The imagery of “The Masque of the Red Death”—which was initially published as “The Mask of the Red Death” in Graham’s Magazine, probably because the periodical’s editor thought the word “masque” was too exotic—has been echoed many times since, in all manner of literary and cinematic works. It is perhaps most familiar to twenty-first century readers from film adaptations of Gaston Leroux’s novel Le Fantôme de l’Opéra (serial 1909-1910, book 1910; The Phantom of the Opera, 1911) and stage and film versions of the musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber also based on that novel. Contemporary audiences may also know Roger Corman’s relatively lavish film version—which also takes in the Edgar Allan Poe story “Hop-Frog: Or, The Eight Chained Ourangoutangs” (1849), the climax of which is similarly set at a decadent masquerade.
Within the story itself, the costumes adopted in the masked ball are likened to those featured in Victor Hugo’s verse drama Hernani (pr., pb. 1830; English translation, 1830), whose sensational premiere at the Comédie-Française in February, 1830, was elevated to legendary status by Théophile Gautier’s Histoire du romantisme (1872; history of Romanticism). Gautier lavishly described and celebrated a pitched battle allegedly fought at the premiere between the playwright’s supporters and outraged defenders of Classicist tradition. The imagery of this description was, however, effectively effaced by Poe’s own description, the gaudiness of which became an ideal of exotic decadence to which all actual masked balls aspired in vain.
The apocalyptic flamboyance of the story constitutes pure Gothic imagery: The Gothic novel, as it was called in England, had long been established as prose fiction’s principal contribution to the Romantic rebellion against Classicist ideals of artistic form and decorum. The story also marked the beginning of a new tendency in nineteenth century literature. The literary method of Victor Hugo, who was thought of as the figurehead of the French Romantic movement, had been described by the Classicist critic Desiré Nisard as “decadent,” and, although Hugo himself rejected that descriptive term vehemently, some of his more disillusioned contemporaries were only too enthusiastic to embrace it and glory in it. Principal among these self-described decadents was Poe’s French translator, Charles Baudelaire.
In Poe, Baudelaire thought he had found a twin soul, one who had given voice in prose to the dark sentiments Baudelaire routinely expressed in his poetry. “The Masque of the Red Death” was one of the works the French poet held up as a central exemplar of a decadent sensibility and a decadent style. When Joris-Karl Huysmans provided the ultimate celebration of decadent ideas and ideals in his lifestyle fantasy novel À rebours (1884; Against the Grain, 1922), its narrator argued that the prose poem was the ideal form for the exercise of decadent style, and “The...
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