Journals, Literature, Modern Languages

Introducing ‘Unmasking the Red Death’: examining Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ in light of lockdowns and the COVID-19 pandemic

We are delighted to introduce Unmasking the Red Death, the latest special collection from Modern Languages Open. Contributions examine Edgar Allan Poe’s short story The Masque of the Red Death in light of lockdowns and the COVID-19 pandemic, exploring the central role that culture can have in times of crisis.

Here, the co-editor of the collection, Emily Baker explains how this open access collection of articles came about and the research context and thinking that informs it.

Read Unmasking the Red Death Special Collection >

During the first lockdown in the UK (March to June 2020) a group of staff and students from University College London’s School of European Languages and Cultures (SELCS) gathered weekly for a Summer Book Club (SBC) to discuss works as diverse as Thomas Mann’s epic tale of convalescence and philosophical exploration The Magic Mountain and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s captivating comparison of the experience of race in Nigeria, the UK, and the US in Americanah. Among the true “pandemic-lit” that we chose to focus on was Edgar Allen Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death. In discussing this tale, we could not help noticing the parallels between ourselves and Prince Prospero and his courtiers, who—in the face of devastating disease sweeping the realm—devoted themselves to aesthetic pleasures within their castellated abbey, just as we too found refuge in (closed) community and culture. Another of our book choices revealed a similar and uncanny parallel: in Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven a band of actors and musicians roam a devastated America, putting on Shakespeare for the survivors of another deadly pandemic. Their motto, “Because survival is not sufficient”, a quotation from Star Trek, chimed with our sense too that, in the face of the pandemic, culture
had a central role.

"The dagger dropped gleaming upon the sable carpet". From Tales of Mystery and Imagination ... Illustrated by Harry Clarke, by Edgar Allan Poe. London : G. G. Harrap & Co., 1919. (British Library item 12703.i.43). Illustrating The Masque of the Red Death.
“The dagger dropped gleaming upon the sable carpet”. From Tales of Mystery and Imagination … Illustrated by Harry Clarke, by Edgar Allan Poe. London : G. G. Harrap & Co., 1919. (British Library item 12703.i.43). Illustrating The Masque of the Red Death.

As these references to Poe and St. John Mandel indicate, the choice of texts made by the SBS was far from arbitrary. Just as Camus’s La Peste and Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year shot up the bestsellers’ lists, so we too turned our attention to the fictions of the past and present that—through their themes of plague and pandemic—were able to shed light on our present circumstances; as if fiction—as much as the lenses of vaccinology, the graphs of statisticians, and the predictions of public health experts—might also be a key to making sense of our situation. This collection of short articles is then, in one sense, an attempt to make sense of that attempt to make sense.

Read the full introduction >

We would like to thank all of the student members of the SELCS Summer Book Club and the members of the “Learning During Coronavirus” book club for infinitely enriching our discussions of Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death. We would also especially like to thank Florian Mussgnug, who came up with the initiative of the special collection and sponsored its publication.

The collection is edited by Emily Baker (University College London) and Tim Beasley-Murray (University College London).

The illustration at the top of this post is a production still from Punchdrunk’s The Masque of the Red Death, the author is Voldermort & Valor, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Articles in the collection

Unmasking the Red Death: Introduction
Tim Beasley-Murray, Emily Baker

Folie des critiques
Mathelinda Nabugodi

The Count
Rachel Bowlby

Community, Survival, and the Arts in the Boccaccian Tradition
Jennifer Rushworth

Red Alerts: A Reflective Assemblage
Lucy Bollington

Castellated Abbeys, Fortified Enclaves: Immunity and Sovereignty in Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘Masque of the Red Death’ and Contemporary Brazil
Emily Baker

Black Skin, Red Masques: Reading Frantz Fanon and Audre Lorde in Tension with Edgar Allan Poe
Xine Yao

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