Think SCANNERS crossed with SILENCE OF THE LAMBS as related by Jim Thompson and you’ll have the gist of this weird and wonderful novella by Harlan Ellison. It’s one of Ellison’s better works of fiction in my view--and, it seems, one of his last. As of early 2014 it’s his final long-form work, and if MEFISTO IN ONYX does indeed turn out to be his last such effort--the sad consensus being that Mr. Ellison is not long for this world--than it will make for a fitting send-off.
It’s the first person account of Rudy, an insanely verbal black guy with the power to “jaunt,” i.e. read peoples’ minds. Rudy’s profane and hard-boiled yet extremely erudite voice, it must be said, is a joy, making for a rich and compulsive reading experience.
Trouble starts when a white woman Rudy once banged, a district attorney who put away the notorious serial killer Henry Lake Spanning, asks Rudy to meet with Spanning on death row. It seems she’s had a change of heart about Spanning, having inexplicably fallen in love with him and concluding that he was wrongly convicted. Rudy is understandably nonplussed but grants the request, and discovers that Spanning shares the “gift” of jaunting--and that he would indeed appear to be unjustly incarcerated.
It all adds up to a lean and impeccably structured piece of storytelling that grows increasingly twisty, with not one but two climactic surprises. Be forewarned that the story also contains its share of nasty detail, with the minutiae of Spanning’s crimes given thorough verbiage.
This edition of MEFISTO IN ONYX (a tale that originally appeared in Omni and was republished in two subsequent Ellison collections) is beautifully designed with nifty SIN CITY-esque black and white cover art by Frank Miller. Miller also provides a compelling introduction detailing an unnerving encounter he had with hardened prisoners that’s nearly worth the price of admission.
One big complaint I have is with that ludicrous title, which I believe is a serious candidate for the most pretentious of all time. Ellison is known for coming up with nutzoid titles (who can forget “The Wine Has Been Left Open too Long and the Memory Has Gone Flat” or LOVE AIN’T NOTHING BUT SEX MISSPELLED?), but MEFISTO IN ONYX, a metaphorical description of Rudy’s situation that inexplicably likens him to an immobilized Mephistopheles (of the Faust legend), has to be some kind of pinnacle in the wacky title lexicon.