Trump loves to brag about how he boldly fought the novel coronavirus by restricting entrance into the US from China. But now we know that, true to form, neither he nor anyone around him had thought through the possible consequences. His hip-shot action made American citizens, particularly in already-infested Europe, so instantly nervous about repatriation that they stormed back to the US at once.
Many of them landed at airports where the customs officers were unprepared and overwhelmed. Eyewitnesses tell us that the returning travelers waited in long lines in close quarters which were already, as Stephen King wrote about THE STAND’s superflu, “crawling with death.” They weren’t tested or traced. Thus did COVID-19 make its way into the most heavily populated parts of the United States, the ones with international airports. Not even a king can command a virus. And Trump was only a spectator, squandering weeks that could have been devoted to preparation which would have saved thousands of American lives.
We shut-ins make strange connections these days, and all this made me think of THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH. Not only the Edgar Allan Poe story that so unnerved me as a child, but also the 1964 Roger Corman movie that remains the best of his Poe “adaptations.” I just re-read the story and “Hop-Frog,” a lesser-known Poe tale which is also folded into Charles Beaumont and R. Wright Campbell’s screenplay, and watched the film again, both after many years. Once you discover similarities to our present situation, you can’t shake them off. It’s no longer just an imaginative dark fantasy. In many disturbing ways, our daily life is Poe made real.
“The Masque” (the short story) and THE MASQUE (the picture) got to me as a youngster because of the plague’s creepy inexorability. It’s the same frisson that made the Mummy, to me, the most terrifying of the classic Universal monsters. Sure, you could outrun the Mummy, or flee by air or ocean. Sure, he just shambles everywhere he goes. But once you have incurred the Mummy’s wrath, he will never ever stop coming until he finds you and kills you. It may take years, decades, but you will never be rid of him. He’s getting closer every second, even while you’re asleep.
How naive, how arrogant of Trump to think that restricting traffic from one country — or at least attempting it in his typically hamhanded way — was enough to stanch the spread of a novel virus about which we knew next to nothing. Poe’s Prince Prospero — could there be a more apt fictional name for our current president? — was less naive about the Red Death (“No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous”), but every bit as arrogant. He invited the knights and dames of his court, a full thousand of them, to “the deep seclusion of one of his castellated abbeys.” It was not called Mar-A-Lago, but you can be forgiven the mistake. “A strong and lofty wall girded it in” with “gates of iron” whose bolts were welded shut. The abbey was “amply provisioned.” “With such precautions the courtiers might bid defiance to contagion. The external world could take care of itself. In the meantime it was folly to grieve, or to think.”
Are you getting chills yet?
“The prince had provided all the appliances of pleasure. 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 ‘Red Death.’” Even as a grade-schooler, I thought to myself, they think a locked door is going to keep out a disease?
After five or six months of merry, bibulous quarantine, Prospero decides to throw a masked ball for the ages. This very moment as I write this, Trump fans are gathering in Tulsa, Oklahoma for the first public appearance in months by their prince. Trump campaign rallies are, for all practical purposes, giant parties, celebrations of the minions of MAGA. Some foolish people have even declared today “National No Mask Day,” for the notion of protecting one another from the spread of coronavirus has, incredibly, become politicized. I don’t expect to see many masks inside that Tulsa arena tonight, even though a hot, crowded indoor environment where people are screaming and chanting is absolutely perfect for this disease to flourish and spread.
The masque is the centerpiece of Poe’s story and of Corman’s beautiful film, thanks in great degree to superb art direction by Daniel Haller and cinematography by Nicolas Roeg(!). Leading the revelers to thumb their noses at the contagion outside is Vincent Price as Prospero, who has never been smarmier — and the screenplay adds a Satanic subplot for him and Hammer scream queen Hazel Court that is not in the Poe story. You even get a good look at Jane Asher, who at the time was Paul McCartney’s girlfriend and muse. It’s great fun and looks far more expensive than it is — “the money’s on the screen,” as they say.
I hope I’m not spoiling anything when I reveal that the Red Death finds its way into Prospero’s bash, just as I expect COVID-19 to crash Trump’s Tulsa rally and the Republican National Convention’s nomination acceptance night in another arena Petri dish. It was moved to Jacksonville because the governor of North Carolina would not agree to suspend distancing guidelines for the sake of political optics. Ignoring the whole of epidemiological science isn’t just ill-advised; it represents true madness. Please don’t let this end like Poe’s tale, the final line of which Corman puts up as a title card at the end:
“And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.”