Many of us worried that the pandemic would last a full two weeks, which seemed like an eternity back in 2020. To prepare, we stocked up on non-perishables and toilet paper. To stay safe, we wrapped playgrounds in caution tape and wiped down our deliveries. To keep in touch, we downloaded Zoom and enjoyed cocktails with our neighbours — from our own stoops or balconies, of course. And to try to understand an invisible killer, about which we knew almost nothing, we turned to literature.
In those early endless days, we read or reread Stephen King’s The Stand, which opens with the accidental release of a covertly engineered superbug. There was also Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain, which starts with the introduction of a highly contagious extraterrestrial microbe, and José Saramago’s Blindness, which begins with the onset of an epidemic of visual impairment. Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven gets going with the initial spread of a mysterious Georgia flu around the Great Lakes, a plot line that felt particularly apt for those of us living in southern Ontario, while Dean Koontz’s The Eyes of Darkness features a virus called Wuhan-400, to the delight of literary-minded conspiracy theorists the world over. But it was Albert Camus’s The Plague — with countless rats dying in the streets of Oran, Algeria, in its first pages — that especially transfixed us. Such was the demand for the 1947 novel that Penguin Classics couldn’t print copies fast enough.
Now that more than two years and 6 million people have passed, those once best-selling books seem less instructive, less urgent. Nobody has written an Amazon review of The Plague, for instance, since early 2021. Perhaps these texts and their cinematic adaptations are less compelling because they all kick things off with the arrival of pestilence, an event that’s so very passé. Perhaps they have faded from view because we’re simply bored of pandemics, or because we’ve all become amateur epidemiologists who think we’re seasoned enough to navigate future waves with just our booster shots and rapid antigen tests.
There is, however, one pandemic tale that’s worth revisiting as our governments lift more and more mandates and we don our N95s less and less: Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” which first appeared in Graham’s Magazine 180 years ago this month.
The basic premise of “The Masque of the Red Death” is well known. Prince Prospero invites a thousand “hale and light-hearted friends,” all drawn from his realm’s elite, to ride out a dangerous disease that “raged most furiously abroad.” Despite its “deep seclusion” from the outside world, Prospero’s castellated abbey offers but temporary safety. After the fifth or sixth month, the prince throws a lavish party, at which the infectious agent makes itself known in dramatic fashion, reminding the revellers — and us, the readers — that “Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.”
If we interpret the short story one way, Prospero and his guests represent privileged folly. In their attempts to “bid defiance to contagion” by partying into the night, they bring to mind ostriches with their heads in the sand — or those self-indulgent spring-breakers who famously flocked to the beaches of Miami in March 2020.
But Prospero is not simply a well-heeled Pollyanna with the means of escaping a hard truth. In fact, Poe introduces his anti-hero, however eccentric he may be, as “dauntless and sagacious.” Interpreting the story another way, then, this is a determined and astute leader who, having seen the various harms the epidemic has inflicted on his lands, believes the best way to keep his people happy, and perhaps to keep himself in power, is to let them pretend as if the outbreak is behind them or at least under control.
Crucially, unlike The Stand or Station Eleven or most pandemic-themed allegories, Poe’s masterpiece does not begin with the arrival of a highly infectious disease. Rather, the author introduces us to Prospero only after “the ‘Red Death’ had long devastated the country,” at a time when the prince ought to have known better, when those who had so far survived a seemingly ceaseless scourge simply let their guard down.
When it comes time to write the history of this pivotal moment in the COVID-19 pandemic, will future scribes begin like Poe —“The coronavirus had long devastated the country”— and will they recount how our dauntless and sagacious leaders reassured us that the threat was no longer so great? Will they explain that there were other, more pressing matters than a public health crisis that we simply decided was over?
Poe’s story was originally published with a tag line: “A Fantasy.” As the deaths continue here and elsewhere, I cannot help but wonder if we are now living one of our own.