The inspiration, “The Masque of the Red Death”, was read on PodCastle and can be found here
The Tor article that Alasdair mentions: https://www.tor.com/2019/11/13/the-things-we-do-for-course-credit-john-langans-technicolor/
by John Langan
Come on, say it out loud with me: “And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.” Look at that sentence. Who says Edgar Allan Poe was a lousy stylist? Thirteen words—good number for a horror story, right? Although it’s not so much a story as a masque. Yes, it’s about a masque, but it is a masque, too. Of course, you all know what a masque is. If you didn’t, you looked it up in your dictionaries, because that’s what you do in a senior seminar. Anyone?
No, not a play, not exactly. Yes? Good, okay, “masquerade” is one sense of the word, a ball whose guests attend in costume. Anyone else?
Yes, very nice, nicely put. The masque does begin in the sixteenth century. It’s the entertainment of the elite, and originally, it’s a combination of pantomime and dance. Pantomime? Right—think “mime.” The idea is to perform without words, gesturally, to let the movements of your body tell the story. You do that, and you dance, and there’s your show. Later on, there’s dialogue and other additions, but I think it’s this older sense of the word the story intends. Remember that tall, silent figure at the end.
I’m sorry? Yes, good point. The two kinds of masque converge.
Back to that sentence, though. Twenty-two syllables that break almost perfectly in half, ten and twelve, “And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death” and “held illimitable dominion over all.” A group of short words, one and two syllables each, takes you through the first part of the sentence, then they give way to these long, almost luxurious words, “illimitable dominion.” The rhythm—you see how complex it is? You ride along on these short words, bouncing up and down, alliterating from one “d” to the next, and suddenly you’re mired in those Latinate polysyllables. All the momentum goes out of your reading; there’s just enough time for the final pair of words, which are short, which is good, and you’re done.
Wait, just let me—no, all right, what was it you wanted to say?
Exactly, yes, you took the words out of my mouth. The sentence does what the story does, carries you along through the revelry until you run smack-dab into that tall figure in the funeral clothes. Great job.
One more observation about the sentence, then I promise it’s on to the story itself. I know you want to talk about Prospero’s castle, all those colored rooms. Before we do, however, the four “d”s. We’ve mentioned already, there are a lot of “d” sounds in these thirteen words. They thread through the line, help tie it together. They also draw our attention to four words in particular. The first three are easy to recognize: they’re capitalized, as well. Darkness, Decay, Death. The fourth? Right, dominion. Anyone want to take a stab at why they’re capitalized?
Yes? Well.. .okay, sure it makes them into proper nouns. Can you take that a step farther? What kind of proper nouns does it make them? What’s happened to the Red Death in the story? It’s gone from an infection you can’t see to a tall figure wandering around the party. Personification, good. Darkness, Decay, (the Red) Death: the sentence personifies them; they’re its trinity, its unholy trinity, so to speak. And this godhead holds dominion, what the dictionary defines as “sovereign authority” over all. Not only the prince’s castle, not only the world of the story, but all, you and me.
In fact, in a weird sort of way, this is the story of the incarnation of one of the persons of this awful trinity.
All right, moving on, now. How about those rooms? Actually, how about the building those rooms are in, first? I’ve been calling it a castle, but it isn’t, is it? It’s “castellated,” which is to say, castle-like, but it’s an abbey, a monastery. I suppose it makes sense to want to wait out the Red Death in a place like an abbey. After all, it’s both removed from the rest of society and well-fortified. And we shouldn’t be too hard on the prince and his followers for retreating there. It’s not the first time this has happened, in literature or life. Anyone read The Decameron? Boccaccio? It’s a collection of one hundred stories told by ten people, five women and five men, who have sequestered themselves in, I’m pretty sure it’s a convent, to wait out the plague ravaging Florence. The Black Death, that one.
If you consider that the place in which we find the seven rooms is a monastery, a place where men are supposed to withdraw from this world to meditate on the next, its rooms appear even stranger. What’s the set-up? Seven rooms, yes, thank you, I believe I just said that. Running east to west, good. In a straight line? No. There’s a sharp turn every twenty or thirty yards, so that you can see only one room at a time. So long as they follow that east to west course, you can lay the rooms out in any form you like. I favor steps, like the ones that lead the condemned man to the chopping block, but that’s just me.
Hang on, hang on, we’ll get to the colors in a second. We need to stay with the design of the rooms for a little longer. Not everybody gets this the first time through. There are a pair of windows, Gothic windows, which means what? That they’re long and pointed at the top. The windows are opposite one another, and they look out on, anybody? Not exactly: a chandelier hangs down from the ceiling. It is a kind of light, though. No, a candelabra holds candles. Anyone else? A brazier, yes, there’s a brazier sitting on a tripod outside either window. They’re, how would you describe a brazier? Like a big metal cup, a bowl, that you fill with some kind of fuel and ignite. Wood, charcoal, oil. To be honest, I’m not as interested in the braziers as I am in where they’re located. Outside the windows, right, but where outside the windows? Maybe I should say, What is outside the windows? Corridors, yes, there are corridors to either side of the rooms, and it’s along these that the braziers are stationed. Just like our classroom. Not the tripods, of course, and I guess what’s outside our windows is more a gallery than a corridor, since it’s open to the parking lot on the other side. All right, all right, so I’m stretching a bit, here, but have you noticed, the room has seven windows? One for each color in Prospero’s Abbey. Go ahead, count them.
So here we are in this strange abbey, one that has a crazy zig-zag suite of rooms with corridors running beside them. You could chalk the location’s details up to anti-Catholic sentiment; there are critics who have argued that anti-Catholic prejudice is the secret engine driving Gothic literature. No, I don’t buy it, not in this case. Sure, there are stained-glass windows, but they’re basically tinted glass. There’s none of the iconography you’d expect if this were anti-Catholic propaganda, no statues or paintings. All we have is that enormous clock in the last room, the mother of all grandfather clocks. Wait a minute…
What about those colors, then? Each of the seven rooms is decorated in a single color that matches the stained glass of its windows. From east to west, we go from blue to purple to green to orange to white to violet to—to the last room, where there’s a slight change. The windows are red, but the room itself is done in black. There seems to be some significance to the color sequence, but what that is—well, this is why we have literature professors, right? (No snickering.) Not to mention, literature students. I’ve read through your responses to the homework assignment, and there were a few interesting ideas as to what those colors might mean. Of course, most of you connected them to times of the day, blue as dawn, black as night, the colors in between morning, noon, early afternoon, that kind of thing. Given the east-west layout, it makes a certain amount of sense. A few more of you picked up on that connection to time in a slightly different way, and related the colors to times of the year, or the stages in a person’s life. In the process, some clever arguments were made. Clever, but not, I’m afraid, too convincing.
What! What’s wrong! What is it! Are you all—oh, them. Oh for God’s sake. When you screamed like that, I thought—I don’t know what I thought. I thought I’d need a new pair of trousers. Those are a couple of graduate students I’ve enlisted to help me with a little presentation I’ll be putting up shortly. Yes, I can understand how the masks could startle you. They’re just generic white masks; I think they found them downtown somewhere. It was their idea: once I told them what story we would be discussing, they immediately hit on wearing the masks. To tell the truth, I half-expected they’d show up sporting the heads of enormous fanged monsters. Those are relatively benign.
Yes, I suppose they do resemble the face the Red Death assumes for its costume. No blood splattered on them, though.
If I could have your attention up here, again. Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain. Where was I? Your homework, yes, thank you. Right, right. Let’s see… oh—I know. A couple of you read the colors in more original ways. I made a note of them somewhere—here they are. One person interpreted the colors as different states of mind, beginning with blue as tranquil and ending with black as despair, with stops for jealousy—green, naturally—and passion—white, as in white-hot—along the way. Someone else made the case for the colors as, let me make sure I have the phrasing right, “phases of being.”
Actually, that last one’s not bad. Although the writer could be less obtuse; clarity, people, academic writing needs to be clear. Anyway, the gist of the writer’s argument is that each color is supposed to take you through a different state of existence, blue at one end of the spectrum representing innocence, black at the other representing death. Death as a state of being, that’s… provocative. Which is not to say it’s correct, but it’s headed in the right direction.
I know, I know: Which is? The answer requires some explanation. Scratch that. It requires a boatload of explanation. That’s why I have Tweedledee and Tweedledum setting up outside. (Don’t look! They’re almost done.) It’s also why I lowered the screen behind me for the first time this semester. There are some images I want to show you, and they’re best seen in as much detail as possible. If I can remember what the Media Center people told me… click this… then this…
Matthew Brady’s Portrait of Edgar, taken 1848, his last full year alive. It’s the best-known picture of him; were I to ask you to visualize him, this is what your minds’ eyes would see. That forehead, that marble expanse—yes, his hair does make the top of his head look misshapen, truncated. As far as I know, it wasn’t. The eyes—I suppose everyone comments on the eyes, slightly shadowed under those brows, the lids lowered just enough to suggest a certain detachment, even dreaminess. It’s the mouth I notice, how it tilts up ever-so-slightly at the right corner. It’s hard to see; you have to look closely. A strange mixture of arrogance, even contempt, and something else, something that might be humor, albeit of the bitter variety. It wouldn’t be that much of a challenge to suggest colors for the picture, but somehow, black and white is more fitting, isn’t it? Odd, considering how much color there is in the fiction. I’ve often thought all those old Roger Corman adaptations, the ones Vincent Price starred in—whatever their other faults, one thing they got exactly right was Technicolor, which was the perfect way to film these stories, just saturate the screen with the most vibrant colors you could find.
I begin with the Portrait as a reminder. This is the man. His hand scraped the pen across the paper, brought the story we’ve been discussing into existence word by word. Not creation ex nihilo, out of nothing, creation… if my Latin were better, or existent, I’d have a fancier way to say out of the self, or out of the depths of the self, or—hey—out of the depth that is the self.
Moving on to our next portrait… Anyone?
I’m impressed. Not many people know this picture. Look closely, though. See it?
That’s right: it isn’t a painting. It’s a photograph that’s been tweaked to resemble a painting. The portrait it imitates is a posthumous representation of Virginia Clemm, Edgar’s sweetheart and child bride. The girl in the photo? She’ll be happy you called her a girl. That’s my wife, Anna. Yes, I’m married. Why is that so hard to believe? We met many years ago, in a kingdom by the sea. From? “Annabel Lee,” good. No, just Anna; although we did meet in the King of the Sea Arcade, on the Jersey shore. Seriously. She is slightly younger than I am. Four years, thank you very much. You people. For Halloween one year, we dressed up as Edgar and Virginia—pretty much from the start, it’s been a running joke between us. In her case, the resemblance is striking.
As it so happened, yes we did attend a masquerade as the happy couple. That was where this photo was taken. One of the other guests was a professional photographer. I arranged the shot; he took it, then used a program on his computer to transform it into a painting. The guy was quite pleased with it; apparently it’s on his website. I’m showing it to you because… well, because I want to. There’s probably a connection I could draw between masquerade, the suppression of one identity in order to invoke and inhabit another, that displacement, and the events of our story, but that’s putting the cart about a mile before the horse. She’ll like that you thought she was a girl, though; that’ll make her night. Those were her cookies, by the way. Are there any left? Not even the sugar cookies? Figures.
Okay, image number three. If you can name this one, you get an “A” for the class and an autographed picture of the Pope. Put your hand down, you don’t know. How about the rest of you?
Just us crickets…
It’s just as well; I don’t have that picture of the Pope anymore. This gentleman is Prosper Vauglais. Or so he claimed. There’s a lot about this guy no one’s exactly sure of, like when he was born, or where, or when and where he died. He showed up in Paris in the late eighteen-teens and caused something of a stir. For one winter, he appeared at several of the less reputable salons and a couple of the, I wouldn’t go so far as to say more reputable—maybe less disreputable ones.
His “deal?” His deal, as you put it, was that he claimed to have been among the quarter of a million soldiers under Napoleon Bonaparte’s personal command when, in June of 1812, the Emperor decided to invade Russia. Some of you may remember from your European history classes, this was a very bad idea. The worst. Roughly a tenth of Napoleon’s forces survived the campaign; I want to say the number who limped back into France was something like twenty-two thousand. In and of itself, being a member of that group is nothing to sneeze at. For Vauglais, though, it was only the beginning. During the more-or-less running battles the French army fought as it retreated from what had been Moscow, Vauglais was separated from his fellows, struck on the head by a Cossack’s sword and left for dead in a snow bank. When he came to, he was alone, and a storm had blown up. Prosper had no idea where he was; he assumed still Russia, which wasn’t too encouraging. Any Russian peasants or what have you who came across French soldiers, even those trying to surrender, tended to hack them to death with farm implements first and ask questions later. So when Prosper strikes out in what he hopes is the approximate direction of France, he isn’t what you’d call terribly optimistic.
Nor is his pessimism misplaced. Within a day, he’s lost, frozen and starving, wandering around the inside of a blizzard like you read about, white-out conditions, shrieking wind, unbearable cold. The blow to his head isn’t helping matters, either. His vision keeps going in and out of focus. Sometimes he feels so nauseated he can barely stand, let alone continue walking. Once in a while, he’ll see a light shining in the window of a farmhouse, but he gives these a wide berth. Another day, and he’ll be closer to death than he was even at the worst battles he saw—than he was when that saber connected with his skull. His skin, which has been numb since not long after he started his trek, has gone from pale to white to this kind of blue-gray, and it’s hardened, as if there’s a crust of ice on it. He can’t feel his pulse through it. His breath, which had been venting from his nose and mouth in long white clouds, seems to have slowed to a trickle, if that. He can’t see anything; although, with the storm continuing around him, maybe that isn’t so strange. He’s not cold anymore—or, it’s not that he isn’t cold so much as it is that the cold isn’t torturing him the way it was. At some point, the cold moved inside him, took up residence just beneath his heart, and once that happened, that transition was accomplished, the temperature outside became of much less concern.
There’s a moment—while Vauglais is staggering around like you do when you’re trying to walk in knee-high snow without snowshoes, pulling each foot free, swiveling it forward, crashing it through the snow in front of you, then repeating the process with your other foot—there’s a moment when he realizes he’s dead. He isn’t sure when it happened. Some time in the last day or so. It isn’t that he thinks he’s in some kind of afterlife, that he’s wandering around a frozen hell. No, he knows he’s still stuck somewhere in western Russia. It’s just that, now he’s dead. He isn’t sure why he hasn’t stopped moving. He considers doing so, giving his body a chance to catch up to his apprehension of it, but decides against it. For one thing, he isn’t sure it would work, and suppose while he’s standing in place, waiting to fall over, someone finds him, one of those peasants, or a group of Russian soldiers? Granted, if he’s already dead, they can’t hurt him, but the prospect of being cut to pieces while still conscious is rather horrifying. And for another thing, Prosper isn’t ready to quit walking. So he keeps moving forward. Dimly, the way you might hear a noise when you’re fast asleep, he’s aware that he isn’t particularly upset at finding himself dead and yet moving, but after recent events, maybe that isn’t so surprising.
Time passes; how much, he can’t say. The blizzard doesn’t lift, but it thins, enough for Vauglais to make out trees, evergreens. He’s in a forest, a pretty dense one, from what he can see, which may explain why the storm has lessened. The trees are—there’s something odd about the trees. For as close together as they are, they seem to be in almost perfect rows, running away into the snow on either side of him. In and of itself, maybe that isn’t strange. Could be, he’s wandered into some kind of huge formal garden. But there’s more to it. When he looks at any particular tree, he sees, not so much bark and needles as black, black lines like the strokes of a paintbrush, or the scratches of a pen, forming the approximation of an evergreen. It’s as if he’s seeing a sketch of a tree, an artist’s estimate. The black lines appear to be moving, almost too quickly for him to notice; it’s as if he’s witnessing them being drawn and re-drawn. Prosper has a sudden vision of himself from high above, a small, dark spot in the midst of long rows of black on white, a stray bit of punctuation loose among the lines of an unimaginable text.
Eventually, Vauglais reaches the edge of the forest. Ahead, there’s a building, the title to this page he’s been traversing. The blizzard has kicked up again, so he can’t see much, but he has the impression of a long, low structure, possibly stone. It could be a stable, could be something else. Although there are no religious symbols evident, Prosper has an intuition the place is a monastery. He should turn right or left, avoid the building—the Russian clergy haven’t taken any more kindly to the French invaders than the Russian people—instead, he raises one stiff leg and strikes off towards it. It isn’t that he’s compelled to do so, that he’s in the grip of a power that he can’t resist, or that he’s decided to embrace the inevitable, surrender to death. He isn’t even especially curious about the stone structure. Forward is just a way to go, and he does.
As he draws closer, Vauglais notices that the building isn’t becoming any easier to distinguish. If anything, it’s more indistinct, harder to make out. If the trees behind him were rough drawing, this place is little more than a scribble, a jumble of lines whose form is as much in the eye of the beholder as anything. When a figure in a heavy coat and hat separates from the structure and begins to trudge in his direction, it’s as if a piece of the place has broken off. Prosper can’t see the man’s face, all of which except the eyes is hidden by the folds of a heavy scarf, but he lifts one mittened hand and gestures for Vauglais to follow him inside, which the Frenchman does.
And . . . no one knows what happens next.
What do I mean? I’m sorry: wasn’t I speaking English? No one knows what happened inside the stone monastery. Prosper writes a fairly detailed account of the events leading up to that point, which is where the story I’m telling you comes from, but when the narrative reaches this moment, it breaks off with Vauglais’s declaration that he’s told us as much as he can. End of story.
All right, yes, there are hints of what took place during the five years he was at the Abbey. That was what he called the building, the Abbey. Every so often, Prosper would allude to his experiences in it, and sometimes, someone would note his remarks in a letter or diary. From combing through these kinds of documents, it’s possible to assemble and collate Vauglais’s comments into a glimpse of his life with the Fraternity. Again, his name. There were maybe seven of them, or seven after he arrived, or there were supposed to be seven. He referred to “Brother Red,” once; to “The White Brother” at another time. Were the others named Blue, Purple, Green, Orange, and Violet? We can’t say; although, as an assumption, it isn’t completely unreasonable. They spent their days in pursuit of something Vauglais called The Great Work; he also referred to it as The Transumption. This seems to have involved generous amounts of quiet meditation combined with the study of certain religious texts—Prosper doesn’t name them, but they may have included some Gnostic writings.
The Gnostics? I don’t suppose you would have heard of them. How many of you actually go to church? As I feared. What would Sister Mary Mary say? The Gnostics were a religious sect who sprang up around the same time as the early Christians. I guess they would have described themselves as the true Christians, the ones who understood what Jesus’ teachings were really about. They shared sacred writings with the more orthodox Christians, but they had their own books, too. They were all about gnosis, knowledge, especially of the self. For them, the secret to what lay outside the self was what lay inside the self. The physical world was evil, a wellspring of illusions and delusions. Gnostics tended to retreat to the desert, lead lives of contemplation. Unlike the mainstream Christians, they weren’t much on formal organization; that, and the fact that those Christians did everything in their power to shunt the Gnostics and their teachings to the margins and beyond, branding some of their ideas as heretical, helps explain why they pretty much vanished from the religious scene.
“Pretty much,” though, isn’t the same thing as “completely.” (I know: such precise, scientific terminology.) Once in a while, Gnostic ideas would resurface, usually in the writings of some fringe figure or another. Rumors persist of Gnostic secret societies, occasionally as part of established groups like the Jesuits or the Masons. Which begs the question, Was Vauglais’s Fraternity one of these societies, a kind of order of Gnostic monks? The answer to which is— Right: no one knows. There’s no record of any official, which is to say, Russian Orthodox religious establishment: no monastery, no church, in the general vicinity of where we think Prosper was. Of course, a bunch of Gnostic monastics would hardly constitute anything resembling an official body, and so might very well fly under the radar. That said, the lack of proof against something does not count as evidence for it.
That’s true. He could have been making the whole thing up.
Transumption? It’s a term from classical rhetoric. It refers to the elision of a chain of associations. Sorry—sometimes I like to watch your heads explode. Let’s say you’re writing your epic poem about the fall of Troy, and you describe one of the Trojans being felled by an arrow. Let’s say that arrow was made from the wood of a tree in a sacred grove; let’s say, too, that that grove was planted by Hercules, who scattered some acorns there by accident. Now let’s say that, when your Trojan hero sinks to the ground, drowning in his own blood, one of his friends shouts, “Curse the careless hand of Hercules!” That statement is an example of transumption. You’ve jumped from one link in a chain of associations back several. Make sense?
Yes, well, what does a figure of speech have to do with what was going on inside that Abbey?
Oh wait—hold on for a moment. My two assistants are done with their set up. Let me give them a signal… Five more minutes? All right, good, yes. I have no idea if they understood me. Graduate students.
Don’t worry about what’s on the windows. Yes, yes, those are lamps. Can I have your attention up here, please? Thank you. Let me worry about Campus Security. Or my masked friends out there will.
Okay—let’s skip ahead a little. We were talking about The Transumption, a.k.a. The Great Work. There’s nothing in his other references to the Abbey that offers any clue as to what he may have meant by it. However, there is an event that may shed some light on things.
It occurs in Paris, towards the end of February. An especially fierce winter scours the streets, sends people scurrying from the shelter of one building to another. Snow piles on top of snow, all of it turning dirty gray. Where there isn’t snow, there’s ice, inches thick in places. The sky is gray, the sun a pale blur that puts in a token appearance for a few hours a day. Out into this glacial landscape, Prosper leads half a dozen men and women from one of the city’s less-disreputable salons. Their destination, the catacombs, the long tunnels that run under Paris. They’re quite old, the catacombs. In some places, the walls are stacked with bones, from when they were used as a huge ossuary. (That’s a place to hold the bones of the dead.) They’re also fairly crowded, full of beggars, the poor, searching for shelter from the ravages of the season. Yauglais has to take his party deep underground before they can find a location that’s suitably empty. It’s a kind of side-chamber, roughly circular, lined with shelves hill of skull piled on skull. The skulls make a clicking sound, from the rats shuffling through them. Oh yes, there are plenty of rats down here.
Prosper fetches seven skulls off the shelves and piles them in the center of the room. He opens a large flask he’s carried with him, and pours its contents over the bones. It’s lamp oil, which he immediately ignites with his torch. He sets the torch down, and gathers the members of the salon around the skulls. They join hands.
It does sound as if he’s leading a séance, doesn’t it? The only difference is, he isn’t asking the men and women with him to think of a beloved one who’s passed beyond. Nor does he request they focus on a famous ghost. Instead, Vauglais tells them to look at the flames licking the bones in front of them. Study those flames, he says, watch them as they trace the contours of the skulls. Follow the flames over the cheeks, around the eyes, up the brows. Gaze into those eyes, into the emptiness inside the fire. Fall through the flames; fall into that blackness.
He’s hypnotizing them, of course—Mesmerizing would be the more historically accurate term. Under the sway of his voice, the members of the salon enter a kind of vacancy. They’re still conscious—well, they’re still perceiving, still aware of that heap of bones burning in front of them, the heavy odor of the oil, the quiet roar of the flames—but their sense of their selves, the accumulation of memory and inclination that defines each from the other, is gone.
Now Prosper is telling them to think of something new. Picture the flesh that used to clothe these skulls, he says. Warm and smooth, flushed with life. Look closely—it glows, doesn’t it? It shines with its living. Watch! watch—it’s dying. It’s growing cold, pale. The glow, that dim light floating at the very limit of the skin—it’s changing, drifting up, losing its radiance. See—there!—ah, it’s dead. Cool as a cut of meat. Gray. The light is gone. Or is it? Is that another light? Yes, yes it is; but it is not the one we have watched dissipate. This is a darker glow. Indigo, that most elusive of the rainbow’s hues. It curls over the dull skin like fog, and the flesh opens for it, first in little cracks, then in long windows, and then in wide doorways. As the skin peels away, the light thickens, until it is as if the bone is submerged in a bath of indigo. The light is not done moving; it pours into the air above the skull, over all the skulls. Dark light is rising from them, twisting up in thick streams that seek each other, that wrap around one another, that braid a shape. It is the form of a man, a tall man dressed in black robes, his face void as a corpse’s, his head crowned with black flame— Afterwards, when the half-dozen members of the salon compare notes, none of them can agree on what, if anything, they saw while under Vauglais’s sway. One of them insists that nothing appeared. Three admit to what might have been a cloud of smoke, or a trick of the light. Of the remaining pair, one states flat-out that she saw the Devil. The other balks at any statement more elaborate than, “Monsieur Vauglais has shown me terrible joy.” Whatever they do or don’t see, it doesn’t last very long. The oil Prosper doused the skulls with has been consumed. The fire dies away; darkness rushes in to fill the gap. The trance in which Vauglais has held the salon breaks. There’s a sound like wind rushing, then quiet.
A month after that expedition, Prosper disappeared from Paris. He had attempted to lead that same salon back into the catacombs for a second—well, whatever you’d call what he’d done. A summoning? (But what was he summoning?) Not surprisingly, the men and women of the salon declined his request. In a huff, Vauglais left them and tried to insert himself into a couple of even-less-disreputable salons, attempting to use gossip about his former associates as his price of admission. But either the secrets he knew weren’t juicy enough—possible, but I suspect unlikely—or those other salons had heard about his underground investigations and decided they preferred the comfort of their drawing rooms. Then one of the men from that original salon raised questions about Prosper’s military service—he claimed to have found a sailor who swore that he and Vauglais had been on an extended debauch in Morocco at the very time he was supposed to have been marching towards Moscow. That’s the problem with being the flavor of the month: before you know it, the calendar’s turned, and no one can remember what they found so appealing about you in the first place. In short order, there’s talk about an official inquiry into Prosper’s service record—probably more rumor than fact, but it’s enough for Vauglais, and he departs Paris for parts unknown. No one sees him leave, just as no one saw him arrive. In the weeks that follow, there are reports of Prosper in Libya, Madagascar, but they don’t disturb a single eyebrow. Years—decades later, when Gauguin’s in Tahiti, he’ll hear a story about a strange white man who came to the island a long time ago and vanished into its interior, and Vauglais’s name will occur to him, but you can’t even call that a legend. It’s… a momentary association. Prosper Vauglais vanishes.
Well, not all of him. That’s right: there’s the account he wrote of his discovery of the Abbey.
I beg your pardon? Dead? Oh, right, yes. It’s interesting—apparently, Prosper permitted a physician connected to the first salon he frequented to conduct a pretty thorough examination of him. According to Dr. Zumachin, Vauglais’s skin was stubbornly pallid. No matter how much the doctor pinched or slapped it, Prosper’s flesh remained the same gray-white. Not only that, it was cold, cold and hard, as if it were packed with ice. Although Vauglais had to inhale in order to speak, his regular respiration was so slight as to be undetectable. It wouldn’t fog the doctor’s pocket mirror. And try as Zumachin might, he could not locate a pulse.
Sure, Prosper could have paid him off; aside from his part in this story, there isn’t that much information on the good doctor. For what it’s worth, most of the people who met Vauglais commented on his skin, its pallor, and, if they touched it, its coldness. No one else noted his breathing, or lack thereof, but a couple of the members of that last salon described him as extraordinarily still.
Okay, back to that book. Actually, wait. Before we do, let me bring this up on the screen…
I know—talk about something completely different. No, it’s not a Rorschach test. It does look like it, though, doesn’t it? Now if my friends outside will oblige me… and there we go. Amazing what a sheet of blue plastic and a high-power lamp can do. We might as well be in the east room of Prospero’s Abbey.
Yes, the blue light makes it appear deeper—it transforms it from ink-spill to opening. Prosper calls it “La Bouche,” the Mouth. Some mouth, eh?
That’s where the design comes from, Vauglais’s book. The year after his disappearance, a small Parisian press whose biggest claim to fame was its unauthorized edition of the Marquis de Sade’s Justine publishes Prosper’s L’Histoire de Mes Aventures dans L’Etendu Russe, which translates something like, “The History of My Adventures in the Russian,” either “Wilderness” or “Vastness.” Not that anyone calls it by its title. The publisher, one Denis Prebend, binds Vauglais’s essay between covers the color of a bruise after three or four days. Yes, that sickly, yellowy-green. Of course that’s what catches everyone’s attention, not the less-than-inspired title, and it isn’t long before customers are asking for “le livre vertej the green book. It’s funny—it’s one of those books that no one will admit to reading, but that goes through ten printings the first year after it appears.
Some of those copies do find their way across the Atlantic, very good. In fact, within a couple of months of its publication, there are at least three pirated translations of the green book circulating the booksellers of London, and a month after that, they’re available in Boston, New York, and Baltimore.
To return to the book itself for a moment—after that frustrating ending, there’s a blank page, which is followed by seven more pages, each showing a separate design. What’s above me on the screen is the first of them. The rest—well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Suffice it to say, the initial verdict was that something had gone awry in the printing process, with the result that the bouche had become bouche, cloudy. A few scholars have even gone so far as to attempt to reconstruct what Prosper’s original images must have been. Prebend, though—the publisher—swore that he’d presented the book exactly as he had been instructed.
For those of us familiar with abstract art, I doubt there’s any great difficulty in seeing the black blot on the screen as a mouth. The effect—there used to be these books; they were full of what looked like random designs. If you held them the right distance from your face and let your eyes relax, almost to the point of going cross-eyed, all of sudden, a picture would leap out of the page at you. You know what I’m talking about? Good. I don’t know what the name for that effect is, but it’s the nearest analogue I can come up with for what happens when you look at the Mouth under blue light—except that the image doesn’t jump forward so much as sink back. The way it recedes—it’s as if it extends, not just through the screen, or the wall behind it, but beyond all that, to the very substratum of things.
To tell the truth, I have no idea what’s responsible for the effect. If you find this impressive, however…
Look at that: a new image and a fresh color. How’s that for coordination? Good work, nameless minions. Vauglais named this “Le Gardien,” the Guardian. What’s that? I suppose you could make an octopus out of it; although aren’t there a few too many tentacles? True, it’s close enough; it’s certainly more octopus than squid. Do you notice… right. The tentacles, loops, whatever we call them, appear to be moving. Focus on any one in particular, and it stands still—but you can see movement out of the corner of your eye, can’t you? Try to take in the whole, and you swear its arms are performing an intricate dance.
So the Mouth leads to the Guardian, which is waving its appendages in front of…
That green is bright after the purple, isn’t it? Voila “Le Recif, the Reef. Makes sense, a cuttlefish protecting a reef. I don’t know: it’s angular enough. Personally, I suspect this one is based on some kind of pun or word play. “Recif is one letter away from “recit” story, and this reef comes to us as the result of a story; in some weird way, the reef may be the story. I realize that doesn’t make any sense; I’m still working through it.
This image is a bit different from the previous two. Anyone notice how?
Exactly: instead of the picture appearing to move, the light itself seems to—I like your word, “shimmer.” You could believe we’re gazing through water. It’s—not hypnotic, that’s too strong, but it is soothing. Don’t you think?
I’ll take your yawn as a “yes.” Very nice. What a way to preface a question. All right, all right. What is it that’s keeping you awake?
Isn’t it obvious? Apparently not.
Yes! Edgar read Prosper’s book!
When. The best evidence is sometime in the early eighteen-thirties, after he’d relocated to Baltimore. He mentions hearing about the green book from one of his fellow cadets at West Point, but he doesn’t secure his own copy until he literally stumbles upon one in a bookshop near Baltimore’s inner harbor. He wrote a fairly amusing account of it in a letter to Virginia. The store was this long, narrow space located halfway down an alley; its shelves were stuffed past capacity with all sizes of books jammed together with no regard for their subject. Occasionally, one of the shelves would disgorge its contents without warning. If you were underneath or to the side of it, you ran the risk of substantial injury. Not to mention, the single aisle snaking into the shop’s recesses was occupied at irregular intervals by stacks of books that looked as if a strong sneeze would send them tumbling down.
It’s as he’s attempting to maneuver around an especially tall tower of books, simultaneously trying to avoid jostling a nearby shelf, that Edgar’s foot catches on a single volume he hadn’t seen, sending him—and all books in the immediate vicinity—to the floor. There’s a huge puff of dust; half a dozen books essentially disintegrate. Edgar’s sense of humor is such that he appreciates the comic aspect of a poet—as he styled himself—buried beneath a deluge of books. However, he insists on excavating the book that undid him.
The copy of Vauglais’s essay he found was a fourth translation that had been done by a Boston publisher hoping to cash in on the popularity of the other editions. Unfortunately for him, the edition took longer to prepare than he’d anticipated—his translator was a Harvard professor who insisted on translating Prosper as accurately as he could. This meant an English version of Vauglais’s essay that was a model of fidelity to the original French, but that wasn’t ready until Prospers story was last week’s news. The publisher went ahead with what he titled The Green Book of M. Prosper Vauglais anyway, but he pretty much lost his shirt over the whole thing.
Edgar was so struck at having fallen over this book that he bought it on the spot. He spent the next couple of days reading and re-reading it, puzzling over its contents. As we’ve seen in “The Gold Bug” and “The Purloined Letter,” this was a guy who liked a puzzle. He spent a good deal of time on the seven designs at the back of the book, convinced that their significance was right in front of him.
Speaking of those pictures, let’s have another one. Assistants, if you please— Hey, it’s Halloween! Isn’t that what you associate orange with? And especially an orange like this—this is the sun spilling the last of its late light, right before all the gaudier colors, the violets and pinks, splash out. You don’t think of orange as dark, do you? I know I don’t. Yet it is, isn’t it? Is it the darkest of the bright colors? To be sure, it’s difficult to distinguish the design at its center; the orange is filmy, translucent. There are a few too many curves for it to be the symbol for infinity; at least, I think there are. I want to say I see a pair of snakes wrapped around one another, but the coils don’t connect in quite the right way. Vauglais’s name for this was “Le Coeur,” the Heart, and also the Core, as well as the Height or the Depth, depending on usage. Obviously, we’re cycling through the seven rooms from “The Masque of the Red Death;” obviously, too, I’m arguing that Edgar takes their colors from Prospers book. In that schema, orange is at the center, three colors to either side of it; in that sense, we have reached the heart, the core, the height or the depth. Of course, that core obscures the other one—or maybe not.
While you try to decide, let’s return to Edgar. It’s an overstatement to say that Vauglais obsesses him. When his initial attempt at deciphering the designs fails, he puts the book aside. Remember, he’s a working writer at a time when the American economy really won’t support one—especially one with Edgar’s predilections—so there are always more things to be written in the effort to keep the wolf a safe distance from the door. Not to mention, he’s falling in love with the girl who will become his wife. At odd moments over the next decade, though, he retrieves Prosper’s essay and spends a few hours poring over it. He stares at its images until they’re grooved into the folds of his brain. During one long afternoon in 1840, he’s sitting with the book open to the Mouth, a glass of water on the table to his right. The sunlight streaming in the windows splinters on the water glass, throwing a rainbow across the page in front of him. The arc of the images that’s under the blue strip of the bow looks different; it’s as if that portion of the paper has sunk into the book—behind the book. A missing and apparently lost piece of the puzzle snaps into place, and Edgar starts up from the table, knocking over his chair in the process. He races through the house, searching for a piece of blue glass. The best he can do is a heavy blue jug, which he almost drops in his excitement. He returns to the book, angles the jug to catch the light, and watches as the Mouth opens. He doesn’t waste any time staring at it; shifting the jug to his right hand, he flips to the next image with his left, positions the glass jug over the Guardian, and… nothing. For a moment, he’s afraid he’s imagined the whole thing, had an especially vivid waking dream. But when he pages back to the Mouth and directs the blue light onto it, it clearly recedes. Edgar wonders if the effect he’s observed is unique to the first image, then his eye lights on the glass of water, still casting its rainbow. He sets the jug on the floor, turns the page, and slides the book closer to the glass.
That’s how Edgar spends the rest of the afternoon, matching the designs in the back of Vauglais’s book to the colors that activate them. The first four come relatively quickly; the last three take longer. Once he has all seven, Edgar re-reads Prosper’s essay and reproaches himself as a dunce for not having hit on the colors sooner. It’s all there in Vauglais’s prose, he declares, plain as day. (He’s being much too hard on himself. I’ve read the green book a dozen times and I have yet to find the passage where Prosper hints at the colors.)
How about a look at the most difficult designs? Gentlemen, if you please…
There’s nothing there. I know—that’s what I said, the first time I saw the fifth image. “Le Silence,” the Silence. Compared to the designs that precede it, this one is so faint as to be barely detectable. And when you shine a bright, white light onto it, it practically disappears. There is something in there, though; you have to stare at it for a while. Moreso than with the previous images, what you see here varies dramatically from viewer to viewer.
Edgar never records his response to the Silence, which is a pity. Having cracked the secret of Vauglais’s designs, he studies the essay more carefully, attempting to discern the use to which the images were to be put, the nature of Prosper’s Great Work, his Transumption. (There’s that word again. I never clarified its meaning vis a vis Vauglais’s ideas, did I?) The following year, when Edgar sits down to write “The Masque of the Red Death,” it is in no small part as an answer to the question of what Prosper was up to. That answer shares features with some of the stories he had written prior to his 1840 revelation; although, interestingly, they came after he had obtained his copy of the green book.
From the looks on your faces, I’d say you’ve seen what the Silence contains. I don’t suppose anyone wants to share?
I’ll take that as a “No.” It’s all right: what you find there can be rather… disconcerting.
We’re almost at the end of our little display. What do you say we proceed to number six? Here we go…
Violet’s such a nice color, isn’t it? You have to admit, some of those other colors are pretty intense. Not this one, though; even the image—“L’Arbre,” the Tree—looks more or less like a collection of lines trying to be a tree. Granted, if you study the design, you’ll notice that each individual line seems to fade and then re-inscribe itself, but compared to the effect of the previous image, this is fairly benign. Does it remind you of anything? Anything we were discussing, say, in the last hour or so?
Oh never mind, I’ll just tell you. Remember those trees Vauglais saw outside the Abbey? Remember the way that, when he tried to focus on any of them, he saw a mass of black lines? Hmmm. Maybe there’s more to this pleasant design than we’d thought. Maybe it’s, not the key to all this, but the key trope, or figure.
I know: which means what, exactly? Let’s return to Edgar’s story. You have a group of people who are sequestered together, made to disguise their outer identities, encouraged to debauch themselves, to abandon their inner identities, all the while passing from one end of this color schema to the other. They put their selves aside, become a massive blank, a kind of psychic space. That opening allows what is otherwise an abstraction, a personification, to change states, to manifest itself physically. Of course, the Red Death doesn’t appear of its own volition; it’s called into being by Prince Prospero, who can’t stop thinking about the reason he’s retreated into his abbey.
This is what happened—what started to happen to the members of the salon Prosper took into the Parisian catacombs. He attempted to implement what he’d learned during his years at the Abbey, what he first had perceived through the snow twirling in front of his eyes in that Russian forest. To manipulate—to mold—to…
Suppose that the real—what we take to be the real—imagine that world outside the self, all this out here, is like a kind of writing. We write it together; we’re continuously writing it together, onto the surface of things, the paper, as it were. It isn’t something we do consciously, or that we exercise any conscious control over. We might glimpse it in moments of extremity, as Vauglais did, but that’s about as close to it as most of us will come. What if, though, what if it were possible to do something more than simply look? What if you could clear a space on that paper and write something else? What might you bring into being?
Edgar tries to find out. Long after “The Masque,” which is as much caution as it is field guide, he decides to apply Prosper’s ideas for real. He does so during that famous lost week at the end of his life, that gap in the biographical record that has prompted so much speculation. Since Virginia succumbed to tuberculosis some two years prior, Edgar’s been on a long downward slide, a protracted effort at joining his beloved wife. You know, extensive forests have been harvested for the production of critical studies of Edgar’s “bizarre” relationship with Virginia; rarely, if ever, does it occur to anyone that Edgar and Virginia might honestly have been in love, and that the difference in their ages might have been incidental.
Yet what is that final couple of years but a man grieving himself to death? Yes, Edgar approaches other women about possible marriage, but why do you think none of those proposals work out?
Not only is Edgar actively chasing his death, paddling furiously towards it on a river of alcohol; little known to him, death has noticed his pursuit, and responded by planting a black seed deep within his brain, a gift that is blossoming into a tumor. Most biographers have remained ignorant of this disease, but years after his death, Edgar’s body is exhumed—it doesn’t matter why; given who Edgar was, of course this was going to happen to him. During the examination of his remains, it’s noted that his brain is shrunken and hard. Anyone who knows about these things will tell you that the brain is one of the first organs to decay, which means that what those investigators found rattling around old Edgar’s cranium would not have been petrified gray matter. Cancer, however, is a much more durable beast; long after it’s killed you, a tumor hangs around to testify to its crime. Your guess is as good as mine when it comes to how long he’d had it, but by the time I’m talking about, Edgar is in a pretty bad way. He’s having trouble controlling the movements of his body, his speech; half the time he seems drunk, he’s stone cold sober.
There’s something else. Increasingly, wherever he turns his gaze, whatever he looks at flickers, and instead of, say, an orange resting on a plate, he sees a jumble of black lines approximating a sphere on a circle. It takes him longer to recall Vauglais’s experience in that Russian forest than you’d expect; the cancer, no doubt, devouring his memory. Sometimes the confusion of lines that’s replaced the streetlamp in front of him is itself replaced by blankness, by an absence that registers as a dull white space in the middle of things. It’s as if a painter took a palette knife and scraped the oils from a portion of their picture until all that remained was the canvas, slightly stained. At first, Edgar thinks there’s something wrong with his vision; when he understands what he’s experiencing, he speculates that the blank might be the result of his eyes’ inability to endure their own perception, that he might be undergoing some degree of what we would call hysterical blindness. As he’s continued to see that whiteness, though, he’s realized that he isn’t seeing less, but more. He’s seeing through to the surface those black lines are written on.
In the days immediately prior to his disappearance, Edgar’s perception undergoes one final change. For the slightest instant after that space has uncovered itself to him, something appears on it, a figure—a woman. Virginia, yes, as he saw her last, ravaged by tuberculosis, skeletally thin, dark hair in disarray, mouth and chin scarlet with the blood she’d hacked out of her lungs. She appears barefoot, wrapped in a shroud stained with dirt. Almost before he sees her, she’s gone, her place taken by whatever he’d been looking at to begin with.
Is it any surprise that, presented with this dull white surface, Edgar should fill it with Virginia? Her death has polarized him; she’s the lodestone that draws his thoughts irresistibly in her direction. With each glimpse of her he has, Edgar apprehends that he’s standing at the threshold of what could be an extraordinary chance. Although he’s discovered the secret of Prosper’s designs, discerned the nature of the Great Work, never once has it occurred to him that he might put that knowledge to use. Maybe he hasn’t really believed in it; maybe he’s suspected that, underneath it all, the effect of the various colors on Vauglais’s designs is some type of clever optical illusion. Now, though, now that there’s the possibility of gaining his beloved back—
Edgar spends that last week sequestered in a room in a boarding house a few streets up from that alley where he tripped over Prosper’s book. He’s arranged for his meals to be left outside his door; half the time, however, he leaves them untouched, and even when he takes the dishes into his room, he eats the bare minimum to sustain him. About midway through his stay, the landlady, a Mrs. Foster, catches sight of him as he withdraws into his room. His face is flushed, his skin slick with sweat, his clothes disheveled; he might be in the grip of a fever whose fingers are tightening around him with each degree it climbs. As his door closes, Mrs. Foster considers running up to it and demanding to speak to this man. The last thing she wants is for her boarding house to be known as a den of sickness. She has taken two steps forward when she stops, turns, and bolts downstairs as if the Devil himself were tugging her apron strings. For the remainder of the time this lodger is in his room, she will send one of the serving girls to deliver his meals, no matter their protests. Once the room stands unoccupied, she will direct a pair of those same girls to remove its contents—including the cheap bed—carry them out back, and burn them until nothing remains but a heap of ashes. The empty room is closed, locked, and removed from use for the rest of her time running that house, some twenty-two years.
I know: what did she see? What could she have seen, with the door shut? Perhaps it wasn’t what she saw; perhaps it was what she felt: the surface of things yielding, peeling away to what was beneath, beyond—the strain of a will struggling to score its vision onto that surface—the waver of the brick and mortar, of the very air around her, as it strained against this newness coming into being. How would the body respond to what could only register as a profound wrongness? Panic, you have to imagine, maybe accompanied by sudden nausea, a fear so intense as to guarantee a lifetime’s aversion to anything associated with its cause.
Had she opened that door, though, what sight would have confronted her? What would we see?
Nothing much—at least, that’s likely to have been our initial response. Edgar seated on the narrow bed, staring at the wall opposite him. Depending on which day it was, we would have noticed his shirt and pants looking more or less clean. Like Mrs. Foster, we would have remarked his flushed face, the sweat soaking his shirt; we would have heard his breathing, deep and hoarse. We might have caught his lips moving, might have guessed he was repeating Virginia’s name over and over again, but been unable to say for sure. Were we to guess he was in a trance, caught in an opium dream, aside from the complete and total lack of opium-related paraphernalia, we could be forgiven.
If we were to remain in that room with him—if we could stand the same sensation that sent Mrs. Foster running—it wouldn’t take us long to turn our eyes in the direction of Edgar’s stare. His first day there, we wouldn’t have noticed much if anything out of the ordinary. Maybe we would have wondered if the patch of bricks he was so focused on didn’t look just the slightest shade paler than its surroundings, before dismissing it as a trick of the light. Return two, three days later, and we would find that what we had attributed to mid-afternoon light blanching already-faded masonry is a phenomenon of an entirely different order. Those bricks are blinking in and out of sight. One moment, there’s a worn red rectangle, the next, there isn’t. What takes its place is difficult to say, because it’s back almost as fast as it was gone; although, after its return, the brick looks a bit less solid.. .less certain, you might say. Ragged around the edges, though not in any way you could put words to. All over that stretch of wall, bricks are going and coming and going. It almost looks as if some kind of code is spelling itself out using the stuff of Edgar’s wall as its pen and paper.
Were we to find ourselves in that same room, studying that same spot, a day later, we would be startled to discover a small area of the wall, four bricks up, four down, vanished. Where it was—let’s call what’s there—or what isn’t there—white. To tell the truth, it’s difficult to look at that spot—the eye glances away automatically, the way it does from a bright light. Should you try to force the issue, tears dilute your vision.
Return to Edgar’s room over the next twenty-four hours, and you would find that gap exponentially larger—from four bricks by four bricks to sixteen by sixteen, then from sixteen by sixteen to—basically, the entire wall. Standing in the doorway, you would have to raise your hand, shield your eyes from the dull whiteness in front of you. Blink furiously, squint, and you might distinguish Edgar in his familiar position, staring straight into that blank. Strain your gaze through the narrowest opening your fingers can make, and for the half a second until your head jerks to the side, you see a figure, deep within the white. Later, at a safe remove from Edgar’s room, you may attempt to reconstruct that form, make sense of your less-than-momentary vision. All you’ll be able to retrieve, however, is a pair of impressions, the one of something coalescing, like smoke filling up a jar, the other of thinness, like a child’s stick-drawing grown life-sized. For the next several months, not only your dreams, but your waking hours will be plagued by what you saw between your fingers. Working late at night, you will be overwhelmed by the sense that whatever you saw in that room is standing just outside the cone of light your lamp throws. Unable to help yourself, you’ll reach for the shade, tilt it back, and find… nothing, your bookcases. Yet the sensation won’t pass; although you can read the spines of the hardcovers ranked on your bookshelves, your skin won’t stop bristling at what you can’t see there.
What about Edgar, though? What image do his eyes find at the heart of that space? I suppose we should ask, What image of Virginia?
It—she changes. She’s thirteen, wearing the modest dress she married him in. She’s nine, wide-eyed as she listens to him reciting his poetry to her mother and her. She’s dead, wrapped in a white shroud. So much concentration is required to pierce through to the undersurface in the first place—and then there’s the matter of maintaining the aperture—that it’s difficult to find, let alone summon, the energy necessary to focus on a single image of Virginia. So the figure in front of him brushes a lock of dark hair out of her eyes, then giggles in a child’s high-pitched tones, then coughs and sprays scarlet blood over her lips and chin. Her mouth is pursed in thought; she turns to a knock on the front door; she thrashes in the heat of the disease that is consuming her. The more time that passes, the more Edgar struggles to keep his memories of his late wife separate from one another. She’s nine, standing beside her mother, wound in her burial cloth. She’s in her coffin, laughing merrily. She’s saying she takes him as her lawful husband, her mouth smeared with blood.
Edgar can’t help himself—he’s written, and read, too many stories about exactly this kind of situation for him not to be aware of all the ways it could go hideously wrong. Of course, the moment such a possibility occurs to him, it’s manifest in front of him. You know how it is: the harder you try to keep a pink elephant out of your thoughts, the more that animal cavorts center-stage. Virginia is obscured by white linen smeared with mud; where her mouth is, the shroud is red. Virginia is naked, her skin drawn to her skeleton, her hair loose and floating around her head as if she’s under water. Virginia is wearing the dress she was buried in, the garment and the pale flesh beneath it opened by rats. Her eyes—or the sockets that used to cradle them—are full of her death, of all she has seen as she was dragged out of the light down into the dark.
With each new monstrous image of his wife, Edgar strives not to panic. He bends what is left of his will toward summoning Virginia as she was at sixteen, when they held a second, public wedding. For an instant, she’s there, holding out her hand to him with that simple grace she’s displayed as long as he’s known her—and then she’s gone, replaced by a figure whose black eyes have seen the silent halls of the dead, whose ruined mouth has tasted delicacies unknown this side of the grave. This image does not flicker; it does not yield to other, happier pictures. Instead, it grows more solid, more definite. It takes a step towards Edgar, who is frantic, his heart thudding in his chest, his mouth dry. He’s trying to stop the process, trying to close the door he’s spent so much time and effort prying open, to erase what he’s written on that blankness. The figure takes another step forwards, and already, is at the edge of the opening. His attempts at stopping it are useless—what he’s started has accrued sufficient momentum for it to continue regardless of him. His lips are still repeating, “Virginia.”
When the—we might as well say, when Virginia places one gray foot onto the floor of Edgar’s room, a kind of ripple runs through the entire room, as if every last bit of it is registering the intrusion. How Edgar wishes he could look away as she crosses the floor to him. In a far corner of his brain that is capable of such judgments, he knows that this is the price for his hubris—really, it’s almost depressingly formulaic. He could almost accept the irony if he did not have to watch those hands dragging their nails back and forth over one another, leaving the skin hanging in pale strips; if he could avoid the sight of whatever is seething in the folds of the bosom of her dress; if he could shut his eyes to that mouth and its dark contents as they descend to his. But he can’t; he cannot turn away from his Proserpine as she rejoins him at last.
Four days prior to his death, Edgar is found on the street, delirious, barely-conscious. He never recovers. Right at the end, he rallies long enough to dictate a highly-abbreviated version of the story I’ve told you to a Methodist minister, who finds what he records so disturbing he sews it into the binding of the family Bible, where it will remain concealed for a century and a half.
As for what Edgar called forth—she walks out of our narrative and is not seen again.
It’s a crazy story. It makes the events of Vauglais’s life seem almost reasonable in comparison. If you were so inclined, I suppose you could ascribe Edgar’s experience in that rented room to an extreme form of auto-hypnosis which, combined with the stress on his body from his drinking and the brain tumor, precipitates a fatal collapse. In which case, the story I’ve told you is little more than an elaborate symptom. It’s the kind of reading a literary critic prefers; it keep the more… outré elements safely quarantined within the writer’s psyche.
Suppose, though, suppose. Suppose that all this insanity I’ve been feeding you isn’t a quaint example of early-nineteenth-century pseudoscience. Suppose that its interest extends well beyond any insights it might offer in interpreting “The Masque of the Red Death.” Suppose—let’s say the catastrophe that overtakes Edgar is the result of—we could call it poor planning. Had he paid closer attention to the details of Prospers history, especially to that sojourn in the catacombs, he would have recognized the difficulty—to the point of impossibility—of making his attempt alone. Granted, he was desperate. But there was a reason Vauglais took the members of his salon underground with him—to use as a source of power, a battery, as it were. They provided the energy; he directed it. Edgar’s story is a testament to what must have been a tremendous—an almost unearthly will. In the end, though, it wasn’t enough.
Of course, how could he have brought together a sufficient number of individuals, and where? By the close of his life, he wasn’t the most popular of fellows. Not to mention, he would have needed to expose the members of this hypothetical group to Prosper’s designs and their corresponding colors.
Speaking of which: pleasant as this violet has been, what do you say we proceed to the piece de resistance? Faceless lackeys, on my mark— Ahh. I don’t usually talk about these things, but you have no idea how much trouble this final color combination gave me. I mean, red and black gives you dark red, right? Right, except that for the design to achieve its full effect, putting up a dark red light won’t do. You need red layered over black—and a true black light, not ultraviolet. The result, though—I’m sure you’ll agree, it was worth sweating over. It’s like a picture painted in red on a black canvas, wouldn’t you say? And look what it does for the final image. It seems to be reaching right out of the screen for you, doesn’t it? Strictly speaking, Vauglais’s name for it, “Le Dessous,” the Underneath, isn’t quite grammatical French, but we needn’t worry ourselves over such details. There are times I think another name would be more appropriate: the Maw, perhaps, and then there are moments I find the Underneath perfect. You can see why I might lean towards calling it a mouth—the Cave would do, as well—except that the perspective’s all wrong. If this is a mouth, or a cave, we aren’t looking into it; we’re already inside, looking out.
Back to Edgar. As we’ve said, even had he succeeded in gathering a group to assist him in his pursuit, he would have had to find a way to introduce them to Prosper’s images and their colors. If he could have, he would have… reoriented them, their minds, the channels of their thoughts. Vauglais’s designs would have brought them closer to where they needed to be; they would have made available certain dormant faculties within his associates.
Even that would have left him with challenges, to be sure. Mesmerism, hypnosis, as Prosper himself discovered, is a delicate affair, one subject to such external variables as running out of lamp oil too soon. It would have been better if he could have employed some type of pharmacological agent, something that would have deposited them into a more useful state, something sufficiently concentrated to be delivered via a few bites of an innocuous food—a cookie, say, whose sweetness would mask any unpleasant taste, and which he could cajole his assistants to sample by claiming that his wife had baked them.
Then, if Edgar had been able to keep this group distracted while the cookies did their work—perhaps by talking to them about his writing—about the genesis of one of his stories, say, “The Masque of the Red Death”—if he had managed this far, he might have been in a position to make something happen, to perform the Great Work.
There’s just one more thing, and that’s the object for which Edgar would have put himself to all this supposed trouble: Virginia. I like to think I’m as romantic as the next guy, but honestly—you have the opportunity to rescript reality, and the best you can come up with is returning your dead wife to you? Talk about a failure to grasp the possibilities…
What’s strange—and frustrating—is that it’s all right there in “The Masque,” in Edgar’s own words. The whole idea of the Great Work, of Transumption, is to draw one of the powers that our constant, collective writing of the real consigns to abstraction across the barrier into physicality. Ideally, one of the members of that trinity Edgar named so well, Darkness and Decay and the Red Death, those who hold illimitable dominion over all. The goal is to accomplish something momentous, to shake the world to its foundations, not play out some hackneyed romantic fantasy. That was what Vauglais was up to, trying to draw into form the force that strips the flesh from our bones, that crumbles those bones to dust.
No matter. Edgar’s mistake still has its uses as a distraction, and a lesson. Not that it’ll do any of you much good. By now, I suspect few of you can hear what I’m saying, let alone understand it. I’d like to tell you the name of what I stirred into that cookie dough, but it’s rather lengthy and wouldn’t do you much good, anyway. I’d also like to tell you it won’t leave you permanently impaired, but that wouldn’t exactly be true. One of the consequences of its efficacy, I fear. If it’s any consolation, I doubt most of you will survive what’s about to follow. By my reckoning, the power I’m about to bring into our midst will require a good deal of… sustenance in order to establish a more permanent foothold here. I suspect this is of even less consolation, but I do regret this aspect of the plan I’m enacting. It’s just—once you come into possession of such knowledge, how can you not make use—full use of it?
You see, I’m starting at the top. Or at the beginning—before the beginning, really, before light burst across the perfect formlessness that was everything. I’m starting with Darkness, with something that was already so old at that moment of creation that it had long forgotten its identity. I plan to restore it. I will give myself to it for a guide, let it envelop me and consume you and run out from here in a flood that will wash this world away. I will give to Darkness a dominion more complete than it has known since it was split asunder.
Look—in the air—can you see it?
About the Author
John Langan has been a finalist for International Horror Guild Award. He has been a Bram Stoker Award nominee for Best Collection, most recently for Sefira and Other Betrayals with its delightful cover art evoking Saturn eating his children. He won the Bram Stoker Award for his excellent novel The Fisherman. He is on the Board of Directors for the Shirley Jackson Awards.
About the Narrator
Multi-instrumentalist, singer, songwriter, producer, composer, and heliocentrist George Hrab has written and produced six independent CDs and a concert DVD; published two books; and has recorded hundreds of episodes of The Geologic Podcast. He’s traveled to four continents promoting critical thinking, science, and skepticism through story and song. George is considered one of the preeminent skeptic/science/atheist/geek-culture music icons currently living in his apartment.
The New York City premiere of George’s composition for string quartet and voice called “The Broad Street Score” will be on May 12th, 2016 at NECSS, the North East Conference for Science and Skepticism.