It's the Red Death! To the castellated abbey, quick!
The story's set up in the first two paragraphs. First, we meet the Red Death, the horrible, hideous, loathsome disease that's ravaging the countryside. Then we meet Prince Prospero, whose countryside and peasant folk it is that are being ravaged. Prince Prospero has retreated to his castellated abbey and shut himself in with his friends. We're now ready to move on to the main action of the story. But why do we get the feeling that the Red Death and Prince Prospero are going to meet up at some point?
Prospero throws a masquerade ball.
It's a ball, and what a ball it is! Prospero's decision to throw a masquerade ball is what kicks off the action of the story, and tension builds as we learn the details of the party. Every weird little thing we learn about – the strange layout of the suite, the ghastly look of the black room, the giant clock that ominously tolls the hour and makes everyone laugh nervously. Then Poe's descriptions of the wild "dancing dreams" (the partiers) add a sense of frantic frenzy. Something's got to happen…
Begads, he's besprinkled with the scarlet horror!
A creepy new guest mysteriously shows up in a Red Death costume and starts stalking around. At midnight, no less. At this point, you can cut the tension with a knife. Everybody's scared, but it's uncertain as to what will happen. Prospero orders the guest arrested but nobody dares to take a step, including Prospero himself. The guest makes his way ominously to the black room…
Prince Prospero faces death…and dies.
Prospero's charge after the "spectral figure" brings the story to its highest moment of tension: the moment of epic confrontation, when the Red Death turns around to face Prospero. It doesn't last long, since Prospero falls down and dies immediately. Now we're rushing towards the end of the story, and things do not look good.
Won't the real Red Death please stand up? Please stand up? Please stand up?
The suspense in this story literally lasts a sentence. Just long enough for the outraged revelers to discover that the guy in the Red Death costume who just killed their Prince is actually the Red Death. And he's still angry he wasn't invited to the party. We wonder how this situation will be resolved.
Why do these halls suddenly look so blood-bedewed?
Of course we know what happens now: everybody dies. And gets their blood all over Prospero's beautiful fabrics. The revelers die, the clock dies, the candles die, and the party's over. And so is the story.
"And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all" (14).
Need we say more?