It’s impossible to read Poe and not summon up the image of Vincent Price. Growing up with the parents I did I didn’t just watch Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, or Friday the 13th movies during the Halloween season. I did watch these films, but I had to wait until my parents went to sleep because Freddy Krueger freaks my mom the fuck out. Along with more contemporary horror movies though my mom and dad would insist that we watch some old school horror movies as well. TCM is a go-to channel in the Smith house, and damn-it when there’s a Vincent Price marathon on you watch it. Somewhere between The Pit and Pendulum, The Tingler, and The Fall of the House of Usher, Robert Osbourne announced The Masque of the Red Death and I managed to find another bit of space to scoot closer to the television because I had read this story in English and I really wanted to see it performed.
Watching the film, it’s obvious someone was on pot, I’m just not sure which one it was. Most assuredly the audience was because the film is crafted so that the dramatic color scheme can appeal to the stoners who decided to get high and watch a movie. And when you remember the film was released in 1964 this statement isn’t just lazy mass classification. Hollywood was pushing more and more towards counter-culture in its film releases and so anything they could do to appeal to baby-boomers helped. You could make the argument that the director and producers might also have been on drugs, but I’d like to think that Vincent Price made sure that Roger Corman managed to get a few good shots in before taking another hit on the blunt.
Reading The Masque of the Red Death in school however was a bit of a surreal experience, more so than the film, and even reading the short story years later while sitting in the soft orange glow of my lamp the story didn’t lose any of its surreal quality. I recognize that the word surreal has been bastardized to mean something weird, strange, and definitively “not real” and so I have to clarify what I’m actually trying to say. Surreal art doesn’t mean impossible; it means super-real. Watching, reading, or experiencing any kind of surreal art is not about observing oddity, it just means experiencing something that, while you recognize it couldn’t happen in mundane reality, it feels as if it is actually real.
A good example of this is in the essay David Lynch Keeps his Head by David Foster Wallace. It’s the fifth essay in the collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, and it covers Wallace breaking down the aesthetic and craft of Lynch while reporting about being on the set for the filming of Lynch’s movie Lost Highway. At one point he describes first seeing Blue Velvet with some of his fellow Creative Writing student friends from Harvard and the profound effect it had on him:
This was the context in which Blue Velvet made such an impression on us. The Movie’s obvious “themes”—the evil flipside to the picket-fence respectability, the conjunctions of sadism and sexuality and parental authority and voyerurism and cheesy ‘50s pop and Coming of Age, etc.—were for us less revelatory than the way the movie’s surrealism and dream logic felt: they felt true, real. And the couple things just slightly but marvelously off in every shot […] it wasn’t just that these touches seemed eccentrically cool or experimental or arty, but that they communicated things that felt true. (200-1).
Wallace purposefully italicizes the words true and real, but it’s important to note how the word “felt” precedes them all. Surreal art feels real because the elements, often concrete objects like clocks, fruits, trains, or dishware, allow people to observe what they know is real while also observing these objects in odd arrangements. A bowl is something we know is real because we see or use one almost every day. Seeing a bowl filled with ten small elephants is a surreal image because, what we know of elephants, that they are massive in size, distorts reality and makes us feel as if something odd is occurring or else that we’re dreaming. Or, that Skinny Dave laced the stuff with LSD and we need to have a talk with him once the gloves hovering over the coffee table stop arguing in sign language.
It’s import then to remember how real dreams feel when we’re having them, and even, at times, after we have woken up and immediately forgotten them.
Edgar Allen Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death in my mind is a surreal story because the elements in the plot create the sensation that we’re observing and feeling something real even as we observe a story that, for all its real elements, is really rather abstract. Prince Prospero, an alliterative name that would make even Stan Lee blush, is a mad monarch, now I’m doing it, who has hidden himself away in his castle while a disease known as the Red Death ravages the countryside. The reader is given no other details about the nationality, or even the continent, though it’s generally felt by the reader that the story is about Europe during the Plague. Prospero decides to lock himself, and a thousand “friends” and fellow monarchs up in his castle while outside the common people are dying of this decimating contagion. Prospero arranges his castle into a series of colored rooms and, one one night in question, holds an elaborate masquerade ball. If you don’t know what that is think of Mardi Gras when people wear masks and beads and feather and usually nothing else. The party is fine but for an obnoxious ebony clock which distracts people, until one of the guests appears dressed in a long red robe and a mask that is reminiscent of a victim of the “Red Death.” Prospero is outraged and chases the figure down the halls until he rips off the mask and it’s discovered that the figure is the embodiment of death sent to punish these arrogant nobles for trying to outrun death at the expense of their responsibility.
If this sounds like the start of a fantasy epic, or else a really great episode of the Twilight Zone, that impulse is well founded. Poe’s story is most certainly a warning about the danger of vanity and its ultimate effect upon the individual who entertains this vice. But I’m not here to work in morals, my concern is horror for surrealism can be a marvelous way to explore nightmares.
In one rather long quotes Poe sets up the party by writing of the various rooms in which the participants occupy:
It was a voluptuous scene, that masquerade. But first let me tell of the rooms in which it was held. These were seven—an imperial suite. In many palaces, however, such suites form a long and straight vista, while the folding doors slide back nearly to the walls on either hand, so that the view of the whole extent is scarcely impeded. Here the case was very different, as might have been expected from the duke’s love of the bizarre. The apartments were so irregularly disposed that the vision embraced but little more than one at a time. There was a sharp turn at every twenty or thirty yards, and at each turn a novel effect. To the right and left, in the middle of each wall, a tall and narrow Gothic window looked out upon a closed corridor which pursued the windings of the suite. These windows were of stained glass whose color varied in accordance with the prevailing hue of the decorations of the chamber into which it opened. That at the eastern extremity was hung, for example, in blue—and vividly blue were its windows. The second chamber was purple in its 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 with orange—the fifth with white—the sixth with violet. The seventh apartment was closely shrouded in black velvet tapestries that hung all over the ceiling and down the walls, falling in heavy folds upon a carpet of the same material and hue. But in this chamber only, the color of the windows failed to correspond with the decorations. The panes here were scarlet—a deep blood color. Now in no one 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. There was no light of any kind emanating from lamp or candle within the suite of chambers. But in the corridors that followed the suite, there stood, opposite to each window, a heavy tripod, bearing a brazier of fire, that projected its rays through the tinted glass and so glaringly illumined the room. And thus were produced a multitude of gaudy and fantastic appearances. But in the western or black chamber the effect of the firelight that streamed upon the dark hangings through the blood-tinted panes, was ghastly in the extreme, and produced so wild a look upon the countenances of those who entered, that there were few of the company bold enough to set foot within its precincts at all. (485-6).
The surreal quality of the rooms is proof enough that Poe is a brilliant, but more importantly an efficient writer, because far too often I’ve read writers who believe having a character see a Great Horned Owl wearing a mortarboard qualifies as surreal. Poe’s efficiency though is established because he masters color.
Color is delicate mechanism in prose because writers run the risk of either being too specific or too vague when describing an object’s particular hue. Ultramarine blended with Teal is sure to leave the reader stumbling for that color shade card their wife picked out at LOWES for the baby’s room, while “that shade of blue the color of eyes” will not only leave someone dissatisfied, it will send them to Amazon where their review of the book will be the stuff of nightmares. Color has to be approached carefully in writing, and Poe’s success is that he doesn’t try to pick obscure shades, rather he lets his reader feel the colors by simply noting blue, purple, red, and black and allowing the uniformity of matching windows and furniture create the impression of these rooms. They become surreal spaces because as one would move from the purple room to the yellow room the physiological response would be almost blinding and dream-like. Reading them alone the reader is able to feel that dramatic shift in hues and so these dense color patterns create a sensation that can only accurately be felt rather than described.
My reader may wonder what this talk of surrealism has to do with horror. The room themselves wouldn’t create the horror, it’s the grand ebony clock that finally does it.
Poe describes in Prospero’s castle a grand clock that interrupts the party and the effect of his description still resonates:
It was in this apartment, also, that there stood against the western wall, a gigantic clock of ebony. Its pendulum swung to and fro with a dull, heavy, monotonous clang; and when the minute-hand made the circuit of the face, and the hour was to be stricken, there came from the brazen lungs of the clock a sound which was clear and loud and deep and exceedingly musical, but of so peculiar a note and emphasis that, at each lapse of an hour, the musicians of the orchestra were constrained to pause, momentarily, in their performance, to hearken to the sound; and thus the waltzers perforce ceased their evolutions; and there was a brief disconcert of the whole gay company; and, while the chimes of the clock yet rang, it was observed that the giddiest grew pale, and the more aged and sedate passed their hands over their brows as if in confused revery or meditation. But when the echoes had fully ceased, a 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, each to the other, that the next chiming of the clock should produce in them no similar emotion; and then, after the lapse of sixty minutes (which embrace three thousand and six hundred seconds of the Time that flies), there came yet another chiming of the clock, and then were the same disconcert and tremulousness and meditation as before. (486-7).
These two opening passages are, by themselves, not terribly frightening. Just about anything taken out of context will not strike the reader or viewer as frightening. As with the case of Blue Velvet, what matters in these passages is their context to the rest of the story and the general feeling that they are real, or at least true.
I read The Masque of the Red Death again, sitting alone in my office by the lamp on the table that sits just under the window. There are two lamps that create a soft amber glow when it is night, and while I have the window-shades shut, there is still always the feeling of a presence just outside the window. Perhaps that’s why, when I finished the story, and placed Poe beside my plastic skull and copy of The Book of Beetles, the super-realness of the clock still reverberated and I felt, just for a moment, that I might have actually heard its distracting echo.
I’ve written recently, about Poe’s exploration of the dark and mysterious realms of reality, often pushing into the space of the “World Without Men,” and while I agree that The Masque of the Red Death certainly continues this aesthetic, I can’t shake off the idea of feeling the super-real. The reason for this is because Halloween is approaching and so most people are preparing for the night when spirits are supposed to be more present or at least more accessible to this realm. And while reason is the defining principle by which I live my life, and while I detest any argument that supports the existence of the supernatural, there is a little joy in putting skeletons in my front yard and enjoying a little fright.
But I’m a writer and making connections is important, so while Poe’s super-realness is observed in his Masque of the Red Death, reading the story was also an excuse to get back to another point in my life, or more accurately, another author.
My regular reader will realize that Stephen King really started it all for me, in terms of realizing that I wanted to be a writer. After reading The Green Mile I began to write, mostly shit, but I started writing because King explored an interesting territory that I wanted to try. I eventually gave up writing horror because, and I need to be honest here, I suck at it. You have to have the right chops to scare people and my weakness is I’m too intellectual. I know that sounds vain as fucking fuck but it’s not meant to be. My only claim here is that I’m in too much of a rush to explore ideas rather than feelings, and when looking at horror all you’re talking about is feelings.
The book that really sealed the death of my career as a horror writer was The Shining because, after reading that, I knew I could never compete with King. Apart from Pet Cemetery, and his short story 1408, there is no King book that scared me so terribly as The Shining. The novel is about a man by the name of Jack Torrance, a former high school English teacher who has been fired for assaulting a student and is looking for a job. He gets hired as a caretaker of The Overlook, a resort hotel in Colorado. Jack has just kicked his alcoholism and is looking for a chance to write and so he takes the job to spend the winter in the Overlook with his wife Wendy and his son Dany until the spring. It becomes clear, once the family moves into the hotel, that supernatural forces are attacking the family in different ways, and Jack in particular, is eventually selected to handle the job of killing Wendy and Danny because Danny is psychokinetic. Jack eventually succumbs to the house, but not before trying to save Danny from himself and destroying the boiler so that the hotel explodes in a mess of fire.
Immediately some might question what relevance the novel has to Poe’s short story, but this question is ended before it begins when they open the book and observe that the clock passage cited before is used as an epigraph to the novel. Not only that, but throughout the text actual references to The Masque of the Red Death are cited to the point that King builds the elements of the story into his actual novel. In one particular instance King doesn’t even try to hide the fact he’s using the story to build his own. In the final 100 pages of the novel, which for the record often feel like a marathon sprint because everything just falls into place and King just attacks his reader, Wendy is fleeing the ghosts which are appearing and there’s a dramatic scene:
The ballroom doors were thrown wide, only blackness spilling out. From within came a steady ticking, like a bomb. She under glass. Jack or Danny must have wound it..or maybe it had wound itself up, like everything else in the Overlook.
She turned toward the reception desk, meaning to go through the gate and the managers office and into the kitchen. Gleaning dull silver, she could see the intended lunch tray.
Then the clock began to strike, like tinkling notes.
Wendy stiffened, her tongue rising to the roof of her mouth. Then she relaxed. It was striking eight, that was all. Eight o’clock.
…five, six, seen…
She counted the strokes. It suddenly seemed wrong to move again until the clock had stilled.
(?? Nine ??)
Suddenly, belatedly, it came to her. She turned back clumsily for the stairs, knowing already she was too late. But how could she have known.
All the lights in the ballroom went on. There was a huge, shrieking flourish of brass. Wendy screamed aloud, the sound of her cry insignificant against the blare issuing from those brazen lungs.
“Unmask!” the cry echoed. “Unmask! Unmask!”
Then they faded, as if down a long corrido of time, leaving her alone again.
No, not alone.
She turned and he was coming for her. (397-8).
Because this scene is a climax the same level of super-real effect isn’t so potent out of context, but when this scene appears I can only speak for myself, I almost put the book down for fear of continuing. The shadows on the wall, which had just been shades created by the lamps and ceiling fans, began to move in ways that disturbed me and so my option was finish the book or attempt to move and leave the room. For obvious reasons I kept reading. King’s ability with structuring his writing, the use of ellipses and parenthesis especially, create this slowly growing sense of terror because they become impressions of thought that the reader, after a while, cannot tell whether it is their own thoughts or the character’s. The only problem with this passage is that, while you have the clock and the lunch tray, this scene completely abandons the surreal for the supernatural. It’s frightening and climactic, but long after reading it the reader will recognize you need the earlier passages to make it unnerving and terrifying.
To see King working this surreal quality I need to take the reader back to an earlier passage.
Before the grand climax and the “unmasking,” there is a moment earlier in the novel where Danny is walking about the hotel and he realizes that he is about to have to walk past an emergency hose if he wants to go back to his Mom and Dad. This scene remains my first real memory of reading The Shining, because the experience and sensation was so reminiscent of my own experience.
Danny looked around the corner.
The extinguisher was there, a flat hose folded back a dozen times on itself, the red tank attached to the wall. Above it was an ax in a glass case like a museum exhibit, with white words printed on a red background: IN CASE OF EMERGENCY, BREAK GLASS. Danny could read the word EMERGENCY, which was also the name of one of his favorite TV shows, but was unsure of the rest. But he didn’t like the way the word was used in connection with that long flat hose. EMERGENCY was fire, explosions, car crashes, hospitals, sometimes death. And he didn’t like the way the hose hung there so blandly on the wall. When he was alone, he always skittered past these extinguishers as fast as he could. No particular reason. It felt better to go fast. It felt safer.
He started towards it, moving closer to the far wall until his right arm was brushing the expensive silk paper. Twenty steps away. Fifteen. A dozen.
When he was ten steps away, the brass nozzle suddenly rolled off the flat loop it had been lying
On and fell to the hall carpet with a dull thump. It lay there, the dark bore of its muzzle pointing at Danny. He stopped immediately, his shoulders twitching forward with the suddenness of his scare. His blood thumped tickly in his ears and temples. His mouth had gone dry and sour, his hands curled into fists. Yet the nozzle of the hose only lay there, its brass casing glowing mellowly, a loop of flat canvas leading back up to the red-painted frame bolted to the wall. (171-2).
Nothing supernatural has occurred. That is much is clear. And yet…
This moment can induce a real sense of panic and unease because of the way King describes the hose so realistically. The “IN CASE OF” summons immediately the images of dozens of fire extinguishers cases either in high school, hospitals, or even at retail establishments. It’s something people see every day. I wrote before the quote that I had experienced moments such as this. I grew up in an Episcopal church, and since Episcopalism is descended from the church of England, Anglicanism, which itself almost an exact copy of Catholicism, the church we attended was designed to be a big beautiful building. There were stained glass windows, old clocks, couches that seemed to belong more in the homes old people, grand pianos, and even a library with a massive council table. It was a beautiful building and remains so to this day, but the great conflict with it was at night the place allowed a child far too much imagination. The echoes of your footsteps seemed to follow you, the old clocks’ ticking became the growling stomach of some patient monster, and the shadows seemed to twist and contort into nightmares which were rather left unexplored. Worst of all was, because there were so many halls and twists and turns, and while you knew rationally there was no one following you through the building, you couldn’t escape the super-real feeling of those halls and the sensation that someone might be there. There moments were surreal, much like the firehose in The Shining, because while there was nothing that was outside the realm of experienced, the sensation of the objects were heightened into a kind of uncomfortable truth.
I haven’t so much explored horror in this essay, or at least the standard of horror many fans of the genre would recognize. For my own part I can only attest to the fact that, while The Masque of the Red Death may not be a jump-scare horror tale that many contemporary readers may be used to, that doesn’t mean it loses any of its potency.
The real concrete images of the colored rooms, and the ebony clock, and the figure in the red robe all build an impression in the reader’s mind. These scenes feel real because Poe writes them in such a way so that, even if the details of the world presented seem outside the realm of experience, they still feel real and so it’s impossible to shrug them off as simply supernatural oddity. The firehose simply falling off of the perch as Danny walks by is so simple in its presentation, and its description is so plain it’s impossible to believe at first that anything could be behind it, and yet, reading that passage when I was thirteen brought back so many sensations I wondered for a moment whether or not I might have been right.
Poe and King both are masters of their craft because they allowed their reader’s imaginations to dream feelings and sensations into being, and ultimately that’s all that matters. Perception really is 99% of reality, for as long as we feel or perceive something it exists in our immediate world. Great horror then, should rely not so much on its ability to gross out its audience, but to leave them with the impression that something feels real.
A firehose falling from its perch can be explained away with all the physics science can muster, and a clock’s chime is just the proof of a great watch-maker. Yet all it takes is a moment’s reflection to wonder at the impression, and feel perhaps that there might be something more pushing us towards some wretched realization.
It’s also a good reminder not to read Stephen King or Edgar Allen Poe before bed, because now I haven’t slept for seven days and those hallucinations of floating hands on my shoulders are starting to get a little grabby.
All quotes from The Masque of the Red Death came from Poe: Poetry and Tales as published by Library of America, however if the reader wishes to read the entire article they can follow the link below to a pdf of the short story. All passages from the novel The Shining were taken from the Doubleday First edition hardback