ChiZine Publications consistently puts out some of the best fiction today. While I had never read anything by Ben Peek before, I was eager to read his new collection “Dead Americans.” Since this is a ChiZine book, I just knew that I was in for an enjoyable read.
From the first story, Peek’s talent is apparent. Many of the stories in the book are centered on historical, at least in a cultural sense, characters placed in situations that are different from those in which they existed. The book kicks off with a tale of Mark Twain not in the early America that he is famously known for writing about in his fiction but in colonial Australia and dealing with the conflict of the budding country. John Wayne inhabits another story in which he is faced with the commercialization of America and is left as one of the few beacons of what it truly means to be an American. Octavia Butler finds herself trapped in a world that is reminiscent of the science fiction she is known for writing and coming face to face with things similar to the creations of her mind. Even the final story of the book riffs on history without the historical figures by illustrating the life and works of a band name after Lee Harvey Oswald.
Outside of the American-themed alternate history stories, Peek also presents some stories that are based upon Australian history. There are less of these stories than the other type but they are very strong. In some respects, these tales are even more bizarre than the alternate history stories and feature such worlds as one in which the people tattoo the story of their lives on their bodies as a way of justifying their existence in a world that their gods have forsaken.
While I did not enjoy this collection as much as I have some of ChiZine’s other short story collections, this is still a very good collection of stories. Peek shows a good understanding of what it is to be human as well as the ability to shed light on the subject through the bizarre and absurd. Some of the stories, such as “There is Something So Quiet and Empty Inside of You It Must Be Precious,” did not work as much for me but they were still enjoyable to read for the writing ability that is on display with every word of the book. There are other stories, such as “The Souls of Dead Soldiers are for Blackbirds, Not Little Boys” and “John Wayne,” that are just masterful both in their concept and execution. It is clear from this collection that Peek is a literary force to be reckoned with.
As with almost all short story collections, I enjoyed some stories much more than others but the overall sum of the collection is very good. This is especially tricky when writing “bizarre” fiction as every story requires a more delicate balance between being effective and just being strange. Peek has an innate sense of this line and guides the reader through the weird to the heart of the story. As I have come to expect from a ChiZine book, “Dead Americans” is a fine short story collection and sure to be one of the best of the year when all is said and done.
I would like to give a special thank you to ChiZine Publications and NetGalley for this review copy. “Dead Americans” is scheduled to be released by ChiZine Publications on March 18th.