Friday, July 6, 2018

FFB: MEFISTO IN ONYX by Harlan Ellison (Ziesing 1993); HARLAN ELLISON'S WATCHING (Underwood-Miller 1989)

Harlan Ellison, 1934-2018. 
Harlan Ellison having died after a long illness, or set of illnesses, that had left him mostly bedridden for the last years of his life, has resulted in an unsurprising upwelling of obituaries and less formal reminiscences, only some of them probably actionable, if anyone was so inclined, the most obvious of those being the screeds in Publisher's Weekly, of all places, and Jeet Heer's credulous bit of tantrum-throwing in what remains of The New Republic (there's been little to brag about in TNR for some decades). You can't libel the dead legally, but you sure can believe every bit of hyperbole the departed had inspired others to say or write, and that he had said or written himself (in the Heer say, it was that Ellison had once punched an ABC executive, who had messed with one of his scripts, in the mouth so hard the latter had fallen over and fractured his pelvis. And yet Ellison magically remained unindicted for what would be felony assault. Ellison once wrote in an essay about a rumor that he had thrown a aggressive convention fan/attendee down an elevator shaft, also noting there that surprisingly, no one had summoned police nor emergency medical services. No one the other week at TNR thought perhaps fact-checking might be in order).

Not that Ellison didn't, as noted, blather on at times about how he had been the swift sword of physical justice in one or another situation with venal producers and publishers among others; he could and did see people in court and would stand up to bullies, and also would give some people a very hard time, via phone calls and letters, if they did something to displease him. He famously got  physical with fellow troublemaker Charles Platt at a SFWA function (how physical is not yet clear to me, in the haze of differing accounts), and in the course of performing a weak comedy sketch with Connie Willis at a Hugo Awards ceremony, she playing a teacher scolding a mischievous child, he as said child promising to be Good and demonstrating his lack of good faith by reaching up and putting his hand on her breast...without having actually cleared this with Willis beforehand...has become the meat of the PW account of his purported "tendency toward violence and sexual harassment." Usually, it was a matter of talk, at his worst, rather than such acting out. Ellison strove to apologize to Willis immediately afterward; while his act was stupid and rude and ill-conceived, there are still those in the fannish community, including at least one woman I've corresponded with, who'd received worse treatment back in the day from others--not, as much as I've yet heard or read, from Ellison--who will still (somewhat) defend, say, Isaac Asimov's repeated tendency to grope/shake the breasts of women he just met, in lieu of shaking their hand, as him Just Trying to Make a Joke. That is one of the things he was trying to do, yes. (Judith Merril was given a footnote in Asimov's 1980 autobiography to give her assessment of this tendency; she noted that in eventual response to Asimov's freedom with his hands toward the women he knew or met that she one day reached down and took a firm grip of his testes, through his pants, and that helped settle the matter between them, at least.) Though Ellison was not above shit-talking and seeming ready to be physically aggressive (he had been a small boy and was a short man, who had been the target of a lot of physical aggression particularly in his youth, and wasn't above fronting), he was a lot more likely to try to argue with you than punch you. You could wish to be able to say the same for, say, Norman Mailer. 

And all this, usually trotted out as either damnation or, sadly, in admiration, ignores that despite the occasional bluster, Ellison was also often generous with his time and support for others, and was not, in fact, a monster on balance. He was a reasonably pleasant person on the two times I had a discussion with him, once face to face, once via telephone, albeit the latter time was in a professional context, as I was interviewing him for a TV Guide write-up of his then-new television series Masters of Science Fiction, broadcast by ABC in the US, as it happens, as a summer replacement series. The first time, I was at a signing, picking up copies of his first comic book compilation volume, Harlan Ellison's Dream Corridor, for myself and my aunt Beverly Laquerre. There were a few scraps of correspondence, via paper mail and through his webpage, between those events. So, I don't know how bad or good his behavior tended to be in his day-t0-day private life, but I do know he didn't act as, say, a certain repeatedly failing businessman and completely out of his depth politician, but successful tv performer, apparently does at all times, as a clownish walking example of insecure narcissism. 

"Officially" this is a piece on the Ellison novella Mefisto in Onyx, his last longer work to be published so far, first in Omni in 1993, and shortly thereafter in the Mark V. Ziesing edition pictured here, with comics artist/writer Frank Miller's cover design and introduction, where I first read it (as opposed to as included in Stephen Jones's 1994 volume of his annual Best New Horror, or in Ellison's '97 collection of recent fiction Slippage). And on Harlan Ellison's Watching, the 1989 edition of his collected film and other a/v criticism and related matter  (there was a later edition with more material added, I believe; I have a copy of the 1992 trade paperback, with a creased cover from a tumble off a bookshelf some years back).

Mefisto in Onyx is good rather than great work by Ellison. It demonstrates some of the recurring themes and approaches in his work: the outsider who doesn't let others see him fully, though who does make a strong bond with a few, while hiding from the mass; he being an intelligent man who has not ever quite found his niche, suffered from a lot of early emotional and other damage, and finds he can relate best to others who've faced much the same situation; and finds himself, with a special talent, facing a truly monstrous set of circumstances, institutional and personal, which threaten him and those he loves. Telepathic Rudy Pairis (the variant spelling paying off, arguably, as a foreshadowing of certain dualisms late in the narrative) is asked by his long-time friend and (literally) one-time lover Allison Roche to read the mind of, or jaunt (a term Ellison notes in his acknowledgements he borrowed, and has Pairis define differently, from Alfred Bester and the latter's novel The Stars My Destination, aka Tiger! Tiger!) into the consciousness of a man for whom she, as an Alabama prosecutor, was the primary litigator in putting away for serial murder. This is a lot to ask, as jaunting takes a lot out of Pairis; further, she admits that not only is she concerned she helped convict an innocent man, but that she's now in love with the convict, several days away from execution, which only compounds Pairis's mixed emotions, as he fully realizes the degree he still carries a torch for Roche, as well as puzzling him as to how she might fall for someone so clearly Wrong.

Ellison, as with certain other writers only often more gracefully (usually, I hope to do better than I usually do), tries to pack as much information into a sentence or, certainly, a paragraph as he possibly can; as with most writers in fantastic fiction, he is fascinated by often-obscure areas of knowledge, and musing asides will go in that direction and also toward the sensory responses he wishes the reader to feel as powerfully as the characters do, often with a high degree of success. And the descriptions of the alienating nature of the penitentiary experience, as well as the ghastliness of the crimes committed by the murderer, are compounded also not only by the dance between two people who are more than friends but have difficulty coping with that and what comes with it, and also Pairis's experiences as an African-American, including a few minor annoyances as he deals with observers nearby while simply talking, occasionally arguing, with Roche, who is a pale Caucasian. Ellison has studied the history of serial killers, and loves the scents of flowers after a rainstorm, and has meditated perhaps too much about revenge and how it can be achieved, and he wants you to know what he's found. And I think there's a certain degree of Ellison talking to himself, even as his protagonist does, in realizing it might be better if he'd stop getting in his own way. 

The story won the Horror Writers of America Stoker Award, and the Locus magazine poll, for its year, and you probably won't want to be reading something else while you read it. Ellison notes that he ran it by a number of his friends, I gather more so than most of his work, at various points, including Robert Crais, Octavia Butler, John-Henri Holmberg, Steven Barnes, O'Neil De Noux, J. Michael Straczynski, Edward Bryant, Martin H. Greenberg, Bill Warren, Robert Kilheffer, editors Ellen Datlow (at Omni) and Mark Ziesing, Kathryn Drennan and Susan Ellison. Along with crediting Alfred Bester as inspiration, he also notes both Kyle Baker's Why I Hate Saturn and Frank Miller's Sin City as giving him some nudges; in turn, I wouldn't be surprised if Ellison's aside in the novella about the Spartans versus the Persian army at the Hot Gates might not've nudged Miller along to his eventual exercise in goofiness, 300. The story was dedicated to Robert Bloch, who had commissioned a piece from Ellison for his 1991 anthology Psycho-Paths (Ellison excoriates that project's Tor Books publisher and editors presumably for pressuring him to get his work in by their deadlines, noting that between his book deal and film options he seems to have done better than he would've by rushing to meet their schedule); the book package to Dean Koontz. 

I will, as I take after Ellison in having difficulty with deadlines, have more to say about Watching later. To begin, though, this might be the most representative collection of his nonfiction writing one can find, as, more so than any other of his nonfiction volumes, it draws upon nearly every period of writing (including an example of his high school film-review beginnings) and touches upon a major segment of his work, dealing with how an excellent prose writer and dramatist can be seen coping with the demands of both media, and analyzing how others do so...often through the collected columns he wrote for such magazines as Cinema, The Staff, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and others. The high-school review is offered as an appendix, as is an essay dealing with The Daisy nightclub, the same sort of mid-'60s "scene" as Jilly's, where Frank Sinatra's attempt at bullying Ellison, as recounted in Gay Talese's "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold", took place...The Daisy run by Curtis Hanson's parents, who also published Hanson's Cinema for several years. Among the things missing here that shouldn't be are Ellison's fine essay on how to write a film or television script, "With the Eyes of a Demon: Seeing the Fantastic as a Video Image".

For more of today's books, please see Patti Abbott's blog

Other Ellisonia on the blog:
"The Deathbird"  as it appeared in F&SF March 1973

Other media:


Rich Horton said...

Todd -- excellent discussion of Ellison, his faults and virtues, and the excessive credulity shown by too many in leaping in to attack him.

One nitpick -- surely "jaunt" is taken from THE STARS MY DESTINATION, not THE DEMOLISHED MAN.

Todd Mason said...

You are correct! Written too quickly this morning, and given the relative importance of telepathy in the two novels...thanks all around.

Gerard Saylor said...

I am certain I have read MEPHISTO but cannot recall what collection it was in.

Todd Mason said...

Well... will detail the Ellison collections and Jones BEST NEW HORROR volumes you could be thinking of...F in this case rather than PH...

George said...

Harlan Ellison was a complicated character. He wrote some great stories that will still be read a 100 years from now.

John Desbin said...

I met Harlan on two occasions, the first at a Denver SF conference in ‘73 or ‘74, and the second time at an autograph party at Mille High Comics store in Boulder,Colorado. The first time I was a SF fan meeting my first ever real live AUTHOR! When I met him again in Boulder, I had his No Doors, No Windows, and we had a long discussion about Cornell Woolrich, who he had dedicated that volume to. He was pleased he said thatI had I was collecting Woolrich after reading his book . On both occasions he was nothing but a gentleman to a wide eyed fan , at the first meeting, and later didn’t mind at all that after I told him how much I enjoyed ND,NW, I asked him various questions about Woolrich. Reading some of the comments about him in various chat groups online, makes me wonder how many of them have actually met Harlan as opposed to just sucked up the bile others are spewing,

Todd Mason said...

Hard to argue, George...

And my own limited experience of Ellison as a person is similar, John Desbin, though I was already a wizened fringefan (well, 29 or 30) the first time we met (I also asked him to sign a copy of the issue of Algis Budrys's TOMORROW SPECULATIVE FICTION we both had stories in. He advised me to not quit my day job...I assured him I wouldn't.) It's a good question, yours. (At about that time, a few years earlier, Ballantine had issued a uniform-packaging mass-market reprint series of Woolrich books I binged on...though I was already a Woolrich fan by the time I was aware of Ellison's advocacy, thanks to Robert Arthur and Harold Q. Masur's "Hitchcock" anthologizing...where, as noted, I also first read Ellison, with "All the Sounds of Fear".)