many years later, an Italian writer, Italo Calvino, would write a singular story, another way of quixotic cavalry, and put an armour behind which, or rather, in which there was no knight inside. In Poe's story, as the reader will see, a strange masked knight will perhaps appear out of nowhere and surprise all those present, and above all Prince Prospero. It is possible that no one escapes a marked destiny. That no one can make the ultimate dribble at death. Least of all that being of terror that the mind, the thought and the imagination of a great writer will make an unexpectedly sinister appearance that no one can mock, much less defeat.
The Masque of the Red Death may be a story that the author has conceived as a diversion, as a Gothic experience, in which, moreover, with a climate of chiaroscuro and mortuary symbols, the world of the plague is present and from which, even if one dances and drinks and makes a carnival “quarantine”, there is no way of escaping. Its ghoulish scope is unstoppable. And scary. Let the music play, because, after all, death can also dance.