1993 - Mefisto in Onyx

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Yelena Virago
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1993 - Mefisto in Onyx

Postby Yelena Virago » Tue Jul 05, 2005 8:15 pm

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Mefisto in Onyx

"...the horripilating centerpiece novella, ''Mefisto in Onyx,'' which describes a black telepath's meeting with a white serial killer on death row, is a reminder that Ellison has not lost his capacity to convey stark, staring psychosis." - New York Times

Review by Carol Ann Sima (1994) | Langerhans page

This novella is part of the book SLIPPAGE. -- Moderator out.

____________________


Welcome, one and all, to S.P.I.D.E.R. Discussion #17:

Mefisto in Onyx

Let us begin with the ending. Given the discussion surrounding the ending of "Jeffty is Five" that's taken place in recent days, it behooves me to practice full disclosure: I saw the ending coming. About mid-way through the story. A strange sensation, to be sure, but not an unpleasant one. Mark me: This novella is a finely-crafted piece of writing that is a pleasure and a challenge to read, but I knew what was going to happen part-way through the book, the first time that I read it. Anyone else have a similar experience with this?

There, that's that said. Now, in recent days, it seems like a pattern has emerged, with regards to Ellison's stories, at least the ones under discussion here.

1. The piece under review is about something deep and meaningful, but everyone thinks it's a simple little tale.

-OR-

2. The piece in question is a lovely, simple little tale, and everyone is trying their damnedest to read something deep and meaningful into it.

I would respectfully submit that we have a new category of story with Mefisto in Onyx for our discussions. To wit, this story raises more questions than it answers, but that appears, to me at least, to have been the story's main narrative purpose in the first place. The story itself, while being far from a simple little tale, does revolve around one crucial theme, however, represented in one single sentence, of absolutely breath-taking clarity:

I have always been one of those miserable guys who couldn't get out of his own way.


Irony is a staple in Rudy Pairis' life, and it shines through in the character-driven narrative, with an all-encompassing force.

Small disclaimer here: I believe that we all bring our own worldviews to the table when reading any piece of literature, fiction or non, and I freely admit that I brought mine to this one. So let me take a stab at explaining how I interpret the story personally. As with all opinions, mine is only informed by having read the story in question, and by living the life that I've led.

Systems that are traditionally established to combat different forms of prejudice, be they based on gender, race, sexual orientation or other, lesser, physical differences, still carry with them the core tenet that there is a difference to be oppressed in the first place . With me so far?

The thing with the systems designed to redress these injustices are that they carry with them the inherent, unshakable faith that the actual discrimination taking place is real. In some cases, this is true. However. The part where things get screwloose is where the faith in that belief leads those very systems of redress to be structured in such a way that the system itself actually feeds in to the discrimination taking place, instead of eradicating it, by forcing those who the system should be helping to believe that they are perceived as inferior in the first place.

In other words, they come to believe that their physical differences actually do "make a difference" in how they are perceived/how they go about living their lives, and that they must therefore live as though they are under the spectre of constant oppression, even when they are not. Overcoming this ingrained and overwhelmingly "accepted" worldview is Rudy Pairis' greatest triumph. The bleakest of ironies takes form in the fact that he has to become "not Different" in order to finally be able to "get out of his own way".

That's what personally grabbed me about the story, when I first read it, and whenever I read it again.

Now. When this story was first discussed, there was some speculation as to what took place "after" the story. At the time I pooh-poohed this, saying the story itself was a self-contained universe, as all good stories must be. However, on rereading, I really do hope that part of Rudy's getting out of his own way involves eliminating the "I'll run myself down before anyone else can do it" problem. Mind you, it's a problem I'm still working on myself, so that's probably why it resonates so deeply with me. Although I'd like to think I like myself more than Pairis likes his reflection in the mirror, covered with Spanning's face or his own. I mean, deep down, Pairis clearly has a quite pathological dislike of himself, something I didn't realize fully until this last reading.

Other than that, whether Alison and Rudy-in-Spanning's body got it on or not, is irrelevant. The important questions the ending raises are more stuff-of-life posers, such as:

If psychopathology is indeed based on miswired neurotransmitters, or fucked-up brain chemistry, will Rudy's "shriking" into Spanning's physical body make him subject to the same psychopathology as well? Or will his brush with the pseudo-psychopathology of the false memories Spanning planted in his brain "protect" Pairis from going down that path again?

More existentially, even though Rudy is a tad screwed-up on the dysfunction spectrum, is he still morally upright enough of a soul to resist peeking into the memories left behind in Spanning's head? (Because, you just know, if Spanning's the representation of murderous intent from Cain, all the way down through the ages, there've got to be some pretty ripe memories left gestating in there.) Or, again, will his taste of madness while waiting for execution protect him from that? I would answer yes.

Other questions: Will the change of habitat result in a permanent "getting out of his own way", or will it really come down to the stuff Pairis' soul is made of, in the end?

This story raises many questions, not so much about the colour of the skin adorning it, but of the mutability and instable nature of the fickle human heart(soul). Which is, I think, intended to be the point.

Of course, the characters couldn't be who they are, and the narrative wouldn't unfold as it does, if Spanning and Pairis weren't physical opposites of each other. But a part of me still wonders if Ellison was tempted to use the same device he employed in Paladin of the Lost Hour, to such great effect:

One of these men was black. The other was white.


Of course, that's pretty much what you get in the end, anyway, with the reversal. Which might not be a reversal at all, if you consider Spanning evil (darkness) and Pairis good (light). Which speaks to the preconceptions some facets of society (thankfully now dwindling) have, in that Pairis would be considered evil, wrong or bad, in his own skin, when he's perfectly innocuous, and no harm to anyone, save himself. Whereas Spanning, evil incarnate, would be (and is, when he has control of Ally) the good ol' boy of pure-driven innocence, a lot of which is based on his looks. Pairis thereby "inherits" the assumption that he is now automatically assumed to good and innocent and pure, etcetera, merely because of his looks.

Another question: Will Rudy be tempted down the same path as Spanning, now that he has not only found another of his "kind", but killed them as well? Or will finding another shrike fall to nothing on Pairis' list of priorities? Maybe not, if he thinks there's another shrike with the same kind of evil that was in Spanning's head, still running around loose.

Well, that's about all I can come up with, for now. Anyone else?

Velvet

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Postby NeonMosfet » Thu Jul 07, 2005 10:57 pm

Phooey. My copy of Slippage is in Miami so I can't refer back to it. I remember when reading it, that out of all the Ellison stories, this one was a little frightening. I have always found the notion of someone hacking someone else's brain faintly obscene. This seems to be about control.
Spanning has one motivation. he doesn't want to die. but Rudy is so disatisfied with his own life, that he is more than willing to put up with Spanning's control. I found it rather jarring, the way Rudy, suddenly, out of the blue, started confessing.
As to whether or not Rudy goes down the same path as Spanning, is unknown. This is sort of a reworking of Skdoop, in which Maxie Hurt trades his imagination to stay out of the gas chamber. No matter what happens, it's still a deal from the bottom.

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Postby Harlan Ellison » Sat Jul 09, 2005 5:44 pm

VELVET:

Absolutely brilliant!

Harlan

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Postby Yelena Virago » Mon Jul 11, 2005 5:24 pm

Thanks! :D

Velvet

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Postby NeonMosfet » Wed Aug 03, 2005 7:29 pm

I always found Mephisto in Onyx distressing. The concept that a mental hacker can surf your brain, psychics and all of that. It always made me wonder if my thoughts are my own as opposed to some remote viewer spying.

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Postby Yelena_Virago » Thu Aug 04, 2005 6:19 pm

NeonMosfet wrote:It always made me wonder if my thoughts are my own as opposed to some remote viewer spying.


The way I see it, my thoughts are either too dull and ordinary (the mental equivalent of grocery, to-do, and financial planning lists), or too incomprehensible (to anyone but me), to be useful in any way, shape or fashion, so I'm definitely not worried.

(Well, that, and remote viewing was pretty thoroughly debunked by Penn and Teller's Bullshit! :))

Velvet

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Postby NeonMosfet » Fri Aug 05, 2005 12:20 am

Really? I'm so glad.

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Postby Yelena_Virago » Fri Aug 05, 2005 3:20 am

I should have said, "the way I see it, EVERYONE'S thoughts, etc., &c.....

Then again, we're all trapped behind our eyes, each in our own way, I suppose. Which is another theme presented, along with the "what-if" codicil of what happens when that's not the case.

Velvet

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Postby Cindy » Wed Aug 10, 2005 8:59 pm

Velvet,
Harlan wrote the story. Who else knows if you were on the mark or far afield? He said your interpretation was BRILLIANT. I think that's about as bright a feather as you could tuck into your hatband. Other interpretations could be interesting or entertaining but yours was correct according to the only human being who is qualified to make that absolute pronouncement.

If a sculptor sculpts a fish and all but one soul sees a spoon- the single individual who says, " It's a fish!" will be the only one who got it right.

Nice work.
:)
Cindy

Brian Phillips
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Does anyone else agree about this?

Postby Brian Phillips » Tue Jan 20, 2009 2:13 am

Having performed a lot of Old Time Radio and having written some, does anyone agree that "Mefisto In Onyx" would make an amazing radio play? I re-read this recently and I think that this story would play well in the "Theater of the Mind".

Brian

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Postby Jan » Tue Jan 20, 2009 6:25 am

I think it was adapted for radio somewhere (England or US) and was definitely syndicated in German(y). Can't find useful info on Google. I hope they got it right. I remember some dialogue scenes that would have been easy to adapt.

Some tidbits for the record:
Michael Zuzel at Langerhans wrote:...this short novella was really intended to be a full-fledged novel. In an interview in the December 1981 issue of "The Twilight Zone Magazine," Ellison said he was at work on "a popular bestseller" for which he was paid $154,000 just on the basis of describing the plot to an editor at Houghton Mifflin. The novel was to have been titled Shrikes.

Harlan - Monday, January 19 2009 17:29:26 wrote:A week before Emmerich's/Devlin's first big production, STARGATE, opened in theaters, Roland Emmerich came here to my home to get me to sell him the rights to make "Mefisto in Onyx" for an enormous sum of money.

REMEMBER

I turned him away and told my agent never to let him come anywhere near me again, mostly because he spoke in such a teeth-grating "Valley Girl" patois--Bavarian-accented--with the word "like" every other sentence, that I actually had to stop the meeting and ask him to cease doing it, which request had to be interpreted and conveyed to him TWICE by his associate who sat next to him on my sofa. (...)

Sci-Fi.com - 3-Feb-98 wrote:Samuel L. Jackson will star in and produce a film adaptation of Harlan Ellison's famous novella Mefisto in Onyx, about a serial killer who trades memories with a "mind jumper," according to The Hollywood Reporter. Greg Widen will write the screenplay.

Harlan - Wednesday, March 23 2005 10:33:38 wrote:MEFISTO IN ONYX was a title I'd had buzzing around in my head for many years. The first time I found a venue for it was the proposed short story Ed Bryant and I discussed ... but never wrote. The second proposed useage was on a wonderful little plot I devised for a "Twilight Zone" episode when I was working on the CBS revival in 1985. (Story about a robot that sells its soul to the devil.) Left the show before I could write that one.

Finally, when I'd finished writing the novella, I realized how ironically (and unexpectedly) appropriate MEFISTO IN ONYX was for the story ... if you remember the twist ending.

Harlan had another meeting about a proposed film in 2005 but didn't want to talk about it.
Last edited by Jan on Wed Mar 18, 2009 7:50 am, edited 1 time in total.

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Postby reddragon70 » Wed Jan 21, 2009 6:05 am

It seems a tad sad that this great story never got to the big screen, but then again I woould always be afraid that Hollywood would just butcher it. Or worse that it would be made perfectly and get a limited release so small that no-one found out about it. Then there is the possibility that the release would be full, all over the world and the mongs who make up the cinema going public just wouldnt get it. Just remember the kind of fluff that constantly tops the cinema charts.... Mephysto in Onyx would be up against that and the kind of viewer who goes to see it.

As a case in point, Dreams With Sharp Teeth. Great movie, loved it! Unfortunately the hassle I had trying to see it was unbelievable. It was showed at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and to my knowledge has not been shown anywhere else in the UK to this date. So I got lucky and got a ticket, which involved me driving 90 miles to Glasgow, getting a train to Edinburgh, watching the film, getting on a train to Glasgow and driving from Glasgow to Dumfries, again nearly 90 miles. And that was after doing a 10 hour shift driving trains. And when i saw the film there were less than 100 people there.

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Postby Jan » Wed Mar 18, 2009 1:25 am

"Mefisto in Onyx" (1993) – Rudy can look into other people’s minds by means of a technique he calls jaunting. His friend Allison, who is a lawyer, and asks him to confirm that Henry Lake Spanning, a murderer on death row, is indeed innocent, as she knows he is. Rudy thinks she’s completely out of her mind because the evidence is clear, and now she’s in love with Spanning.

This novella is an entertaining tour-de-force that shows no allegiance to any specific genre. Unlike in his other novellas, Harlan has the characters move around very little, and he brings them into focus by having them think and talk. That, and the role of language reminds me of “Pulp Fiction”, the movie which was in production at the time. Like Harlan did in “Prince Myshkin, And Hold the Relish” (from Angry Candy) and other stories, he (consciously or unconsciously) made a record of then-contemporary spoken American as he saw it and liked it, using first person narration and dialogue the way mystery writers do. At the same time he was true to where he came from, using basically a younger version of himself as the protagonist and being very convincing, where feelings and attitudes are concerned. (Never mind the biography of Rudy or the fact that he’s black.)

Harlan writes with “Rudy’s” strong voice, which belongs to someone who already knows things that take others much longer to learn, in large part thanks to his ESP abilities, no doubt. Rudy looks at the world with a sense of the irony and déjà vu. He’s smart, and if he makes errors it’s because he has moments of human weakness. Harlan lets him makes some valid observations and shares his own insights into the human mind. Friendship, again, is one of the themes, and although other things are emphasized, there is nothing in the story that competes with the new angle from which Harlan looks at experience.

The writing is often brilliant, often not so brilliant. Harlan certainly piled a lot of dialogue and thoughts onto a story that basically consists of a gimmick and a double twist ending, with some emotion thrown in. There is a feeling of listening to someone going on and on about something in detail, and you dig it, but you’d really like to know what happened next. When Harlan does pick up the pace toward the end, you’d almost forgotten Harlan knows how to do that too. The main thing that I thought was just set up too well to receive short shrift in the second half was the matter of Rudy’s jealousy – there is a payoff but the whole thing does take a back seat. The reference to Faust is an error in any case. Henry I can’t say much about here because I don’t want to spoil anything, but I will say that none of the characters are break-out characters for Harlan. The finale is rather powerful. Some of Harlan's longer stories started strong and became weaker toward the end, which is not the case here. Rating: :| :| :|

“Mefisto” had the bad fortune of preceding a whole bunch of fiction and movies concerning people on death row, including “Dead Man Walking”, a John Grisham book and film, a Steven King book and film, a Clint Eastwood film, and perhaps others. For that reason alone, it will probably never be a movie. Still, around 1997 Harlan started on a screenplay for Samuel Jackson and Miramax until he had to go in for surgery. Another writer took over and delivered drafts that were “useless and stupid… The studio didn't renew its option in time, and I refused to give them an extension so they could hire ANOTHER inept doofus.”

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Re: 1993 - Mefisto in Onyx

Postby Brian Phillips » Thu Feb 03, 2011 2:42 pm

Does anyone see a similarity between this and "Inception"?


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