Three of the most important women in Poe’s life died of tuberculosis. Although the ”pestilence” in the story “Masque of the Red Death” is not defined, it seems reasonable to assume that it is inspired in some ways by Poe’s experience with tuberculosis. The distinguishing mark of the “Red Death” is profuse bleeding, just as the distinguishing sign of tuberculosis is the coughing up of blood. According to Britannica Online, tuberculosis, often referred to in literature as “consumption,” is “one of the great scourges of mankind.” The disease “reached near-epic proportions” in industrializing urban areas in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. During this time, it was ”the leading cause of death for all age groups in the Western world.”
Much of Poe’s writing can be referred to as “impressionist,” depicting the subtle details of a sensitive mind from a highly subjective perspective. Britannica Online describes an impressionist story as “a tale shaped and given meaning by the consciousness and psychological attitudes of the narrator.” Impressionism—a school of thought in the world of painting—emerged primarily in France in the mid-1860s. The most notable impressionist painters were Claude Monet and Pierre August Renoir. Impressionist painters rebelled against the dominant values of painting at the time, which emphasized subjects taken from mythology. Instead, impressionism was, according to Britannica Online, “an attempt to accurately and objectively record visual reality in terms of transient effects of light and colour.”
Gothic Fiction in England
Poe is considered one of the early masters of Gothic fiction. The term gothic was originally borrowed from architecture, but refers to a style of literature that developed in the late eighteenth century and throughout the nineteenth century, particularly in England. Gothic fiction is characterized by a dark, macabre atmosphere, focusing on themes of death, horror, madness and the supernatural. Landmark works of Gothic fiction in England include Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1895).
The Short Story in Russia and France
It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that the short story was developed into an art form and a respectable genre of literature. Poe was an early master of the short story, and a considerable influence in formulating a set of aesthetics for its unique form. The form of the short story was also developed around the same time in Germany, Russia and France. Great French short story writers included Alphonse Daudet and Guy du Masupassant, while many other writers, primarily known for their novels, also experimented with the form. In Russia, Nikolay Gogol, Ivan Turgenev, and Anton Chekov distinguished themselves as masters of the short story. Gogol, in particular, wrote impressionist stories on a par with Poe’s. His 1842 story ”Overcoat” was one of the most influential Russian short stories of the period.
The Grand Guignol
Poe’s stories of Gothic horror contain the roots of modern horror fiction and the modern horror film. However, before the invention of cinema (about 1895), Gothic horror was enacted on the theater stage in a style referred to as Grand Guignol. Originally staged in England, but primarily successful in France, Grand Guignol performances depicted scenes of graphic horror, such as re-enactments of true-crime murders, with an emphasis on the special effects of blood, dismemberment and gore.
Ira Mark Milne (Editor), Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 8, Edgar Allan Poe, Published by Thomson Gale, 2000.