A Retelling of “The Masque of the Red Death” from A Midnight Dreary
This is an excerpt from my novel. My recurring character, Poe, wanders what Donovan DeChance calls “the Labyrinth” – a series of tunnels that lead… virtually… anywhere, or when. Poe often finds himself in alternate settings – meeting a character that is himself – and living his stories.
David Niall Wilson writing as E. A. Poe
As I wander about the strange, book lined study I entered so long ago, there is the sensation of fingers tracing spider-silk lines down my spine. Each time the door leading to the ancient pathways beyond slides softly closed and the latch falls into place I wonder if it’s the last time that I’ll hear it, if I’ll find my way back, or if the universe will finally, reluctantly pen the words denied me for so long, and write “The End.”
And I wonder where–and when–I will go.
I have tried every notion, every trick of literary magic and intellectual gymnastics I can imagine, to find my way back to Lake Drummond at an early enough point to make a difference, but the trick of it – if trick there is – it eludes me. At times, I am certain the worlds I enter, while following similar lines of time to that of my own, are in some way divergent. Indeed, more than once I have met a semblance of myself, though subtlety, or wholly changed. Introspection is a dark enough practice without a living, breathing mirror casting long shadows on your soul.
My life is like the point where a solid object strikes a mirror. Cracks shoot off in all directions, some broken, some flawed. I have to believe that the life I lived before the strange events near The Great Dismal Swamp was my first, and truest. I judge this not from any certain knowledge, but from the simple fact that–in that life–I never encountered myself in any other guise. The stories I have written, the worlds I’ve visited, all of them have in some way touched that first world.
I have traveled there, you see, just not at the point in time I wished. I have seen the future, and some of the past. I have read the stories and words attributed to my pen, and I tell you – though I have lived variations on those tales, and I have written each and every one of them down in as much painstaking detail as my memory can provide – none of those published closely mirrors the truth. Perhaps I dreamed this place into existence and all since then has been a comatose vision of insanity. I suppose, in the end, it does not matter. If this story finds its way into your hands, I believe that you will recognize its counterpoint in my ‘collected works,’ but I also believe you may find a point or two of interest in this truer version. I pray that it is so.
This story began the same as so many others. I had donned my long coat and set out from my ‘den’ in search of a way back to Lenore. I was not two steps into that cool, empty passage when I sensed the movement of air at my shoulder and felt the comfortable, familiar thump of Grimm’s landing. I had not noticed his absence within my chambers – he came and went when it pleased him, and by ways and means beyond my understanding. As usual, while transiting those dark ways, the bird was silent. I wondered if he was leaving all mistakes and ill-chosen pathways to me to avoid blame.
It didn’t matter. I concentrated. Somehow, I knew that the key to finding the doorway I sought would surface in the whirling morass of my imagination, and not come to me by some ritualistic trickery. I needed to focus on my goal, visualize the outcome, and act. In all my journeys, the only time my destination has been certain has been in the return. The study, the desk, the books – in some way they are static while the world, as I once knew it, has disintegrated into a shifting pattern of possibilities.
I erased the world from my mind and pictured her face, and then the lake, that tortured, twisted tree that had captured her so completely – imagined the old woman and the stag – the drawings. As I had a hundred times before, I spoke her name–Lenore. I felt a gentle tug on my mind, and turned. I faced a door. There was no knob, just a heavy latch, similar to the one on the door that opened into my study.
I stopped for a moment, thinking about that. I had come to think of that room as mine – but I had no idea where it had come from – how it could possibly exist – or why it was filled with the things that mattered to me. I wear the long coat that I found there, and it fit as though tailored for me in the finest clothier. The books that line the shelves range from the familiar to those I might have sought in the far-reaches of the globe, had I the time or wherewithal to make such travels. Some had notes in the margins, and though I’d studied them, and sifted and searched my memories for anything that might explain them – I do not remember writing them. For all of that, they are clearly written by my hand, and though the words are not familiar, the moment I read them – they feel a part of me, and something scratches at nerves in the dark recesses of my mind. Something forgotten, or something anticipated.
The only constant is Grimm. I have still not completely adjusted to his new form. When we met, he was a crow – old, tamed by some hand I could not fathom – bonded to me by loneliness and wanderlust. And dreams.
At Lake Drummond, I learned the truth. He is no crow, but a raven. He holds keys to things I may never understand, and shares them with me. I have heard the word familiar used in reference to our bond, and in every real sense, it fits. As the years have passed, we have shared many adventures–many nightmares. I do not know how he copes, but for me, the only answer is to write them down. Those scribblings have become my legacy to a world where I no longer feel welcome.
The door beckoned, and before the melancholy of the past could draw me in, I gripped the latch, pushed the door open, and stepped through into a dimly lighted hall.
Grimm rode easily, his sharp gaze searching the shadows. We were not alone. A team of carpenters labored at a great door, placing timbers across it, and pounding them firmly in place. Others waited to brace these timbers with angled posts to prevent them being knocked free from the outside. I stood still in the shadows, watching.
One turned and caught sight of me. He frowned into the shadows, and then, just as I was afraid I’d have to try and find my way back through the portal, his features softened, and to my consternation, he executed a short bow.
“Sorry, Lord,” he said. “I did not know you were there, and I did not recognize your attire.”
I held my silence, nodding to acknowledge him. I knew that anything I said might bring my true identity into question. It seemed, as had been the case so many times before, that mine was not an unfamiliar face to those around me. Something about my presence or my appearance bothered him He stared at me long and hard, but I met that gaze, and after a time, he turned back to his work.
I didn’t hesitate. I was interested in what they were doing, the sealing of the doors, but aware that they would expect me to understand. I would have to seek my answers in other places, and other ways.
I walked slowly down the hall and into the interior of the large, grand building, following the scent of incense and candles, the strains of music, and peels of high-pitched laughter.
The hallway I had entered through was a large foyer, and that which I stepped into on the far side was long and grand. At the far end, staircases swept up to the right and left, disappearing into shadows. There were doors on all sides of me. More doors opened from the second story, where a balconied walkway branched from the twin staircases. Light washed out from each to stain the railing above me, and each of those lights was of a different hue, giving the hall below the aspect of a circular rainbow, or a kaleidoscope.
There was no way to isolate sounds. Voices, music, the clatter of heels on hard flooring, the clang of silverware. I felt Grimm shift on my shoulder, and glanced at him. I’d nearly forgotten he was there, and almost laughed as I realized that it might not have been me the man by the entrance had stared at, but the bird.
“What next, old friend?” I asked.
Receiving no answer, I walked slowly to the stairs, choosing that on the right, and wound my way upward. There were rooms on the lower floor, but whatever was happening seemed to be limited to the spaces above.
As I stepped onto the upper walk, I saw that there was an alcove just out of sight of the stairs, cut into the wall. In that shadowed place a woman sat facing an easel. There was dim light from a flickering candle. I had to step much closer to make out what she was painting. As I approached, I saw it was a large canvas, a street scene littered with bodies. They tumbled and sprawled as though tossed aside, like garbage. Deep red lines swam from the corners of their eyes, drained from their nostrils and washed in rivulets of drool from their lips. The faces were incomplete, the figures symbolic of forgotten numbers, all individuality lost in the pain. It was powerful, and at the same time repellent.
Several of the bodies lay before a great door, and in a strange juxtaposition, I realized it must be the far side of the portal I’d just seen sealed. The woman wore a long, diaphanous gown. As I approached, I saw that it was deep red. From a distance it had seemed black. She heard my footsteps, and turned slowly, her brush pausing in its dance.
The gaze I met was that of a strange harlequin, created in shades of pink and red and lined in deepest black. In her aspect the images she created were recreated to near perfection, lines of rich red sliding from the corners of her eyes, from her downturned lips. Those dripping, deep-set eyes were circled in dark rings that drained any color to pits of gray. She didn’t speak, but her head cocked to one side, and I felt her gaze wash over me, studying and picking at the edges of my features and form. That gaze lingered long on Grimm, and he met it with gravity. It was the artist who looked away, and though I felt his talons grip more tightly at the shoulder of my coat, my companion did not move.
As she returned to her work, her spell was broken, and I turned my attention to the door on my left. Shadows shifted beyond that dark portal, all lit in flickering blue light. I stepped through and drew a heavy breath of lavender from an altar of candles to my right. There was a central floor, topped by a glittering crystal chandelier. Lamps with globes of blown blue glass circled that cleared central space. The voice of a lone singer rose from the shadows. The notes shifted subtly around the room, caught in some arcane geometric progression of acoustic resonance. The tune was haunting, the lyrics, if indeed they were lyrics, too low and indistinct to comprehend.
Couples glided through the center of the chamber, wrapped tightly in one another’s arms, their dance languid and devoid of emotion. They seemed unaware of their surroundings. I spotted a window and walked toward, it, making my way through the center of the crowd. Regardless of what they wore, the color of their hair, and eyes, they were blue people. They wore shades and gradients of it. It glittered in their eyes, and melted to royal blue so dark it bled to purple, and then purest ebony near the floor. As I passed, they turned their gaze upon me, and backed away. I regarded them in turn, but held my silence.
At first my presence was a slight ripple, a shift in their rhythm, but after a moment I realized that, though they did not move swiftly, they opened before me, pulling back and away, gliding from my path. When I swept my gaze around the room they avoided it. I’ve witnessed similar motion in schools of fish, avoiding encroaching shadows, trying to avoid the attention of predators.
I reached the window, and pulled back the long, heavy drapes, but if I’d hoped to see something beyond the walls, something beyond the blue, I was denied. Long planks sealed that portal, nailed to the framework and painted the same dark shade as the curtains. I spun on my heel, crossed back to the door and stepped out into the hall. Behind me, shuffling, sifting silks and scrape of shoe leather spread to cover my track.
The artist did not look up from her work, and I did not linger. I moved on, seeing another room ahead, with bright ruby red light shimmering across the polished floor beyond its door.
The antithesis of the blue chamber, this one sparkled. Laughter peeled like the tintinnabulation of bells. Glasses clinked. Along one wall a long table ran, centered by a huge punchbowl. In the glare of ruby-tinted light it was impossible to tell if the glass, or the liquid within, was clear, or blood red. There was no music. Men and women gathered in groups, laughing and chattering. As in the previous room, there was a tall, curtained window, but I ignored it. Instead, I stared directly across the chamber’s center to the table.
A tall man stood beside it. He held a glass in one hand, the ladle in the other. He had not yet noticed my presence, and so I watched, keenly aware of each and every motion. The tilt of his head, the way he stood casually, one knee bent. When at last his glass was full, and he turned, I studied what I could make out of his features.
He stood very still and returned my gaze.
No one passed between us. In fact, those who noticed his presence, or mine, or both, shied away. He gleamed red, but I realized at once he wore bright white, shaded by the lights. Whatever room he passed through he would match, when he split two of them in the hallway he would take on the aspect of a rainbow.
My clothing, as always, was dark. The long jacket swept the floor. Grimm rested on my shoulder, head cocked. I knew that if I stood a moment longer, the man would cross to me, and confrontation would be inevitable. There was a stir of laughter by a second door, leading into a chamber that leaked orange light, fading to brilliant yellow and deep gold beyond. I turned and made for it. He did not follow. Not immediately. A way was cleared, and I passed into the next room without a backward glance.
There was a rustle of activity at my heels, and not wanting to be drawn back into it, I turned left, skirted the wall of the golden room, which was awash with the music of stringed instruments and vocal harmony – like hymns, but not any songs of worship I was familiar with, and seductive, rather than uplifting. It was languid, like syrup, or honey. I caught the eye of a woman in passing, and she slid her gaze up and down my body, hesitated at Grimm, then continued with a quick, intrigued smile. She took a step in my direction, but I didn’t slow, or pause. I turned left again, back toward the hallway, and stepped out, glancing, again, to my right.
The last room off that hall glowed a deep green. There was a loamy, earthy scent in the air, moist and sweet with an underpinning of rotted vegetation. I stopped in the hall and glanced back. No one followed, but the rainboesque ambiance of the place was shattered by a cry, followed by a high-pitched scream, and then another. Voices rose, and all pretense at music was swallowed in the din.
The green room beckoned, and I slipped inside.
Ferns cascaded over the lips of pottery lining the walls, held in place by a maze of wrought iron stands, shelves, and finery. The air was sickly sweet with the perfume of too many flowers, some dead and dying, others blooming, still others soaking in stagnant water that kept stems and roots from drying up and dropping away, while bringing slow death by rot.
There were not so many revelers in this room, and those there were matched their aspect to that of the room. They leaned on walls, sat on benches, propped only by their neighbors. No voices rose. No attempt at music cut the heavy air. I followed the wall to the left and came to a stone-rimmed fountain footed by a fetid pool. There was movement in the water. It rippled as something slid beneath the surface? Koi? Something else?
A man and woman sat, backs to that short wall of stone. Her head rested on his shoulder and he held her hand to his breast. I approached and bent to speak. The blood that leaked from their eyes, and ran from the corners of their lips, seemed black. The pale dead whites of their eyes shone luminous and green, as though weeping some sort of suppurating poison.
I stepped back. I had no idea how long it might take for me to be infected with whatever had killed them, or if it was even possible – if I were immune in some way, stepping through from another world. Grimm was and is my guide in the face of danger, and he did not flinch from those morbid, corpse-faces. I turned and left the room.
In the hall, I saw the man in white a few yards away. He stood beside the artist, and knowing my time grew short, I crossed that short distance to stand at his side. At first, he did not look up. His white clothing glowed with the many colors of the rooms. All around us, sobs, cries, screams of pain and terror filled the air.
The girl lay on the floor, her brush forgotten. Paint was spilled around her, splattering her stool and the base of her easel. Her final line, blood red, trailed off down the canvas and on toward the floor, lost in space as she had fallen away. Her face matched those in her painting, blood blending with spoiled paint to create a single work of something more than art.
He turned then, and our gazes locked. He studied me, as if memorizing my features, or trying to pierce them.
“I do not want–that.” He said, pointing to the girl. “It cannot end thus – can it? Are you, then, my death, come to claim me? Am I already gone?”
Despite the danger, I reached a hand out and laid it on his shoulder.
“I am not death, but neither can I prevent it,” I said. “I am – and sometimes that is more than any man should be forced to bear.”
He nodded. The speech was not really necessary. I felt his futility, and pain. I felt the emptiness of dying with no mark to leave – no final message to the world. Forgotten. Wasted.”
It was Grimm, at last, who moved. He walked in his careful, side-to-side gait, down my arm toward this man who must, and must not be me and stopped at my wrist. He cocked his head and my impossible companion turned his gaze from mine to that of the bird. Something in those deep, pitch dark eyes drew him. I saw his features, already pale, drain of all color. Those eyes, those wide, curious, pain-wracked eyes widened. He grew stiff under my fingers, and I thought, just for a second, that he would pull away – that he would flee. He did not.
Grimm spoke. I have no idea what it was that he said, he was turned from me, and the tone was far too soft, lost in the screams and the wails of those around us. The man’s mouth opened, as if to reply. No sound emerged. He stared, transfixed by something I could not see, something he found in Grimm’s eyes, or beyond them.
And he fell. Just like that, he was gone.
I knelt at his side, turned his face up to study his features. There was no sign of the disease. There was no blood. His eyes were still wide, as if terrified, and I gently lowered the lids to shade them – for my own peace of mind.
I rose and turned, but Grimm, who had made his way back to my shoulder, gripped me and tugged at my jacket with his beak. I frowned.
“We must leave this place,” I said. “We must go, before we become a part of this macabre landscape for eternity.”
Grimm was insistent. I stopped, and I thought. At first I could not imagine what he wanted of me – what he might expect. I thought of the man – of this place, the death that surrounded me – the death that waited on the streets beyond. I thought about my own death, how many times I’d been near to it – felt that cold horseman’s breath on my collar. I thought of my wife, long gone, of my love, Lenore, taken from me. I thought of a world where I lived only in words, and then – in an epiphany that nearly dropped me to my knees, I understood.
His wish – his dying wish – was not to be part of this. Not to be forgotten. Not to have wasted his life – our life? I knelt then, gripped him beneath his arms, and lifted. It was not easy, but I managed to get a good grip, and paying no attention to those around me, I began to drag him from that painting, to the stairs.
I will not detail that journey. I am not an athletic man, though my military time was not without its merit. Finding my way past that sealed main entrance and into the tunnels beyond, dragging a lifeless corpse was nearly more than I could manage. I drew some strength from Grimm, but it was my task – my burden.
I have no real memory of the trek through the tunnels, or how I came, at last, to open yet another door, and to drag myself – for I knew at that point it was no other – through and into a dark, foggy night. There were a few short steps up from a door leading to a basement.
I knew the streets, knew the place and from the familiar scents and sights, knew the time. I have visited there many times over the years… Both before, and after the odd circumstances of my trip to The Lake Drummond Hotel in North Carolina that had so changed my existence. It felt odd – like coming home. Having arrived, though, I was uncertain what to do with my burden, where to deposit him.
It was as I contemplated this that I noticed two singularly odd things. The first was that the other man – the other aspect of myself – was no longer dressed in white. He wore an unkempt suit, not unlike one of my own, but worn improperly, as if he had not the sense, or energy to dress himself.
The second oddity was more profound. The man’s hand moved. His leg kicked once, and then again, and with a shiver that wracked his frame he turned to one side, coughed up some viscous fluid, and raised his head.
I could have helped him up. I could have seen him to a hospital, but I did not. Clearly, though he – by some miracle, or curse – lived, it was a transient state. His gaze, when he turned it upon me, was dull and vacant. There was no sign of the man I’d faced in that faraway place – no hint of any real intelligence.
Grimm tugged at my collar again, and I stepped back and away. Then, without a backward glance, I left the streets of Baltimore behind me once again, and followed that stairway down, closing my eyes and willing the door to open, as I knew it must, on those ancient labyrinthine tunnels. I did not know where they would lead me that night, but I knew it must be away.
My desk and pen awaited, and I knew I would have to write this tale, or allow it to devour me slowly from within – the image of my own features in death, the blood draining from the artist’s eyes.
I have titled this piece Masquerade, but before I take it – on some future journey – back to a time when it might actually see print, and become part of my legacy, I may give it a new title, and cut from it certain aspects that would only confuse readers, and undo what I have wrought. I think perhaps that title will involve masks, and death, but that story is for another place and time. This one will remain here, in this strange study between worlds.
I feel a great weight has been lifted. The world I knew – the world that knew me – has been left behind. I don’t know why I am so certain, but I feel the man I left there is dead. I doubt he was able to provide details, but if he did, he will be deemed a madman, and will take that to my grave – another riddle in a long, unfortunate, and yet incredibly interesting life.
With that behind me, I will turn my efforts to finding the proper door, the portal that will lead me to a place and time where there is a way to reunite with Lenore. Perhaps I will find allies along that way, perhaps I will die a second death. All a man can do is to put one foot before the other and trust to the fates. I am more fortunate than most. I also have Grimm, and though I cannot see the path laid out for me, in some way, I believe that he does.
I do not know if – in that forgotten past – my death was mourned, but I swear by whatever spirit guides me, my rebirth will have meaning.
E. A. Poe