The Masque of the Red Death

In November 2020, I resumed my regular commute to Kitt Peak National Observatory to operate the Mayall 4-meter and WIYN 3.5-meter telescopes. The observatory is quieter now than it was in March 2020, when I worked my last shift before the observatory closed for the pandemic. Only approved staff, tenants, and contractors are allowed on the mountain. The visitor center is closed and no tours are given. Still, twice a month, I make the drive to the observatory from my home in Las Cruces, New Mexico to the observatory west of Tucson, Arizona. I have an old iPod Classic that keeps me company on my drives. Sometimes I listen to audio books. Sometimes I just put it on random shuffle and see what plays. This week, after a nice assortment of songs, the iPod played Basil Rathbone’s reading of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death.” While it may seems a little silly to worry about spoilers in a 179-year-old short story, I may share some in this post. If you haven’t read the story, here’s a link to it at Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia: https://www.poemuseum.org/the-masque-of-the-red-death

I’ve always enjoyed this story, but it seemed to take on a more personal meaning now that we’re living through a pandemic. Poe’s “red death” is fictitious, but COVID-19 is real. I’ve known several people affected. Also, when I walk through my neighborhood, I often walk through the local cemetery, which is a quiet place with little traffic. However, I have noticed that it’s been much busier during the months of the pandemic. There have been times when I’ve seen the grave diggers preparing three or four graves in a single day. Before the pandemic, I typically saw them digging fewer than one grave per week.

As the story opened and Basil Rathbone described the crenelated abbey and all of its compartments, I found myself thinking of the remote observatory, high on a mountaintop. Each dome and building a little like the compartments of the story.

Kitt Peak National Observatory

While at the observatory, I tend to be alone in my “bubble,” whether that be in my dorm room or at the telescope. However, when I’m outside of my bubble, I wear a mask. Though my mask may not be a festive one, it still struck me when Poe described the masked revelers Prince Prospero invited to the abbey. Also, while I may be alone, I’m often on a video conference with several people taking data, so it can be something like a revel. I’m far from a prince like Prospero. Some days I feel more like the jesters or the staff in the abbey, still I know I’ve been fortunate to have relative job security during this year that’s been difficult for so many people.

Donning my mask for the festivities

The rooms where I work have new air cleaners and UV lights. Again, these new features bring to mind the eerie atmosphere of the apartments in the abbeys, but I stay alone in my bubble and these things have been installed to keep away the uninvited guest who crashed the party in Poe’s story.

This little exercise just goes to show how the best stories have a lasting power and can maintain a personal relevance. It also shows how I sometimes can see beyond the ordinary world around me into something fantastical. It’s much the process I used when writing my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt. I took what I had experienced at observatories I’d worked at and stretched those experiences just a little bit and asked what could be. The hope is that I produced something that’s both realistic and scary. And I hope the scares work because they seem like they could happen. If you want to learn more about the novel and watch the book trailer, visit: http://davidleesummers.com/Astronomers-Crypt.html