Setting the Mood

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One of the most intriguing things about Poe's work is that even when nothing horrible is happening, the reader always steps gingerly through the story, expecting for something horrible to happen.  Poe has an impressive way of instilling the same sense of paranoia into his readers that he is said to have felt throughout his lifetime.  One of the greatest tools he masterfully uses to do this is the setting.  Of course, in "The Masque of the Red Death", an exclusive, party, celebrating life is being described.  Granted, these people are celebrating life while half of the country is dying, but still, the point is the setting is not a seance or a virgin-sacrifice.  We're at a party.  So why the unsettled feeling?  Poe's opening sentence helps, that's for sure:

"The 'Red Death' had long devastated the country" (356).

And then Poe goes on to give a detailed description of the damage the diesease caused.  So right off the bat, Poe is setting the mood for his readers, and we're never quite out of the grasp of his first paragraph, even when we find out that Prince Prospero "was happy and dauntless and sagacious."  Still, Poe has painted the Red Death so skillfully in our minds that we can't even for a minute forget its presence.  When Prospero plans his party, the reader can easily be surprised at his flippancy, since the Red Death is still haunting the edge of the story. 

Poe's description of the rooms keep with the story's tone, even though he is describing the building in which a masked ball is being held.  His word-choice is very precise and extremely important.  Each word alludes to death, violence, or somehow produces a feeling of unease.  He first mentions "the duke's love of the bizarre."  When describing the rooms, such phrases as "sharp turn" (bringing to mind perhaps a violent twist, or a sudden change in life?), "tall and narrow" (like a coffin, maybe?), "closely shrouded in black velvet tapestries" ("shrouded" does a lot by itself here, but the fact the windows are shrouded in black adds to the feeling of death's presence), and "blood" (we can all get this one on our own).

This is one of the great things about Poe; he stays true to his tone through tireless diction. 




Melissa Schwenk said:

Even when Poe’s describing the people, “there were buffoons, there were improvisatori, there were ballet-dancers, there were musicians, there was Beauty, there was wine. All these and security were within. Without was the ‘Read Death’” (357) the reader gets that weird sense that something isn’t quite right. There seems to be a significance on the word “Beauty” since it’s capitalized. Maybe it has something to do with the beauty the characters feel, but deep down the ugly disease is trying to take them over. Either way, the reader gets the whole sense that something is wrong with these people because they seem almost too normal to not have something crazy happen to them.

The fact that Poe stays true to his tone tends to bore me a bit. Don't get me wrong, I like Poe (I have an anthology of his work, too) but sometimes his writing lacks surprise. For the time it was written, though, I'm sure his writing was scary and surprising. Now, however, we're so used to horror movies, like The Exorcism, that stories like "The Masque of the Red Death" lack that element that makes them truly frightening. It's certainly not a fault of Poe's; it's just something that's developed as society progresses.

Josie Rush said:

Melissa- For sure. Even when Poe is describing "happy" things, the reader still knows something's up. You can't help it with Poe, when he's talking about something pleasant, it's almost creepier than when he's actually being creepy...and this is my segue to the comment left by...
Karyssa- You're right; the predictability really isn't Poe's fault, it's just something that happens when you become a thoroughly-studied author. Poe still has the ability to give me chills though, even though we're used to horror movies and graphic images and whatnot. I guess that's because Poe commands a different kind of horror, more psychological than anything else. I also think that Poe's adherence to tone isn't as much of a reason for this predictability as is the fact that Poe's...well, Poe. It's like reading a Stephen King novel. The entire time, even if something frightening hasn't happened yet, you know it's coming, and that creates that feeling of suspense, akin the the foreshadowing music of horror movies.

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