William S. Burroughs Reads Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death”

burroughs poe

The label “Amer­i­can orig­i­nal” gets slapped onto a lot of dif­fer­ent peo­ple, but it seems to me that, espe­cial­ly in the realm of let­ters, we could find no two lumi­nar­ies who mer­it it more in the 19th cen­tu­ry than psy­cho­log­i­cal hor­ror pio­neer Edgar Allan Poe, and in the 20th cen­tu­ry William S. Bur­roughs, sui gener­is even with­in the Beat Gen­er­a­tion. So how could we resist fea­tur­ing the record­ing just below, free to hear on Spo­ti­fy (whose soft­ware, if you don’t have it yet, you can down­load here), of Bur­roughs read­ing Poe’s tale — because, as you know if you read him, he wrote not sto­ries but tales — “The Masque of the Read Death”?

The 1842 tale itself, still haunt­ing today more than 170 years after its pub­li­ca­tion, tells of a prince and his coterie of a thou­sand aris­to­crats who, in order to pro­tect them­selves from a Black Plague-like disease—the tit­u­lar Red Death—sweeping through com­mon soci­ety, take refuge in an abbey and weld the doors shut. In need of amuse­ments (this all takes place about cen­tu­ry and a half before Net­flix, remem­ber), the prince throws a mas­quer­ade ball. What, then, should inter­rupt this good time but the inex­plic­a­ble arrival of an unin­vit­ed guest in a cos­tume rem­i­nis­cent of the corpse of a Red Death vic­tim — pos­si­bly an embod­i­ment of the Red Death itself?

Poe could tell a seri­ous­ly res­o­nant tale, and so could Bur­roughs. Though com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent in form, aes­thet­ic, set­ting, and psy­chol­o­gy, both writ­ers’ works strike just the right omi­nous tone and leave just enough unex­plained to seep into our sub­con­scious in vivid and some­times even unwant­ed ways. And so it makes per­fect sense for Bur­roughs and his voice of a jad­ed but still amused ancient to join the for­mi­da­ble line­up of Poe’s inter­preters, which includes Christo­pher Walken, Vin­cent Price, Christo­pher LeeJames Earl JonesIggy PopLou Reed, and Stan Lee. But among them all, who bet­ter than Bur­roughs to artic­u­late “The Masque of the Red Death’s” final line: “And Dark­ness and Decay and the Red Death held illim­itable domin­ion over all.”

You can hear more of Bur­roughs read­ing Poe, in per­for­mances record­ed for the com­put­er game The Dark Eye, in Ted Mills’ pre­vi­ous post here.

Bur­roughs’ read­ing (which you can also hear on YouTube) will be added to our col­lec­tion, 1,000 Free Audio Books: Down­load Great Books for Free.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

William S. Bur­roughs Reads Edgar Allan Poe Tales in the Vin­tage 1995 Video Game, “The Dark Eye”

Iggy Pop Reads Edgar Allan Poe’s Clas­sic Hor­ror Sto­ry, “The Tell-Tale Heart”

Down­load 55 Free Online Lit­er­a­ture Cours­es: From Dante and Mil­ton to Ker­ouac and Tolkien

Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven,” Read by Christo­pher Walken, Vin­cent Price, and Christo­pher Lee

Lou Reed Rewrites Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven.” See Read­ings by Reed and Willem Dafoe

Down­load the Com­plete Works of Edgar Allan Poe on His Birth­day

Aubrey Beardsley’s Macabre Illus­tra­tions of Edgar Allan Poe’s Short Sto­ries (1894)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

by | Permalink | Comments (1) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.