In the early and macabre days of coronavirus shutdowns, Edgar Allan Poe was trending. “The Masque of the Red Death,” his Gothic tale from 1842, became in March of 2020 a go-to source for allegory: A prince whose state is overrun with something like hemorrhagic fever invites 1,000 noble friends to stay inside his well-stocked keep. They amuse themselves for months in quarantine with dancers and buffoons until, one night, a ghost appears and kills them all. This parable felt apropos during the early phase of COVID-19’s spread, when billionaires were hiding on their super-yachts and posting pics on Instagram. “Isolated in the Grenadines avoiding the virus,” the record producer David Geffen captioned one such photo. “I’m hoping everybody is staying safe.”
A Red Death wish for the ultrarich soon gave way to other, less parochial concerns, and “Masque” turned out to be less apt than some of Poe’s other writings on disease. Take “The Sphinx.” The story is set “during the dread reign of the Cholera in New York” in 1832, and the narrator has just bolted to a rustic cottage in the Hudson Valley. That summer, Manhattan was indeed abandoned to a morbid silence, according to Charles E. Rosenberg’s history The Cholera Years. Church bells went unrung, pedestrians disappeared, and tufts of grass sprouted from the streets. “By the end of the first week in July, almost everyone who could afford to had left the city,” Rosenberg writes.