by Deborah Jarvis
The Masque of the Dotcom Crash
This is another paper from the class "Writers on Writing" and as the name suggests, is a parody of the classic Edgar Allen Poe story, "The Masque of the Red Death." This one was written about the Dotcom crash in 2001. It was meant to be totally tongue-in-cheek, and I think succeeds in capturing the essence of the crash and the overall plot of the original story. I'm including my original reflection on the piece for the class below.
The Masque of the Dotcom Crash
The Dotcom Crash had run rampant on the countryside for several weeks, and the whole cyber world lay awash in red tape. Dotcom companies were failing everywhere, and the whole dissolution, part and parcel, might take place between the ringing of the stock market bell in the morning and its closing at the end of the business day. Nothing was safe from the ravages of the Dotcom Crash.
But Sam Prosperous was dauntless and sagacious and had bought a private island in the Pacific where no one could go without a private cruise ship. He called together one thousand of his hale and hearty stockholders, and they sailed to the island, believing themselves to be safe. Once there they, like Cortez before them, smashed their lifeboats with massy hammers and felt themselves safe from IRS intrusion and the Dotcom Crash alike.
The island was home to Sam Prosperous’s multimillion dollar home, and within this house their were many diversions that Sam had brought along to help keep himself and his followers from falling into the traps of power selling on their smart phones. There were sports bars, private men’s club rooms, and ladies’ club rooms, there were dance halls and movie theaters. There were dancers, there were musicians, there was beauty and there was lust, there were courtesans, and there were magicians. All of these things were inside the house and on the island. Without and beyond the waves was the Dotcom Crash.
It had been three long months since the boats had been smashed and their island solitude had begun. The word from the mainland was that the Crash still raged, and Sam Prosperous walked in idle splendor on the top walkway of his castellated penthouse, grateful for his foresight. His girlfriend, Wendy Smythe-Bloom, lay luxuriously sprawled on the teak deck chair salvaged from the ship before it sailed back to port, and she yawned in bored lassitude as she watched the day pass her by.
“Sam,” she drawled, verging almost, but not quite, on a whine, “I’m so bored! The satellite telly is down again, and we haven’t had fresh prawns in a week. When is the supply boat due with the caviar and truffles I ordered?”
Sam glanced at her in annoyance but privately had to agree with her. Ennui was something he had thought could be staved off for a long time, but he, too, was becoming bored.
“We need a party or something, something to take our minds off of the awful situation we have here. No fresh prawns indeed! Why, the fisherman is over two days late! You would think he was a stockholder the way he acts,” said Sam, mostly to himself, but loud enough so that Wendy would think he was actually paying attention to her.
“That’s it!” cried Wendy, sitting up so fast that her sunglasses tumbled to the ground, and she had to fish around for them before she could speak. “We could hold a costume party! A masquerade ball - with costumes, and masks, and an unmasking at midnight. You know what tomorrow is, don’t you?”
“My darling, how could I forget? At the stroke of midnight, we will have successfully dodged having to pay taxes on any of our holdings for the year. Tax day cannot harm us here!”
Wendy giggled shrilly, and Sam momentarily considered tossing her from the crenellated rampart of the tower but reconsidered, knowing that her three children held just over fifty percent of his company’s stocks and might try to undersell him if he killed their mother.
“A ball it is!” he said jovially and went to announce the planned fete to begin at eight of the clock that evening.
The housekeeping and cooking staffs nearly killed themselves, but the inner set of Sam’s private rooms were opened for that very evening, and incredible food goods – excepting the prawns, of course – were prepared for every palate. There were cakes, there were cream delights, there were game hens and capons, and salmons and trout in cream sauce. There were flame-seared fawns stuffed with apples and roast suckling pigs slathered in honey, and all manners of green stuffs and breads, fruit delicacies and pies, and countless confections. There were wines and ports, ales and beers, and liquors of every flavor and hue.
Let me pause now, momentarily, to describe the seven inner rooms to you in detail, for these were no ordinary rooms, to be sure. There were rooms that only Sam usually saw, and even Wendy had only gained entrance to this private abode on a handful of occasions. These inner rooms represented to Sam all that money was and could buy, and as such were decorated in kind. Each room boasted a single huge colored window, outside of which there ran a narrow corridor, and in front each of these windows burned a single halogen light, bright as the day. As no lights were to be on in the rooms that night, save for ambiance, the outer lights in the corridor would hold the full responsibility for lighting the rooms within, each to the color of the window’s vibrant hued glass.
The first room looked much like a gold and silver waterfall in décor. The floor was of gold brick, while the walls were overlaid with silver filigree. The servants in this room were all women, and wore silver ball gowns and delicate silver slippers upon their feet. The other appointments in the room – the door casings and the doors, which were thrown wide to admit the guests – were all of mahogany with gold-leafing in the carved panel inserts. From the yellow tinted panes in the windows of the room came a soft light that added almost a mustard glow to all that it fell upon.
The second room was done in various shades of green, and the walls were papered in real newly minted one-dollar bills. The floor was of a rich, deep green, and the ceiling was hung with light green crepe. The serving men were dressed in kilts and traditional Irish garb, and one stood in the corner playing lilting Celtic tunes on a bagpipe. Green were the panes in this window, as bright as limes. The furnishings here were of ironwood inlaid with malachite and jade, and they shone with a luster of their own inner light.
The third room was done all in bricks, and the floor was paved in alternating bands of grey and tan cobblestones. There were doors all around the rooms, and light from outside gleamed redly through the rust colored panes of the windows of the various-shaped doors. The servants in this room all were dressed as street vendors, and it was possible to get ices or various fresh fruits from their carts. An organ grinder with a live monkey entertained the partiers in that room.
The fourth room was done in gears and wheels, tires and propellers, train engines, and boats. Several small gondolas were poled along the canals that trisected the room, and the servants, dressed as Venetian peasants, doled out cakes and pastries to the various partygoers. The ceiling was painted blue, and the planes, trains, automobiles, and other vehicles that dotted the room were set with tables for the partygoers to rest in. In the corner played a trio of Italian musicians, desperately set on maintaining the festive air.
The fifth room was paneled in deep blue, and was set out in the guise of a casino, along with all appointments and trimmings thereof. Blackjack dealers and poker wranglers snapped out cards with precision movements, and the watchers placed million dollar bets on the million dollar bets of the other people in the room. Cocktail waitresses in skimpy outfits walked among the guests, handing out martinis and cocktails with wild abandon. The windowpanes of that room were of a light pink, giving everyone a rosy, healthy glow as they hunched over the tables, winning and losing fortunes with equal frequency, and drinking themselves insensate.
The sixth room was inlaid with a mosaic of different colored pieces of amber from a deep orange color all the way to a butter cream shade that was so pale that it was almost white. Among and amid the amber were gemstones of startling sizes and hues, cut and polished to perfection. The serving men and women wore jewel tone dresses and suits and served the guests clear cordials of bright green Japanese melon liquor, Blue Agave liquor, and deep, rich Port the color of cinnabar. The light shone through the panes with a rich red light from the light in the outside corridor, but was supplemented by conical tin lights over each table.
The seventh room, alone, was without much ornament. Its color and appointments were mostly red, save for a black window that faced the corridor and allowed very little light in through its sable panes. The seventh room was almost empty of any adornment, except for one very unique feature - a huge clock of red cedar that struck the hour as regularly as any clock would. This clock would have been mostly unremarkable, except for the fact that its face contained not just hours, minutes and seconds, but also days and months on its face. Around the outer ring of numbers were etched the names of the months, and upon the stroke of midnight (following the passing of twenty-four hours of the time that flies), a new day would register on the clock, and life would proceed on as before. But none of these days were much remarked on except for the specific and fast-encroaching date that struck terror into the hearts of taxpayers yearly– the dreaded date of April sixteenth, a date which meant that Tax-day had come and gone, and that it would now be time to file a panicked extension with the state and federal governments. It was in this room that no man or woman would dare tread, as if the very act of stepping on the ruby plush carpet would cause their own finances to fail in the blink of an eye.
Thus the stage was set and, on the chiming of the hour of eight that evening, the doors to the seven chambers swung open, and Sam’s almost thousand guests (two of his stockholders were home with cases of food poisoning and could not get out of bed, and one man had broken his arm jet skiing earlier that day) arrived dressed in the oddest array of finery one could hope to see. There were hotel heiresses and millionaire playboys; there were venture capitalists and railroad tycoons. There were costumes to excite the imaginations, to elicit a sense of the bizarre, the surreal, and the disgusting – yes, there was a Fox news figure there as well – and all of these things were tolerated within the nearly unlimited license of the night.
The casino band played on, clashing horribly with the bagpipes and the organ grinder, but not really caring much since no one was listening anyway. And when it came that the clock, upon its appointed times, would chime the hours upon its mother-of-pearl faceplate, the band would cease to play, the dancers would cease their revolutions, and all would become still: a listening silence of the forewarned. Then the chime would pass, the band would strike up its chords again, and all would be as it had been before.
Into this chaos, this riot of color and light and sound, strode Sam Prosperous with Wendy on his arm. He was dressed in the guise of Frank Frurlitzer and Wendy was a cute, if somewhat aged, Joyboy Kitten. Sam was pleased at the success of the party and glad that he had been able to figure out what to wear at his own fete. He strode through the rooms, past the cars and the gemstones, past the room full of doors and the gemstone walls and felt content unto himself and in his world.
He was, therefore, within the first room – the room of gold and silver – when the clock began to strike twelve, and he was aware, as many others were, of the odd figure that none of them had seen before that time. I have told you at length about the costuming and the almost unlimited license of the masque, but this particular individual had been seen by no one at all until that very moment. His appearance incited horror and revulsion in the hearts of many there, most of who had faced more fearsome foes countless times before. There are chords in the hearts of men that are only heard at times like these, when the deepest fears are realized, and so was the case with the figure that appeared before them now. Almost anything would have been tolerated during the duration of the fete, but this character had chosen to appear before the crowd wrapped in the cerements of an IRS agent, and his pale and placid visage and leather briefcase struck such horror into the hearts and minds of the gathered throng that none dared stand in opposition to him. He strode from the gold and silver room to the green, from the green to the brick, from the brick to the blue and so on all the way to the red, pacing the way to the red room with its booming clock still obstinately and dolefully chiming the hour that led into the next day. The crowd parted like the sea and let the fearful apparition pass.
Sam Prosperous, enraged, took up a candlestick and ran through all of the rooms towards the pacing figure, catching him at last in the room of the clock. He raised the candlestick high, then – with a strangled cry of “Corporate bailout!” – dropped the candlestick to the floor of the red room and fell to his knees a quivering mass of jelly.
For a long moment, no one moved, then, as a mass, the crowd rushed forward and seized the figure, only to find that the habiliments that they had handled so roughly moments before were empty and vacant of any tangible form (for the IRS agent had squirmed out of them and was sprinting for the door.) Then was acknowledged the form of the Dotcom Crash. It had come like a thief in the night, riding on the back of the overdue fisherman’s boat (that had finally arrived that evening and made its port of call), then brought in the briefcase of bad news that now lay scattered on the floor.
And one by one as they found their letters of seizure from the US Treasury, the revelers dropped in their tracks to the floor. And the clock stopped, and the lights went out with the last of the gay (for they had forgotten to buy more fuel for the over-used generators), and the figures lay shuddering on the floor. And darkness and failed sheltered annuities and the Dotcom Crash held illimitable dominion over all.
Reflection on the rereading of Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death.
In writing this story, I was struck with my love for the original flow of the story and the need to update it to a more modern presence. While the words flow very similarly to the original Poe story, I did make a few major changes to the story that were needed in order to update the piece.
The decision to do the Dotcom Crash in place of another type of disease was an inspired choice. I had toyed around with the idea of the Bird Flu, Swine flu, or something like Ebola, but in the end most people in our modern society are more afraid of money loss than disease, so it seemed like the most logical choice. The Dotcom Crash seemed appropriate since it represented the arrogant choices of society coming back to bite the overconfident and unwary.
The original story sees Prince Prospero sealing himself and his followers into a “castellated abbey” and the doors sealed by “massy hammers” to prevent anyone coming in or out of the protected space. I decided an island would be a better bet for a dotcom millionaire who would want to get as many live stockholders together and out of the area as fast as possible. They arrive, smash the boats (again with the massive hammers), and settle in to the good life while all others suffer the dissolution of their businesses and great wealth.
Poe’s description of the rooms is exquisite and uses amazing amounts of descriptive language to speak of the opulent luxury with which Prospero surrounds himself. The seven rooms in Poe’s story range through all hues of the rainbow, from violet to blue, and all the way through to the black room with the red window and the ebony clock that strikes the hours in so heart-stopping a manner. In my story, the room is reversed, representing the idea of being “in the red” as opposed to being dead. Poe’s rooms represent the passage of one phase of life from the next, culminating in death, but my rooms are more like the passage from spending too much money frivolously to finding oneself in bankruptcy – something that happens at the end of the story.
The Jeweltone Room was especially fun to write about since I have a fascination with Russia’s Amber Room which went missing around the end of World War II. While it has been hypothesized that the real room has been either buried or blown up, Sam obviously has some very good connections. This room in particular ties to the idea of decadence in the extreme. Other rooms, like the Transportation Room or the Real Estate Room, all have their ties to my thoughts about what sorts of things we find to be symbols of wealth and importance. Owning real estate is one of the ways that people feel that they are rich, even when that is not the case and they have spent too much on a house at the expense of their ability to maintain it adequately.
The calendar clock was something that I came upon while thinking about how to bring the maskers to the point of distraction. In the original story, the clock reminds the masked ball attendants of their mortality, but the clock in my story is the countdown to the inevitability of taxes and the Federal Government defeating cheaters in the end. The clock in Poe’s story has a distinct way of reminding people that it is there, looming over their heads. Death and taxes both suit the inevitability theme very well.
Both death and the IRS make an appearance during the end of the stories, and both are described as being wrapped in the cerements of their offices. Here I again tried to preserve a lot of ideas and language from the original story, since I felt that these were important, and that the feel would not be the same unless I kept the flavor, so to speak.
The theme of both stories is, of course, greed, and it is greed in its most base form – that which is had at the expense of others. In both cases, the protagonists, Prince Prospero and Sam Prosperous, use their massive wealth to save a select few from the ravages of the particular ‘plague’ that rampages throughout the landscape of the story. This is a theme that is familiar to the reader as a historical ideal from all the way back in the story of King Midas. Greed can often have dire consequences, especially to those who think that they can avoid tragedy by virtue of having a lot of resources, and this is certainly the case of both of these characters.
The concept of death being inevitable is the other main theme of The Masque of the Red Death, and the irony of the story is that it comes despite all preparations. I chose to work with taxes since death and taxes are so often seen as two sides of the same coin. Taxes are also inevitable, and avoiding them will usually be devastating to the individuals who try.
Finally, it is the love of Masque that led me to write a parody of it, since it is something that could be interpreted so many different ways, and mimics so many stories of greed abounding in the world. It is a classic tale that speaks to the madness of mankind and has been alluded to in everything from Stephen King’s 1977 book The Shining to the 1925 black and white film version of The Phantom of the Opera, as well as Gaston Leroux’s original novel, the 1986 Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, and my own novel as well. The figure of the Red Death as a physical, tangible character has captured people’s imaginations and allowed for the figure of death to gain yet another face. As is many times the case in tales of greed, by the time the end of the story arrives we find ourselves rooting for the antagonist so that the main character can pay back society for his deeds, much as the case is here with the story of Sam Prosperous and his arrogant decisions about prawns and tax evasion.
Where the parody is concerned, I often find that humor is much harder to write than horror, although both apply the same concepts of timing and build-up to the climax. In either, the long lead-in time to the final peak moment of the story is often what is so appealing to us. Jokes and terror alike can both have us on the edges of our seats as we wait for the inevitable conclusion. Writing a parody of the story allowed me to take some liberties with it and enjoy the minute moments of humor that could be tucked into the corners, preparing to leap out at the reader when least expected. In the end, I was able to play around with stereotypes of the ugly and bizarre without too much fear of going too far with the allegory, especially since I avoided naming names. It isn’t too far a stretch to guess who I mean, though.
In the end, the story of the Masque of the Red Death is timeless and can be applied to many different situations wherever man’s greed outstrips his compassion or common sense. More importantly, the language is full of grace and a style that is not usually found in the literature of today’s society. This makes it both a challenge and a joy to write, as it is something of a puzzle box of language to unlock and utilize. In the end, the story remains the same and the messages of greed and selfishness are easy to find in each.