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The Masque of the Red Death

Figura Obscura
by yo go re

This time last year, the Four Horsemen were giving us the Headless Horseman, and now it's the Masque of the Red Death. Must be something about short stories that makes for great autumnal fare.

Death comes for everyone. Riches and power and noble birth mean little to the cold embrace of the grave. In death all are equal, and none can escape its touch.

Edgar Allan Poe's Masque of the Red Death is far more famous for its references in other works than for itself. That is to say, how many people today have read the original, vs. simply knowing it from Discworld or Phantom of the Opera or the many, many allusions in Stephen King's work? They may, at most, have seen the Roger Corman/Vincent Price film, which is similar in structure, but quite different in content. Heck, I never personally read it until now, and what I'd picked up through cultural osmosis was close, but incorrect.

The story described the character as "tall and gaunt, and shrouded from head to foot in the habiliments of the grave" ("habiliments" being an archaic word for clothing). The Horsemen have interpretted this as a long, multi-layered robe with wrappings above it and a separate, hooded shawl that reaches down to the ground both in front and behind the shoulders. As usual, the softgoods were designed by CJESIM, and have posing wires inside the edges so you can have them either hanging flat or billowing about menacingly. The robes are two different shades of red, with the wrap being darker than the robe and hood. Well, half the hood: that's lighter red on the outside, with a darker red lining.

The description continued: "The mask which concealed the visage was made so nearly to resemble the countenance of a stiffened corpse that the closest scrutiny must have had difficulty in detecting the cheat." This one is skeletal, but not corpse-like. Like, it's a skull, but a stylized one. It looks like wax is dripping off it, and the forehead has some sort of raised emblem sculpted on it.

Spoiler alert for a story you've had 181 years to read (or even just go to our blog and listen to it for 20 minutes), but the twist at the end is that this is Death personified, as revealed when all the partygoers turn on the mysterious figure in their midst and, upon pulling off their mask and costume, find there was no one inside them. Obviously the toy can't do that (well, unless they'd made sculpted robes that just stood there on their own, but that would be a little boring). You can take the skull mask off this figure, but the Horsemen have designed a new head, so that instead of simply a normal Mythic Legions skull under there, it's actually a gaping void, a sunken and hollow nothingness with an unidentifiable texture within. Remember the open Iron Man Mark 47 helmet? It's like that, but better.

Reddy's robes can be removed, with some work: they may look like they're just wrapped around him, but the hood is held to the lower robe with a stitch on the shoulder, and the dark wrap is actually sewn into shape, not just tossed around the figure. The desiccated body underneath is new, because the Mythic Legions Poxxus and Necronominus series haven't shipped yet.

The shins and forearms are unique, because they're not wearing any armor, and this dried-out chest is also new. You can take the figure apart, like any Mythic Legion (it's easiest to get him out of his robes by popping the arms out and just sliding the whole thing up over his head), and once you do, you'll be able to see his new belt and loincloth, which look like rough linen wrapped around his midsection.

The body is mostly a matte black, with the exception of the paint designed and directed to his red right hand. The color there creeps up to his mid-forearm before fading out to match the rest of the body. The fingertips on the left hand are similar, but harder to notice. Both his finger- and toenails get dark, glossy paint apps, and the red is matched around the facehole under the edge of the removable mask. The colors go great with the two-tone red robes, making a great presentation overall.

When Poe initially published this story in Graham Magazine in 1842, it was titled "The Mask of the Red Death," but when he republished it three years later in Broadway Journal, it was now "Masque" - something that's been lost to modern audiences is that that's not just a "fancy" spelling or something, it's literally a different word. "Mask," with a K, refers specifically to the object; "masque," with a Q-U-E, is short for "masquerade" and thus refers to the event; so by changing the title, Poe changed the meaning of from "the disguise the Red Death wore" to "the party where the Red Death showed up as a guest." The only thing the Red Death did at the party was walk from one end of the party to the other, but this toy still has all the articulation of a Mythic Legion: head, shoulders, elbows, wrists, waist, hips, knees, and ankles. (Usually there would be a neck swivel as well, but not with a bare chest like this.)

The set includes three sets of hands to replace the open, gesturing ones he has in the package, but they're all various styles of holding/clawing, so it's not as impressive as it sounds. On the plus side, all the right hands are red and all the left hands are black, so they look right on the arms. There's a single weapon included, a dagger, but it's not even for this figure: it's the one Prospero drew when he confronted the mysterious guest, not something the Red Death ever used. Or needed to.

But! That's not the only accessory there is. The seventh room in the prince's party palace featured a large black clock that would chime every hour, startling all the partygoers until its sound faded. Bunch of people, hiding from a plague, have their revelry disrupted by the reminder of the inexorable passage of finite time? These are what we call literary themes, kid! The set includes not a particularly large clock, but a clock nonetheless. It's a full, in-scale grandfather clock, with an ornate base, a full-depth body, sculpted weights and pendulum in the tower, an intricate face with the hands pointing to 12, and a sculpture of a raven sitting on top. Because Poe. Do kind of wish you could move the hands on the clock, even if the mysterious guest did only appear at midnight.

Finally, we get a large pool of blood, just a solid plastic puddle spilling out. It has a naturally irregular outline and is perfectly flat on top, save for the four footpegs on one side of it. Yes, they could be for the clock's feet, but you can also use them for the Red Death himself. And of course you'd be like "well if he's standing in the puddle of blood, shouldn't it move out of the way of his foot, or shouldn't there be ripples in the surface, but then you remember that the Red Death was not actually there when the nobles came for him, so it only makes sense that he'd have no effect on the physical world. This is the type of piece that would look great with lots of figures, from the Predator to the Punisher.

Because the Four Horsemen own the rights to The Masque of the Red Death (so do you, we all do, it's public domain), they opted to include a copy of the story with the toy. It's illustrated with images from Nate Baersch, but the layout isn't the greatest - it's just plain block of text after plain block of text next to the art. The packaging for the toy may be nice, but this graphic design needs work.

Like the previous four Figura Obscura releases, this one was sold in two batches, at 9am and 8pm. Eastern time, the only timezone that counts. I passed on the morning dose, even though I'd specifically woken up to see what it was, but when it came back that night, I decided to buy in. And you know why? Because of the packaging. I noticed that Nate's painting for the interior of the "book cover" showed the party guests getting angry, and that was enough to do it. Like we said: the title is about the event, not an item, and with that art this toy was also living up to the name. We do wish the art wasn't so zoomed in on them, so it would work better as a diorama scene, but putting them in "seven deadly sins" masks is a clever touch.

The Masque of the Red Death is one of the unlikeliest properties to ever get an action figure. It's not an action story, the titular character is barely described, it doesn't have as many adaptations as something like The Legend of Sleepy Hollow or even Journey to the West... it's just something that Eric Treadaway had an idea for and wanted to do. The second batch of figures took a little longer than usual to sell out, even with a limit of 4 per customer instead of the usual 2, but the toy is done in an unusual and clever way, and looks really nice menacing your other figures. And if nothing else, it got me to read a classic horror story for the first time.

-- 10/14/23

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