Edgar Allan Poe's short story The Masque of the Red Death, published in 1845, is about a morally corrupt and highly extravagent European Prince Prospero, whose response to the spread of a deadly plague is to wall himself and his many friends and cohorts inside his castle in the misbegotten belief that they can cheat death. The "red death," then, refers to that plague. As millions succumb to the fatal disease that has spread across Europe, Prince Prospero ignores their pleas and entertains his many guests with a costume ball:
"The prince had provided all the appliances of pleasure. . . there were musicians, there was Beauty, there was wine. All these and security were within. Without was the 'Red Death'."
As described by Poe in the following passage, Prospero and his guests engage in all manner of debauchery while right outside the gates commoners die ghastly deaths:
"It was toward the end of the fifth or sixth month of his seclusion, and while the pestilence raged most furiously abroad, that the Prince Prospero entertained his thousand friends at a masked ball of the most unusual magnificence."
The Masque of the Red Death takes place during Medieval times, when the real-life spread across Europe of bubonic plague during the 14th Century killed millions of people. Referred to as the "Black Death," that pandemic clearly inspired Poe's story of the "Red Death." As the story progresses, a mysterious masked stranger appears within Prospero's castle. This stranger is revealed towards the end as "Death," come to impose its will on the prince and his guests.