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The Mask of Red Death

The Mask of Red Death by Harold Schechter
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Suspense, intrigue, atmosphere, and vivid historical detail combine into a thrilling ride through nineteenth-century New York City in The Mask of Red Death. Harold Schechter delivers both a wonderfully accurate portrait of a city in turmoil and an irresistibly appealing depiction of his amateur sleuth Edgar Allan Poe, mirroring the master’s writing style with wit and acumen.

It is the sweltering summer of 1845, and the thriving metropolis has fallen victim to a creature of the most inhuman depravity. Found days apart, two girls have been brutally murdered, their throats slashed, viciously scalped, and–most shocking of all–missing their livers. Edgar Allan Poe, despite what the tenor of his own tales of terror might suggest about his constitution, is just as shaken and revolted by these horrendous crimes as the panic-stricken public. Suspicion of the scalper’s identity immediately swirls around the most famous “redskin” in New York, Chief Wolf Bear, one of the human attractions at P.T. Barnum’s American Museum. Certain that Chief Wolf Bear is innocent, Poe has deduced that the city is concealing a cannibal somewhere in its teeming masses, one with an ever-growing appetite for human prey.

Before he can investigate his theory further, Poe stumbles onto the scene of a third gruesome murder. Poe recently met William Wyatt when he agreed to look at a document for Wyatt to determine the authenticity of the purportedly famous handwriting on it. Now Poe finds Wyatt in a pool of blood, his scalp removed. How, Poe muses, are Wyatt and his document connected to the two slain girls?

As frenzied emotions over the murders reach a fevered pitch, Kit Carson makes an appearance. The famous scout has been tracking the “Liver Eater” since the man killed his wife months ago. Together, Carson and Poe make an odd sleuthing team, but their combined wits are formidable. The trail they uncover reveals a dark secret more powerful than anything they could have imagined– one that may reach the upper echelons of politics and privilege.

From the Hardcover edition.
Random House Publishing Group;
Title: The Mask of Red Death
Author: Harold Schechter
Chapter One

There are certain subjects in which the interest is all-absorbing. In our own country, stories of frontier captivity—of Western pioneers taken prisoner by the Indians—have always exerted a singular fascination. From the days of the earliest settlers, firsthand accounts by survivors of this harrowing ordeal have invariably been among the most popular of all our literary productions, as even a cursory glance at the shelves of any bookseller on Broadway will readily confirm.

Not long ago (I am composing this in the summer of 1846), no fewer than five of these volumes were sent to me for review. In accordance with convention, each of these books featured an exceedingly sensational title, promising a tale of Extraordinary Hardship!—Unprecedented Adventure!—Uncommon Suffering!—and Remarkable Deliverance! Unsurprisingly, all five proved, upon perusal, to be entirely devoid of aesthetic value. And yet, in spite of their many egregious flaws, each became an immediate commercial success—a circumstance bound to be a source of the keenest vexation to any true literary artist whose own infinitely superior works have failed to receive the recognition (and remuneration) they deserve.

What was it about these books—I was left to ponder—what was it that accounted for their inordinate appeal? The answer, I concluded, resides in a peculiarity of our nature that—however shameful to confess—is unquestionably as old as our species itself. I refer, of course, to the innate human appetite for stories involving bloodshed and cruelty. Whatever other thrilling or suspenseful incidents may be found in narratives of Indian captivity, such books depend for the greatest impact on their graphic portrayal of the ghastly horrors of frontier combat—and, in particular, on the unspeakable tortures to which helpless prisoners are routinely subjected by their savage foes!

Even today, there are images I retain from these books that are impossible to banish from my mind. How shall I ever forget the dreadful scene in the memoirs of John Roger Tanner when his young comrade, Toby Squires, is strung up by his wrists and flayed alive by a gloating Iroquois chieftain? Or the equally gruesome moment in the narrative of the French fur-trader Jean Laframboise, when he is forced to consume a bleeding collop of his own flesh, sliced from his leg by an Apache tormentor? Or—most horrific of all—the episode recounted by Captain John Salter, in which a Comanche brave tortures a captive by making a small incision in the poor man’s abdomen, removing one end of the small intestine, nailing it to a wooden post, and forcing the victim to run in a circle until his entrails are completely unwound! The mere recitation of these atrocities is enough to suffuse my bosom with a tumultuous mix of emotions, compounded equally of dread—revulsion—and rapt fascination.

It is, of course, horrors such as these that have fixed in the popular mind a lasting impression of the Western wilderness as a realm, not merely of sublime natural beauty, but of ever-present mortal peril, and of its aboriginal inhabitants as creatures of unsurpassed savagery, whose ingenuity in devising diabolical methods of torture outdoes even the infernal cruelties of the Inquisitors of Toledo. And yet it may be argued that, in committing even the most hideous outrages, the Indian is engaging in behavior wholly consistent with the primordial harshness of his natural surroundings—indeed, that his rituals of torture and bloodshed are perfectly in keeping with the ethical and even religious conceptions of his kind. In short, judged by the standards of his own tribal beliefs, such acts are not merely acceptable but positively honorable.

The same claim can hardly be made for those members of the white race who engage in similar atrocities; for it can scarcely be doubted (as the reader of these pages will quickly discover) that such creatures do in fact exist. Indeed, if there was any lesson to be gleaned from the grim—the ghastly—the appalling—events that took place in Manhattan slightly more than one year ago, it was this: that, of all savage beings, the most deplorable is not the untamed Indian but the civilized man who reverts to outright barbarism; and that, for all the violence and brutality endemic to life on the frontier, no place on earth can match the ugliness—the evil—the sheer unspeakable depravity—to be found in the city!

In attempting to reconstruct an extraordinary occurrence from the past, the historian is often struck by the disparity between the ultimate magnitude of the event and its mundane beginnings. So it was with the singularly shocking affair that held the great metropolis in thrall during the spring of 1845. It began on a Wednesday afternoon in the latter part of May. I was seated at my desk in the office of Mr. Charles Frederick Briggs’s recently established magazine, the Broadway Journal. Even for that time of year, the weather was inordinately warm, if not positively sultry. Apart from the unseasonable heat, however, there was nothing else remarkable about the day—certainly nothing to suggest that it would mark the beginning of one of the most unique and startling episodes in the annals of New York City crime!

I had arrived at the office, as was my habit, at precisely ten o’clock that morning, and had spent the day composing various items for inclusion in the forthcoming number of the magazine: a lengthy review of Mr. Joseph Holt Ingraham’s mildly entertaining (if woefully improbable and poorly written) novel, Lafitte: The Pirate of the Gulf—a short article on Professor Henry Horncastle’s recent, remarkably misinformed lecture on mesmerism at the Society Library—a devastating exposé of Mr. Longfellow’s numerous, flagrant plagiarisms from my own poetical works—and an amusing vignette on the picturesque shanties of the poor Irish squatters who reside on the periphery of the city. For nearly five successive hours, I applied myself assiduously to my work, taking only a short respite to refresh myself with the simple but exceedingly nutritious lunch of cheese, brown bread, and strawberries, prepared for me by my ever-devoted Muddy (the affectionate cognomen by which I referred to my Aunt Maria Clemm, whose angelic daughter, Virginia, I was blessed to call my wife).

Under ordinary circumstances, I would have continued at my labors until the daylight had begun to wane. So oppressive was the heat, however, that, by midafternoon, I felt myself lapsing into a kind of stupor. As I was completely alone in the office—my employer, Mr. Briggs, having gone off for the day on a business errand—I was under no obligation to maintain a strictly punctilious appearance. Even with my jacket removed, my cravat loosened, and my collar undone, however, I found myself perspiring so freely that rivulets of moisture were continuously trickling down my forehead and stinging my eyes. Throwing open the window beside my desk did little to alleviate my discomfort. If anything, the cacophony thus admitted—the clatter of the wagons—the rattle of the omnibuses—the shouts and oaths of the teamsters and hackmen—the cries of the street-vendors—only rendered sustained concentration even more difficult, if not impossible.

At length—unable to carry on productively under such intolerable circumstances—I decided to quit the office for the day and return home. After putting my desk in order, I rose from my chair, threw on my jacket, and departed, taking along a handsomely bound volume that had arrived earlier that day by post. This was a work entitled Journal of an Exploring Tour Beyond the Rocky Mountains, composed by a personage heretofore unknown to me by the name of Samuel Parker. My intention was to peruse this book after dinner in the comfort of my home in preparation for reviewing it on the morrow.

Emerging onto Broadway, I was struck anew by the stifling closeness of the atmosphere, which felt like nothing so much as the airless heat of the tropical Brazilian jungles as vividly described by the infamous Lope de Aguirre in his colorful (if often prolix) letters to King Philip of Spain. Indeed, I noted little discernible difference between the temperature outside on the street and that of the cramped and suffocating office I had just fled.

It might be supposed that the enervating effects of the weather had induced a general torpor in the population of the metropolis. Nothing, however, could have been further from the truth. The oppressive heat had in no way slowed or even seriously moderated the frenzied bustle of both the vehicular and pedestrian traffic on the great thoroughfare. Throwing myself into the dense and continuous tide of humanity rushing along the sidewalk, I bent my steps toward home.

My route led me past the corner of Broadway and Ann Street, the site—as every New Yorker knows—of the city’s most celebrated place of public amusement. I refer, of course, to Mr. P. T. Barnum’s American Museum, home to one of the world’s largest collections of natural marvels—scientific wonders—historical relics—zoological specimens (both living and stuffed)—and human curiosities. Several months had elapsed since I had last set eyes on the self-styled “King of Showmen,” who had recently arrived back on these shores following a triumphant tour of the European capitals. I had been pleased to find that my old comrade (who—whatever his other defects of character—had always displayed the greatest consideration to my family) had not forgotten us in his absence; for, shortly after his return, we had received a large wicker basket from the showman containing a delicious assortment of mouthwater- ing delicacies: Belgian chocolates, English tea-biscuits, French preserves, and more. I had replied with a gracious letter of thanks, promising to pay him a personal visit as soon as opportunity allowed.*

Now, as I approached the corner occupied by Barnum’s garish showplace, I perceived a group of perhaps a dozen people congregated just outside the entranceway. In itself there was nothing odd about such a gathering. As one of the city’s leading attractions, the American Museum drew large numbers of visitors at all hours of the day. This particular assemblage, however, seemed unusual in several respects.

Normally, the crowds to be seen outside Barnum’s establishment comprised a wide assortment of types: dignified gentlemen and humble laborers— dandified bachelors and sedate, long-married couples—cheerful sweethearts enjoying a day on the town—and weary-looking parents with a flock of children in tow. By contrast, the present group was composed entirely of males, several so young as to be barely past boyhood, though the preponderance were adult men. From their exceedingly shabby dress and disreputable appearance I inferred that they were denizens of one of the city’s more degraded quarters, no doubt the Bowery.

Most striking of all, however, was the aura of sullen discontent emanating from the group. Unlike the festive crowds normally gathered before the museum, they wore ugly scowls on their faces, and muttered angrily among themselves as they nodded and gestured toward the building. As I hurried past this unsavory bunch, I could overhear exclamations of the most offensive variety issuing from their midst—“bastard”—“son of a bitch”—and others too profane to repeat.

Casting a dark look at these ill-bred wretches—whose foul speech and coarse demeanor seemed to epitomize all that was most vulgar and debased about the city—I crossed Broadway and (insofar as the congestion of the streets would allow) accelerated my pace toward home.

By this point, my mood had become one of extreme irritability. The suffocating atmosphere—the nerve-wracking tumult of the streets—the shocking incivility of the populace—all conspired to plunge me into the most disgruntled of humors. For the hundredth—nay, the thousandth!—time since we had moved back into the city, I inwardly cursed the unhappy circumstances that had necessitated our return.

For the better part of the preceding year, Muddy, Sissy, and I had been residing on a charming farmstead in the northern suburbs, above Eighty-sixth

* A full account of my adventures with Barnum can be found in my earlier chronicle The Hum Bug.

Street, where we had enjoyed the many incalculable benefits of pastoral life. Not the least of these was the exceedingly fresh country air, which had served as a veritable elixir for my poor, afflicted Sissy, whose physical condition—never strong to begin with—had been undergoing a gradual, but seemingly inexorable, process of deterioration.

For all its many delights, however—its verdant meadows—its perfumed atmosphere—its sweeping views of the magnificent Hudson River—our rural locale had one grave disadvantage. My isolation from the city had made it difficult for me to find sustained employment, rendering our always shaky financial circumstances even more precarious. Even the phenomenal success of my poem “The Raven”—which had proved an immediate and widespread sen- sation upon its initial publication—had brought me little by way of material reward. Thus, when Mr. Briggs had proposed to hire me as editor of the Broadway Journal, I could hardly refuse—particularly since, in lieu of a salary, he had offered me a one-third pecuniary interest in the magazine!

It was with particularly divided emotions, therefore—regret over abandoning our idyllic country home, mixed with excited optimism over my future prospects—that I had accepted Mr. Briggs’s offer and returned, with my loved ones, to the heart of the city.

Unfortunately the profits I had hoped to realize had not, thus far, materialized. Of course, the magazine was still new. I had no doubt that it would eventually prove a great success and earn a substantial income for its owner and myself. In the meantime, however, my circumstances remained as financially straitened as ever. Were it not for the domestic genius of my blessed Muddy—who somehow managed to maintain our household on the pittance I was able to provide each week—our situation would have been intolerably bleak.

The dire state of my finances was brought home to me at that very moment. Making my way along Canal Street, I saw, directly ahead of me, one of the many Chinese street-vendors who peddled cheap cigars and candies around the city. He was stationed behind a little wooden stand that consisted of a shallow tray supported by four rickety legs. Unlike the majority of his race, he had discarded his traditional garb and was attired like an ordinary American—in trousers, vest, and a somewhat threadbare frock coat that hung loosely upon his slender frame. Beneath his battered felt hat, his thick black hair was cut to a respectable Christian length and shorn of its heathenish, dangling queue. A trio of ragged urchins hovered nearby, gazing at his merchandise with expressions of intense, if hopeless, longing.

As I drew nearer, I saw that the tray held an assortment of sweets: peanut brittle, sugar almonds, licorice, gumdrops, jujube pastes, peppermints. All at once, I was seized with the urge to purchase a selection of these dainties for Muddy and Sissy (each of whom possessed an avid, if not insatiable, “sweet tooth”). When I searched my pockets for money, however, I was dismayed to discover that my entire store of cash amounted to a few pennies.

For several moments, I remained standing on the curb, debating the wisdom of spending my all-too-meager funds on such inessential trifles. It occurred to me at that moment that—despite my great prominence in the world of letters—my situation, in monetary terms, was hardly better than that of the penniless waifs beside me. A more devastating commentary on America’s deplorable treatment of her artists could scarcely be imagined. A bitter laugh escaped my lips, somewhat startling the children and causing the Asiatic fellow to look at me in alarm.

Still, I refused to succumb to despair. Stepping boldly forward, I made my wishes known to the vendor, who filled a cone-shaped paper bag with candies and—after accepting my payment—handed it to me with a polite bow. I then turned and continued on my way—though not before offering a morsel of peppermint to each of the three hungry-eyed children, who snatched them from my hand and went skipping down the street without bothering with the nicety of a thank you.

Our residence consisted of five rented rooms on the second floor of a respectable, if somewhat dilapidated, building on Amity Street. Arrived at length at this destination, I ascended the narrow staircase, opened the apartment door, and stepped into the little foyer.

From the parlor drifted the wonderfully melodious sound of my Sissy’s voice: “Muddy?”

“No,” I called out in reply. “It is I—your own dear Eddie.”

A little Dutch table was situated beside the door. Setting down the volume I had brought home with me, I removed the confectionery bag from my pocket—extracted one of the red-swirled pieces of peppermint—concealed this in my right hand—and crossed into the parlor.

The former tenant of our apartment (as our landlady, Mrs. Whitaker, had informed us) was—like myself—a Southern gentleman, apparently of French extraction. He had come to New York City with the great hope—so he told Mrs. Whitaker—of making a fortune as an importer of porcelain ware from Limoges. Less than three months after his arrival, however, he had absconded in the dead of night. The reason for his abrupt departure was a matter of conjecture, though the likeliest explanation—and the one to which our landlady subscribed—was that he had suffered sudden, catastrophic reversals and had fled the city in a desperate bid to elude his creditors.

Whatever the truth of this hypothesis, it could scarcely be doubted that he had decamped in enormous haste, for he had left behind most, if not all, of his furnishings. The parlor, like the rest of the flat, reflected his genteel, if uninspired, sense of decor. Its walls were hung with hand-tinted lithographs of biblical subjects—its windows curtained in red silk damask—its floor covered with a brightly colored “Aubusson” carpet. A rosewood bookcase stood against one wall, beside a matching étagère. The remaining articles of furniture in the room consisted of a pair of armchairs—a tall clock in an inlaid mahogany case—an oval-topped tripod table—and a sofa upholstered in well-worn brocade which supported, at that moment, the divine—the ethereal—form of my darling Sissy.

She was seated at one end of the couch, a drawing pad resting on her lap and a charcoal pencil gripped in one delicate hand. As I entered the room, she looked up at me with an expression of happy surprise. As always, I was struck by the ineffable loveliness of her countenance, which—if anything—had been rendered even more sublime by the steady progress of her illness. Apart from the faint, febrile rouge that tinged her cheeks, her always-flawless complexion now possessed an unearthly pallor that surpassed even the snowy whiteness of her simple cambric dress. Her large, dark eyes blazed with a glorious effulgence, and her heavenly mouth was formed into a smile such as can be seen only on the visage of da Vinci’s justly renowned masterwork, La Gioconda.

“Eddie,” she exclaimed. “What are you doing home so early?”

“The excessive heat forced me to lay aside my work and abandon the in- sufferable confines of the office,” I replied. I then stepped to the sofa and—making my hands into fists—extended them outward.

“I have a treat for you, Sissy,” I said in a playful tone. “In order to receive it, however, you must tell me which of my hands it is concealed within.”

“This one,” she replied without hesitation, pointing at the left.

Emitting a cry of amazement—for she had, indeed, guessed the truth with unerring accuracy—I exclaimed: “Ah, Sissy. How foolish of me to believe that I could deceive you with so simple a ruse. So profound—so complete—is the affinity that exists between our two intermingled souls that no secret of mine, however small, could ever remain hidden from your knowledge. Here, then, is your reward,” I continued, inverting my hand and disclosing the inordinately sticky lump of candy.

“Actually,” she replied, “I could see it between your fingers. You weren’t making a very tight fist, Eddie.” And so saying, she plucked the sweet from my palm and inserted it into her mouth. “Mmmmm,” she said. “Yummy. Thank you so much, Eddie.”

The sheer disarming candor of her admission brought a burst of hilarity from my lips. Seating myself on the sofa beside her, I bestowed an affectionate kiss upon her alabaster brow.

“How are you feeling, Sissy dearest?” I gently inquired.

“Fine,” she answered. “I haven’t had a coughing fit all day.”

“No news could be more welcome to my ears,” I said.

Gazing down at the pad on her lap, I saw that she had been working on a sketch of our beloved feline, Cattarina, who was sprawled upon the sill of the wide-flung window directly across the room. The oppressive heat had reduced the poor beast to a state of utter torpor. She lay inertly on her side, eyes shut, head pillowed upon one outstretched front leg.

“Your skills as a draftsman grow more impressive by the day,” I remarked. “You have captured our Cattarina to perfection.”

“Think so?” said Sissy, regarding the drawing with a decidedly skeptical expression. “Don’t you think the right leg looks funny?”

In truth, there was something distinctly awkward—if not positively unnatural—about the way in which Sissy had depicted the limb, as though it had healed improperly after being fractured in several places. Still, I saw no point in criticizing her handiwork.

“Not at all,” I said. “It is exceedingly lifelike.”

“Muddy seemed to think so, too. She said the picture looked so real she could almost hear it purr.”

“And where is our dear Muddy?” I inquired.

“She went out to buy salad greens for dinner. She’ll be back in a jiffy.”

No sooner had she spoken these words than I heard the apartment door open. An instant later—as though she had been waiting offstage to make her entrance on Sissy’s cue—Muddy stood framed in the doorway of the parlor, her right arm looped through the handle of her wicker marketing basket.

She was garbed, as always, in her black widow’s weeds, with a white lace bonnet-cap atop her head. Her broad, benevolent countenance—flushed from the heat and damp with perspiration—wore a look of the greatest surprise.

“Why, Eddie,” she cried as I rose to greet her. “I did not expect you home until later. Is something the matter?”

“Nothing at all,” I replied with a smile. Briefly, I explained the circumstances that had occasioned my early departure from my workplace.

“And you, Muddy,” I continued, regarding her closely. “Is anything amiss?” Acutely sensitive to every nuance of the dear woman’s moods, I perceived by the look in her eyes that something was troubling her.

“Why, haven’t you heard?” she said. “Everyone in the marketplace was talking about it.”

“I have heard nothing,” I replied. “Since leaving home this morning, I have communicated with no one. I worked alone in the office, then hurried directly back here, pausing only briefly to purchase some sweets for you and Sissy from a Chinese vendor.”

“What is it, Muddy?” asked Sissy from the couch. “What has happened?”

“Murder—dreadful murder,” the good woman replied, reaching into her basket and removing a newspaper, which she handed to me. “A little girl butchered by a savage—just like the last time. Oh, Eddie,” she exclaimed in a tremulous voice. “I fear there is a monster on the loose!”

From the Hardcover edition.
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