Paul Di Filippo Reviews High Concepts by Bill Pronzini
High Concepts, Bill Pronzini (Stark House Press 979-8886010176, trade paperback, 234pp, $15.95) February 2023
I love Stark House books. They specialize in reprints of classic and overlooked crime, noir, and mystery books, as well as similarly situated fantastika items. But now and then they also issue something brand-new. In this case, it’s the first collection of SF/F/H from the famed Bill Pronzini, whose bibliography runs to several pages and scores of entries.
Inveterate readers will recognize Pronzini’s name mostly from the mystery field. His first novel of skullduggery appeared in 1971—over fifty years ago; where does the time hasten off to?—but he’s also published over three hundred short stories. This volume features twenty-nine of those with fantastical content, including four that are making their debut. Another datum to be assessed later: fourteen of the tales are collaborations with Barry Malzberg. That’s a hefty run of literary partnership, especially since the two men have also produced four novels together. Fittingly enough, Malzberg provides a trenchant afterword to this volume.
Before diving into a few representative items, how should we generally characterize this book, which contains stories from as far back as 1968? I would say that it represents a school of consummate old-style craftsmanship that viewed storytelling as the explication of a single neat idea producing a short sharp shock. (A good number of the stories are what we call flash fiction these days.) Pronzini mentions Frederic Brown a couple of times in his narratives, and Brown’s own collections are kissing cousins to this one. I’d cite the early stories of Richard Matheson as another touchstone. A last point of triangulation: Harry Harrison’s monumental 50 in 50 volume. These are mainly not stories of impressionism and atmosphere and character exploration (although some of the Malzberg co-creations veer that way), but rather devilish-sly mechanisms calculated to pull you in, then yank the rug out from under your feet, sending you into an unexpected abyss.
Naturally, the opening story almost undermines my thesis, proving Pronzini’s range. “Shadows” is one of the original items here, and chronicles the quest of a son to get at the truth of his father’s single infamous deed: killing fellow crew members on an alien world. The climax is low-key but resonant, and emotional catharsis is won.
Next up is the Kuttneresque “Toy”, about a seemingly innocuous plaything that ramifies into destruction. And third in line is the first joint venture with Malzberg, “High Concept”. Here, a struggling writer tries pitching a book about Earth’s actual alien visitation, but runs afoul of his own hubris and extraterrestrial malice.
At this juncture I will assess the productive and pleasing pairing of Pronzini and Malzberg. Their collaborations are indeed discernibly different from Pronzini’s solo outings. Amalgamated with Pronzini’s sharp-eyed drive and efficiency are the famous, more baggy-pants Malzbergian themes of neurosis, frustration, bureaucratic soul-killing, and self-sabotaging missteps. “Pieces” is narrated by an explorer who cannot stand to see the sufferings of an alien race under a native dictator go on. He is seduced into violating the Prime Directive, only to learn, much later, that his actions have merely laid the groundwork for a worse tragedy. Likewise, “Intensified Transmogrification” is a counterfactual paranoid dream of the career of President Lyndon B. Johnson that could have issued from Malzberg’s solo pen circa 1969. Like some fugue on the famous TV show The Prisoner, “In the Mists” starts out as a Robinsonade—lone survivor crashed on an alien world—before segueing into hallucinatory games of punishment and power.
These fourteen tales, seeded throughout the volume, are like a French King’s Cake: delicious in itself, but studded with hidden prizes.
Can Pronzini produce Stephen King-style naturalistic horror? Consider “Thirst”, about two men in the desert and how they survive. Can he do Ron Goulart-type comic fantasy? Take a look at “The Screwiest Job in the World”, where our hero must hunt cryptids for a loony millionaire. Picture Bradbury in his young Gothic phase, and you get a sense of “The Coffin Trimmer”. “Holes” has a kind of Ligotti-style sense of existential menace. And another collaboration titled “Stretch’s Quirls”—this time with the famous Galaxy editor H. L. Gold—harks back to Unknown magazine.
But I have to say that my favorite piece is the Runyonesque “The Hungarian Cinch”.
I am having a poached egg and a glass of skimmed milk in my office at Fancy’s Billiard & Pool Arena when No-Balls Rinker comes in big-eyed. He is a bantam type with a jillion freckles on his face and is what you call my aide-de-camp and general factotum.
And we’re off to the races! A master human pool player is undone by aliens barging into his game. So far so adequate. But then we learn that all is not as it seems, and a succession of double-crosses (credit Pronzini’s criminous writing) ensues. All very laugh-out-loud.
The SF and mystery genres have always hosted maestros equally at home in either field, and this volume inducts another such writer into that hall of fame.
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One thought on “Paul Di Filippo Reviews High Concepts by Bill Pronzini”
Just to note that Stark House Press has also been publishing a number of books by Barry Malzberg, including a one-volume omnibus of two collections, The Man Who Loved the Midnight Lady and In the Stone House.