A few months ago I changed my Twitter profile from "Bethany Griffin, English teacher extraordinaire" to "Bethany Griffin, author of Masque of the Red Death [HarperCollins, $17.99]." It felt really weird. So weird, in fact, that I almost changed it back. I didn't think that anyone would look at my tiny profile picture and mistake me for Edgar Allan Poe, but I did feel like an imposter.
How does an unknown author work up the nerve to set her story in a world created by the master of gothic fiction?
There's no simple answer to that question. I like to tell my creative writing students that writing requires a paradoxical combination of arrogance and humbleness. You have to believe that you can produce a work worth reading, and you have to be willing to listen to advice and revise until you can't revise anymore.
I guess I was channeling the arrogant part of being a writer when I even thought about using Poe's story as the inspiration for my book, especially considering that his story is 2,200 words. Mine is seventy-five thousand. I didn't rewrite his story. I didn't turn a villain into a good guy, or put Poe's characters in an exciting space battle. What I did try to do was create a mood and atmosphere that didn't contradict Poe's.
I'm prone to searching Masque of the Red Death on Twitter. The agonized tweets from bewildered students assigned to read Poe's story for class can be fairly amusing. I also see tweets proclaiming Poe's story as a favorite. There is no denying that more than any other classic author, Poe fascinates teens. There's also no denying that his prose, while amazing, can frustrate nearly anyone.
My goal in writing Masque of the Red Death wasn't to make Poe's story accessible, or to try to get modern readers to rediscover Poe. He's proven to be pretty timeless. It was to add the things I most love to the dark, stifling atmosphere that Poe had created. And I wanted to write a much longer story, complete with conspiracies and subplots, and add fascinating characters, because as a reader and writer I fall in love with characters. Poe's original short story featured only one named character, the sagacious Prince Prospero (who in my version is rather more ominous than sagacious, but that's how you gain power and wealth, perhaps, after which you can relax and dance as the plague decimates the world outside your palace).
The underlying concept of Poe's story is that no one, no matter how rich and powerful, can escape death. Such a relevant and macabre idea. The Masque of the Red Death was just begging to be turned into a post-apocalyptic novel.
If you have visited the teen section of your local bookstore lately, or if you own a television and have seen a trailer for The Hunger Games, then you may be aware of the shelves of exciting, futuristic books that teens are devouring. I consider these the children of great books like Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and Lois Lowry's classic, The Giver. Dark books that explore dark futures. Masque of the Red Death won't be out of place on those shelves. As Poe wrote in his Masque, "Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all." You don't get much darker than that.
I began writing a novel about girls living in a future decimated by plague, dressed in finery and gas masks, passing the abandoned dead in an armored car as they drove though streets strewn with dead bodies. Now, there's nothing to dislike about that, and in fact, a lot to love... but I wasn't sure what was new or different about it, and as a huge admirer of the post-apocalyptic genre, I didn't want to waste anyone's time with something that wasn't new or different.
At the same time, I'd picked up some biographies of Poe, because I realized that despite my love of his work, my knowledge of his life was mostly superficial. He died young. He'd married his young cousin, he was obsessed with the idea of being buried alive. But once I got caught up in Poe's world, I realized that the novel needed to be historical--or at least feel somewhat historical--since I was adding a plague, crocodiles, and catacombs.
The dance club became a Victorian gentleman's club, but one open to girls because so many patrons had died of the plague. The armored car became a steam-powered carriage. But my girls were still dressed in finery, still riding past the dead. Their masks weren't gas masks, but porcelain masks that had been developed to filter the air; masks that only the rich could afford. Once I found my setting, the book flowed, and writing it, while not easy, was a complete joy.
And there's no better plague than Poe's. "THE Red Death had long devastated the country. No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous. Blood was its Avatar and its seal--the redness and the horror of blood.
I'd devoured Stephen King's The Stand years ago, and still consider it one of my all-time favorite novels. King's plague was a super-flu, complete with phlegm and mucus, but with Poe's plague you fell down dead within half an hour, bleeding from your eyes. Convulsions, terror! You can't beat that.
I've been known to call this project a tale told by an English teacher. At other times, I like to describe it as a post-apocalyptic steampunk retelling of a classic Edgar Allan Poe short story. Many labels have been attached to the book--speculative history, dystopian, action/adventure, romance, and young adult fiction. But with a title like Masque of the Red Death, the conversation always comes back to Poe. And that's as it should be, since without the original, this work wouldn't exist.