A Tale of Two Plagues: The Red Death vs The Silver Death
Chances are, you have heard of The Masque of the Red Death, by Edgar Allan Poe (1842). A classic short story of the horror genre, and one that has become vaguely topical, given that a significant portion of the Western World are now cooped up in varying degrees of quarantine as an epidemic rages outside.
Fingers crossed you manage better than Prince Prospero.
Less well known is The Isle of the Torturers, by Clark Ashton Smith (1933). Smith was an acquaintance of H.P. Lovecraft, but whereas Lovecraft drew his terror from a malign and unknowable cosmos, Smith revelled in decadence, having an almost cheerful fondness for ritualistic grotesquery. The Isle of the Torturers shows Smith in action… with the premise of the short story revolving around a strange and deadly disease, the Silver Death.
So we have Poe’s Red Death, and Smith’s Silver Death… why not compare them? Nothing like fictional reminders of one’s own mortality to pass the time, and both stories are significantly shorter than The Decameron.
(i) The Red Death
Poe’s plague – though clearly named after the historical Black Death – appears to be less bubonic plague, and more a fantastical accelerated ebola virus:
There were sharp pains, and a sudden feeling that the mind was rushing in circles inside the head. Then there was bleeding through the skin, though it was not cut or broken — and then, death!
The bright red spots upon the body and especially upon the face of the sick man made other men turn away from him, afraid to try to help. And the sickness lasted, from beginning to the end, no more than half an hour.
Prince Prospero and his aristocratic friends respond to this by locking themselves in an elaborate colour-themed abbey for six months, while the disease takes out the peasantry outside. Our protagonists spend their days enjoying themselves, but remain uncomfortably aware of the lurking shadow of time and mortality, as represented by the hourly chimes of an ebony clock. This clock is housed in a scary black room with red windows, and in contrast to the other colourful rooms, few venture inside.
Eventually, of course, the personification of the Red Death comes to claim them all, and does, because one cannot escape Death, no matter how you try.
(ii) The Silver Death
Smith’s Silver Death is even more fantastical. Rather than a variant on real-life diseases, this is literally a strange and alien affliction from a malign star:
Those who were smitten felt an icy, freezing cold, an instant rigor, as if the outermost gulf had breathed upon them. Their faces and bodies whitened strangely, gleaming with a wan luster, and became stiff as long-dead corpses, all in an interim of minutes.
The Silver Death moves so swiftly that one might wonder how anyone could actually be aware of it before it kills them, but Smith fudges this with the protagonist and his adviser knowing about the plague in advance. Astrology is nifty like that.
King Fulbra, via a magical ring, is protected from the disease, but loses all but three of his subjects. He ventures away from his city… only for a tempest to shipwreck him on the titular Isle of the Torturers. There he is subjected to endless agonies, both physical and mental, before tricking his captors into removing the ring.
As with Poe, the story ends with the plague killing everyone, but whereas Poe’s ending is horror, a grave comment on the human condition, Smith actually uses the disease to formulate a happy ending. As bizarre as it sounds. You’d never see that in Lovecraft.
(iii) Compare and contrast
It is hard not to see The Isle of the Torturers as a case of Clark Ashton Smith attempting a dialogue with Edgar Allan Poe’s Masque of the Red Death. Both stories feature mysterious colour-themed diseases, and both stories are obsessed with colour more generally. Poe has his seven shades of abbey, Smith provides lush colour descriptions of practically everything (including, unfortunately, the torturers themselves, who are identified as yellow-skinned). Both stories have a heavy gothic aesthetic hanging over them, though Poe is more Renaissance Gothic, and Smith is more Arabian Nights Gothic. There are some truly loving descriptive passages of macabre surroundings, to the point where both stories practically invite artistic depictions – the settings are more real and rounded than the characters who inhabit them. And, of course, both works are fantastical commentaries on Death.
Where they diverge is that Smith inverts Poe’s thematic message. Poe presents us with unsympathetic characters who frivolously (and callously) live their lives in the shadow of the Reaper… who will inevitably come to claim them. Poe’s Death is a reminder and a warning, as dressed up in gorgeous decadence. Smith, by contrast, presents us with a sympathetic protagonist, who, through no fault of his own, finds himself subjected to exquisitely detailed (and extremely exotic) tortures at the hands of his captors… until he uses Death as both release and revenge. The Silver Death starts as something to be feared, but by the end of the story, becomes a much-sought form of escape from a life too horrible to contemplate. Poe presents us with a stern and inescapable master, bringing justice to terrible people, but Smith presents us with an unlikely friend and ally, a liberator of the oppressed.
Death, as represented via fantastical imaginary plagues – not exactly a cheerful subject, but nevertheless a cornerstone of the horror genre. From the inspiration of the real-life Black Death, we have seen a pair of stories revel in the possibilities of the gothic aesthetic, as produced by a pair of authors who had a strange fascination with the nature of Death itself. For anyone whose literary tastes lean towards the purple, it is all good colourful fun, and in neither case is Death really presented as the villain – that would be Poe’s protagonists and Smith’s antagonists respectively. Humans are, in the end, the real bastards.
In any case, such venerable literary musings on Death as Inevitable and Death as Escape feel a tad more interesting than the wall-to-wall crisis coverage we are currently seeing in the news. The exquisite artistry of Poe and Smith feels rather divorced from mundane realities of Australian toilet paper shortages – an argument in favour of the fantasy genre if there ever was one.