Everything in All the Wrong Order: The Best of Chaz Brenchley, Subterranean Press’s massive short story collection (clocking in at 568 pages), delivers on its titular promise. While determining “the best” of an author’s oeuvre is always going to be subjective, there’s sure to be something here to satisfy every Brenchley fan. Bouncing seamlessly between—and sometimes blending—genres, the thirty-one stories included in this volume span the length of Brenchley’s prodigious career. Throughout, Brenchley tackles the complicated overlap between love (platonic, romantic, and sexual) and loss (physical, emotional, and spiritual), in stories that are at once intimate and universal.
“Uncanny Valley” opens the collection and is indicative of what is to come. The narrator and his partner develop an app that allows users to overlay onto present-day Silicon Valley views of the area’s past, culled from old photos. As the app becomes more immersive and interactive, a presence is discovered: a young girl who seems to always be looking directly at the camera. Discovering her identity becomes an obsession for the narrator’s partner (and for a while for the narrator himself). Brenchley uses second-person narration, where the narrator directly addresses “you”; I usually find this discomfiting at best, but it is used to great effect here. The narrator falls in love with his partner (“you”), but must stand by as the mystery of the girl draws the partner further and further away from the narrator. The story is wistful and a bit heartbreaking, as so many of the stories here are.
“Parting Shots,” for example, focuses on friends preparing the body of one of their number, recently deceased, for burial and the objects they choose to bury with him. “Another Chart of the Silences” features a lonely man who befriends a curious teenager and teaches him how to pilot a boat, with ultimately tragic results. These stories—alongside “Quinquereme of Ninevah,” in which a nature lover witnesses a starship’s arrival on Earth—deal in nostalgia and loss, although the loss is of a different type in each story: “Quinquereme of Ninevah,” for instance, is almost a treatise on how quickly technology advances and the speed at which the novel becomes the commonplace.
“Another Chart of the Silences” is also a neat bit of cosmic horror (what is it that draws people to that deadly coastline?). “The Keys to D’Espérance” is an equally neat bit of psychological horror in which the main character has been promised as a child that he will inherit the titular mansion. When he finally is given the keys, his trip to his inheritance plays out against ghostly visits tied to his losses and guilt. “Going the Jerusalem Mile” combines cosmic and psychological, as the narrator explains local traditions involving a church and a labyrinth and how they caused the loss of his wife and newborn child. “A Fold in the Heart” brings folk horror into the mix when unseasonal bad weather helps a man realize that he’s more haunted by the loss of his mentor/groomer/lover than he realized and that the young people he loves may be endangered by this haunting. “A Terrible Prospect of Bridges” is a brilliant twisty tale of identity, family, politics, and the little ways in which we hurt the people we love without realizing it until it's too late.
“Live At Maly’s,” also told in second person, puts the reader in the role of a boyfriend being newly introduced to the narrator’s favorite nightspot, in a story about how music has the ability to rewrite the world in the right hands (in this case, a lonely and powerful female singer). Brenchley double-downs on the universal nature of the story by not giving the characters names. Everyone is “I/you/he/she” except the owner of the titular club.
Clubs where like-minded individuals can gather to share stories and commiserate are also at the center of several other stories in the collection. “Ashes to Ashes” and “Ch-Ch-Changes” both take place in Parry’s Bar, a watering hole for Pilots—those talented few who can navigate ships through interstellar space without losing their minds—whose shared experience implies that there is no other intelligent life in the Universe other than humans. That is their bond, but what if they actually aren’t alone? The loss in these stories is at once universal (the loss of hope that we’re not the only intelligent life in the universe permeates both tales), cultural (what if the Pilots aren’t as special as everyone thinks they are?), and personal (the Pilots at the center of each story struggle with what change will mean for them individually). Both stories also explore how people react to the discovery of new facts that overturn previous beliefs.
A gentleman’s club in Cairo is the setting for “Thermodynamics and/or The Remittance Men.” The titular group are men who have been sent to Cairo by their families because they are not “fit” for polite British society but who turn out to secretly be working to protect humanity from otherworldly threats. I’m not sure if this is the only “Remittance Men” story Brenchley has written; I’d love to see more with these characters. And a club is also at the center of “The Astrakhan, the Homburg, and the Red Red Coal,” wherein the regular gathering of a group of gay men is interrupted by an operative of the government that would imprison them—but the operative approaches needing help only such a tight-knit group is able to provide. It’s clear these men love and support each other even if they don’t always like one another, and the arrival of both the government operative and a famous writer exiled for his proclivities binds them even tighter.
The drawing together of this and another community—in “The Astrakhan, the Homburg, and the Red Red Coal,” one of two stories in the collection that take place in Brenchley’s alternate history where Mars is colonized during the reign of King George III (“The Burial of Sir John Mawe at Cassini” is the other)—is juxtaposed with the loss of one in “The Insolence of Candles Against the Light’s Dying,” which closes the collection. Here, the narrator is cleaning out the home of a recently deceased uncle and he’s brought his boyfriend, who is dying of AIDS, along because the lover can’t be left alone for too long. Brenchley plays the slow loss of the narrator’s boyfriend to AIDS against the very sudden loss of a lover the uncle experienced decades earlier and never got over—a loss that left the older man bitter and alone. Through intimate character work, the story addresses different yet universal modes of processing, or not processing, loss, while at the same time casting an eye at the lack of generational knowledge in the LGBTQIA community.
I’ve mentioned fewer than half of the stories that appear in Everything in All the Wrong Order. From “Every Day a Little Death, or the Clockmaker’s Apprentice”—Brenchley’s inventive reworking of “An Appointment in Samarra”—to “Dragon Kings Play Songs of Love”—in which an old woman watches a young couple prepare to make a mistake that could get them killed— readers will find the rest of the collection to be equally as good. From “Winter Journey”—which Brenchley very well could have written in conversation with William March’s The Bad Seed—to “Freecell”—in which terrorist acts against a ruling elite are seen through the eyes of the terrorists—every story in this volume is as thought-provoking and emotional as the stories I’ve mentioned in detail, and almost always have an eye towards the way love and loss are inextricable.
“White Skies,” a near-future post-climate change science fiction which gradually morphs into something else, is another story in which, by its end, I had realized the reveal had been seeded so well throughout that it couldn’t have ended any other way. This despite the fact that, while reading it, I had no idea where the story was going. Though it’s one of the few tales in the collection that doesn’t ruminate on love or loss, I don’t end this review on an exception: because every story here plays with—and exceeds—any and all expectations.