Scott Bradfield Essay - Critical Essays

Bradfield, Scott


Scott Bradfield 1955–-

(Full name Scott Michael Bradfield) American short story writer, novelist, and literary critic.

The following entry presents an overview of Bradfield's short fiction career through 1998.

Bradfield's short stories and novels are characterized by the dark, supernatural elements of pulp horror fiction, Gothic tales, and fantasy literature. His tales of psychological horror, set in modern southern California, portray the conflict between an external world of shallow, commercialized, kitsch Americana and the internal fantasies and dreamworlds of the lonely, alienated individuals who populate this world. His fiction has been compared to the Gothic stories of Edgar Allan Poe, the existential fables of Franz Kafka, and the tales of modern alienation by Raymond Carver. Bradfield's short story collections include The Secret Life of Houses (1988), Dream of the Wolf (1990), and Greetings from Earth (1993). Referring to the bizarre and surreal elements of Bradfield's fiction, a critic writing for Kirkus Reviews, in 1990, dubbed him a “David Lynch of prose.”

Biographical Information

Bradfield was born April 27, 1955, in San Francisco, California. Bradfield graduated with a B.A. from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1982. He went on to graduate school at the University of California at Irvine, earning a Ph.D. in literature in 1987. Bradfield served as an assistant professor of English at both the University of California and the University of Connecticut from 1989 to 1994. Since 1995, he has taught as an associate professor of English at the University of Connecticut. Bradfield's short story “Ghost Guessed” was adapted as a radio-play by the BBC and broadcast on Christmas Eve, 1991. His short story “The Secret Life of Houses” was adapted for a 1994 made-for-television movie of the same title, directed by Adrian Velicescu. Bradfield's first novel, The History of Luminous Motion (1989), was expanded from his short story “Hey Hey Hey,” about a boy who travels with his hapless single mother from town to town, where he murders each of her successive boyfriends. This novel was the basis for the film Luminous Motion (2000). Bradfield's next novel, What's Wrong with America (1994), is the story of an aging woman who murders her husband and buries him in the backyard, meanwhile keeping a journal of the events of her life. The novel Animal Planet (1995) is a parable in which animals who can talk serve as the lowest class citizens in a human society.

Major Works of Short Fiction

The first of Bradfield's three short story collections, The Secret Life of Houses, comprises nine stories. Dream of the Wolf includes all of the stories in The Secret Life of Houses, as well as four additional stories. Greetings from Earth contains the thirteen stories in Dream of the Wolf, in addition to eight new stories. Bradfield's fiction has been described variously as psychological horror, macabre, and fantasy. Most of his stories are set in modern southern California, impelling a Library Journal reviewer in 1990 to suggest the designator “California Gothic” for Bradfield's fiction. His characters' lives are saturated with the commercial culture of America, indicated by references to product brand-names throughout the narratives. Bradfield's protagonists are lonely individuals who struggle to negotiate between their banal, materialistic external lives and the dreamlike realm of their internal psyches. In some of these stories, the frustrations of the characters erupt into murder, often of those closest to them. In “The Darling,” Dolores Starr, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, kills her abusive father and subsequently every man with whom she becomes involved. Her problems are seemingly solved when she marries her psychiatrist. In many of Bradfield's stories, the characters escape their painful lives by entering into elaborate, supernatural fantasy worlds. In “The Secret Life of Houses,” a girl whose mother is dying in the hospital manages to live in her parentless home without being discovered by authorities. Living there alone, she finds that the house has a secret dreamlife of its own. The doppelgänger is a recurring motif throughout Bradfield's oeuvre. In “Ghost Guessed,” an outwardly passive man fantasizes that his doppelgänger disrupts the stability of his domestic life. Violent, animalistic fantasies often serve to alleviate the drabness of these characters' lives. In “Dream of the Wolf” an average man whose waking life is exceptionally dull dreams nightly that he is one of a pack of wolves running across an ancient tundra. Bradfield's narratives often include elements of social satire and irony that lend an element of dark humor to his stories. The popularity of self-help books is invoked throughout Bradfield's narratives by the usage of pop-psychology, including “psychobabble” phrasing throughout his characters' dialogue. Bradfield satirizes the psychiatric profession, as a number of his characters find themselves in therapy with professionals who are equally bizarre and delusional. In some stories, Bradfield's characters delve into the world of American popular culture in search of adding greater meaning to their lives. In “Greetings from Earth” an unhappy housewife imagines out-of-body experiences as a means of escape from her material life and domestic routines, while further envisioning her life as a film starring Jessica Lange. Likewise, the popularity of new-age religions and commercialized spirituality are satirized by Bradfield. In “Unmistakably the Finest,” a troubled woman invests all of her faith—and most of her money—in the Worldwide Church of Prosperity, which promises that her excessive consumerist fantasies will be realized. A number of Bradfield's stories, particularly those featuring animals as protagonists, include elements of the modern fable. In “The Cat and the Parakeet,” a cat tempts a recently freed parakeet with the prospect of swift, painless death under his razor-sharp claws. In “Dazzle,” a dog by the name of Dazzle is possessed with exceptional intellectual abilities and has a taste for such varied pleasures as philosophies of language, Third World political theory, and the television show Lassie. Discontented with the lack of intellectual stimulation provided by his owners—and failing to cure his malaise through therapy with an animal psychologist—Dazzle runs away to start his own family. Bradfield has published two sequels to “Dazzle,” “Dazzle Redux,” and “Dazzle's Inferno,” in Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine's December 1999 and June 2002 issues.

Critical Reception

Bradfield's stories receive high praise by some critics and severe critique by others. Some reviewers describe Bradfield's fiction in negative terms such as unoriginal, limited in range, scope, and perspective, and lacking in variety. Champions of Bradfield's fiction, by contrast, portray his stories as original, inventive, imaginative, and wide-ranging. Most agree, however, that Bradfield's stories are unsettling, disturbing, and bizarre. Some critics find Bradfield's stories to be as shallow and saturated with commercial culture as the lives of his fictional characters. Such critics particularly criticize his extensive use of product brand-names, and comment that the author utilizes these devices as a substitute for originality, depth, and meaning. However, many critics see a greater psychological depth and social criticism beneath the surface of Bradfield's stories, witnessing in Bradfield's narratives a critique of the materialistic ethos of modern American life, which creates individuals who can only grasp at chimeras of hope through the medium of fantasy. Thus, the psychic dreamworlds of these characters express a yearning for emotional authenticity absent from their outer lives. Such critics feel that the use of brand-names creates a sense of realism and emphasizes the vacuousness of the culture from which his characters seek escape. As critic Judy Cooke observed, Bradfield's stories “show the human condition as alienated and usually intensely painful.” Reviewer Roz Kaveney, likewise, commented, “beneath the razzmatazz of fantasy and grotesquerie, there is a sorrowful vision of modern life” in Bradfield's stories. Kaveney offered the perspective that Bradfield's stories “gain much of their strength from the conflict between seeing these delusions for the tawdry charades they are and seeing them as pathetic but honorable barricades against the oppressive trashiness of American corporate and family life.” Commentator Eileen Pollack, however, stressed that the characters' means of escape are no better than the lives in which they feel trapped. She further observed: “What's truly scary about Bradfield's universe is that its inhabitants' private lives aren't any more authentic than the manufactured public lives they're trying to escape; their spiritual philosophies are sold to them ready-made by gurus or stitched together from collages of movies and TV shows.” Critic Robert Sandall, similarly, considered Bradfield's apparently gratuitous stories to express a deeper insight into modern life. He asserted that Bradfield's stories border “quite unmistakably on the cheap-thrilling stuff of trashy B movies and airport paperbacks.” Sandall added: “However, Bradfield redeems it as literature in the manner of a 17th-century Jacobean melodramatist. For him, too, madness and intrigue, perversion and death, are bizarre but compelling vantage-points, windows on a murky, fantastic, and irrational world.”

Principal Works

The Secret Life of Houses 1988

*Dream of the Wolf: Stories 1990

Greetings from Earth: New and Collected Stories 1993

The History of Luminous Motion (novel) 1989

Dreaming Revolution: Transgression in the Development of American Romance (criticism) 1993

What's Wrong with America (novel) 1994

Animal Planet (novel) 1995

*Includes The Secret Life of Houses and additional stories.

†Includes The Secret Life of Houses and Dream of the Wolf, with additional stories.


Judy Cooke (review date 22 September 1988)

SOURCE: Cooke, Judy. “Private Worlds.” Listener 120 (22 September 1988): 26-7.

[In the following review, Cooke describes The Secret Life of Houses as an impressive first collection of stories that combines elements of both science fiction and the modernist fable.]

[In The Secret Life of Houses,] desperate characters lope across Scott Bradfield's California, intent on pursuing fantasy and apt to destroy anyone whose concept of reality too readily challenges their own. As the psychiatrist says to the murderess: ‘We do it every day … we appropriate the souls and strengths of other people. It's just that most of us don't have to kill them, babe.’ He...

(The entire section is 649 words.)

Roz Kaveney (review date 14 October 1988)

SOURCE: Kaveney, Roz. “Circumventing Loss.” Times Literary Supplement (14 October 1988): 1155.

[In the following review, Kaveney compares Bradfield's The Secret Life of Houses to Ethan Canin's short story collection Emperor of the Air, focusing on the setting of both collections in California.]

Obsessive sensitivity and sentimentality on the one hand and flash and filigree on the other are qualities much associated with contemporary California. The billing “Californian short story writer” accordingly fosters expectations of a double dose of either or both, accompanied by a sense of dread or déjà vu—neither feeling appropriate in the...

(The entire section is 638 words.)

Robert Sandall (review date 11 December 1988)

SOURCE: Sandall, Robert. “Cliffhangers which Reveal Sheer Madness.” Sunday Times, no. 8575 (11 December 1988).

[In the following review of The Secret Life of Houses, Sandall describes Bradfield's writing as stylish, vivid, and dramatic.]

Scott Bradfield's apparent conviction that California really is a crazy place, that it is in fact one of the world's psychiatric black spots, may or may not be justified but it provides a superb launch-pad for these confident and stylish fictions. The nine stories which make up Bradfield's first book [The Secret Life of Houses] are peopled with a complete gallery of nutcases: from the averagely deluded through the...

(The entire section is 575 words.)

Anthony Gardner (review date March 1989)

SOURCE: Gardner, Anthony. Review of The Secret Life of Houses, by Scott Bradfield. Encounter 72 (March 1989): 54.

[In the following excerpt, Gardner praises The Secret Life of Houses, commenting that the stories combine a dark sense of humor with a taste for fantasy, without trivializing the serious elements of each tale.]

This collection [The Secret Life of Houses] combines a wonderfully inventive, dark sense of humour with a strong taste for fantasy, and yet manages never to belittle the serious issues in question.

Bradfield prefaces his first tale with a quotation from Nietzsche—“Without the dream one would have found no...

(The entire section is 900 words.)

Mark R. Kelly (review date September 1989)

SOURCE: Kelly, Mark R. Review of The Secret Life of Houses, by Scott Bradfield. Locus 23 (September 1989): 31.

[In the following review of The Secret Life of Houses, Kelly praises Bradfield for effectively setting his stories in modern California.]

Scott Bradfield's collection The Secret Life of Houses contains such already well-received pieces as “Unmistakeably the Finest” and “The Dream of the Wolf,” most of which have appeared only in Britain, and three stories original to the collection, which itself is a British publication. This is somewhat ironic since most of the stories concern Southern California, with a knowing but detached...

(The entire section is 320 words.)

Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 September 1990)

SOURCE: Review of Dream of the Wolf, by Scott Bradfield. Kirkus Reviews 58, no. 18 (15 September 1990): 1268-269.

[In the following review, the critic discusses the themes of fantasy and the unconscious mind in the stories of Dream of the Wolf.]

Bradfield follows up his strange and brilliant first novel (The History of Luminous Motion, 1989) with a glittering if uneven collection of 13 short stories [In Dream of the Wolf]—each centered upon a downtrodden loner who retreats into a primordial world of the mind.

In the title piece, a man forsakes his bland everyday life for the wild tundra of his dreams. He dreams of wolves, and in...

(The entire section is 368 words.)

Sybil Steinberg (review date 28 September 1990)

SOURCE: Steinberg, Sybil. Review of Dream of the Wolf, by Scott Bradfield. Publishers Weekly 237, no. 39 (28 September 1990): 84.

[In the following review, Steinberg criticizes Dream of the Wolf, commenting that Bradfield's writing is characterized by stock characters and thin narrative description, and that many of his stories are alienating to the reader.]

“I don't think you can ever get to know me really well unless you understand I happen to be a very mind-oriented sort of person,” proclaims a character in one of 13 stories collected here [in Dream of the Wolf]. The life of the mind, a rather moribund life played out in Southern California,...

(The entire section is 257 words.)

Donna Seaman (review date 1 November 1990)

SOURCE: Seaman, Donna. Review of Dream of the Wolf, by Scott Bradfield. Booklist 87 (1 November 1990): 500.

[In the following review, Seaman praises Dream of the Wolf for its fascinating prose and eerie, unsettling narratives.]

Bradfield's first novel, The History of Luminous Motion, is an eerie and preternatural tale of a seven-year-old boy who kills people. Murder occupies Bradfield again in this unsettling collection of short stories [Dream of the Wolf]. In “The Darling,” a woman calmly kills the men in her life, while in “Sweet Ladies, Good Night, Good Night,” a man kills a rival. These are premediated murders, committed in a...

(The entire section is 152 words.)

Dorothy Golden (review date 1 November 1990)

SOURCE: Golden, Dorothy. Review of Dream of the Wolf, by Scott Bradfield. Library Journal 115 (1 November 1990): 123.

[In the following review, Golden comments that the stories in Dream of the Wolf are finely written and effectively unsettling.]

California Gothic? Bradfield's West Coast characters [in Dream of the Wolf] are the misfits usually found in Southern Gothic. These Californians, however, are plagued with startling new obsessions. While some of them are simply out of step with humanity, others have completely lost their footing in reality. The stories are unsettling because Bradfield is such a fine writer that he makes even the most...

(The entire section is 160 words.)

Carolyn See (review date 19 November 1990)

SOURCE: See, Carolyn. “Wolf Dreams Howl with Fears from Life.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (19 November 1990): E6.

[In the following review of Dream of the Wolf, See observes that Bradfield expresses a sense of loneliness and hopelessness through his bizarre fictional characters.]

Scott Bradfield's 13 stories in Dream of the Wolf are strange, weird, bizarre, freaky and right on the money.

In the title piece, a nice man named Larry works in Santa Monica in some hell pit called The Tower Tire & Rubber Co., but lately he's been dreaming of wolves.

As Larry tells his company counselor, “When I dream of the wolf,...

(The entire section is 620 words.)

Michael Upchurch (review date 13 January 1991)

SOURCE: Upchurch, Michael. Review of Dream of the Wolf, by Scott Bradfield. Seattle Times (13 January 1991): K7.

[In the following review, Upchurch offers a tepid assessment of Dream of the Wolf, remarking that Bradfield's short stories are not as good as his novel The History of Luminous Motion.]

With his first novel, The History of Luminous Motion, Scott Bradfield drew readers into a fictional California as sinister and volatile as Nathanael West's. This collection of stories [Dream of the Wolf]—many written before the novel—displays a similar gleeful drkness, but doesn't cast quite the spell that Luminous Motion did. Bradfield...

(The entire section is 262 words.)

Paul West (review date 24 February 1991)

SOURCE: West, Paul. “The Call of the Wild.” Washington Post Book World 21 (24 February 1991): X6.

[In the following review, West criticizes Dream of the Wolf for its monotonous narratives and artless prose, and further comments that Bradfield overdoes his references to commercial brand-names without delving deeply enough into the psyches of his characters.]

The word “vision” implies things present to the sense of sight, but also things commonly regarded as beyond this world. A writer like Chaucer deals in the first kind of vision and loses something by eschewing the second; a writer like Blake loses something by eschewing the first while achieving huge...

(The entire section is 794 words.)

Elizabeth Young (review date 29 January 1993)

SOURCE: Young, Elizabeth. “Weird Trips.” New Statesman and Society 6 (29 January 1993): 47-8.

[In the following review of Greetings from Earth, Young asserts that Bradfield's stories are a joy to read, whether ironic and cutting or disturbing and disorienting.]

Spalding Gray and Scott Bradfield are both writers who are extremely sophisticated about fiction. They know exactly what it is and what it should do, how it should be constructed, written and read. They also seem to have a faint, sad sense that most of it will soon be forgotten, that it is all perhaps a doomed endeavour, yet both continue to believe that people need stories. “We tell ourselves...

(The entire section is 398 words.)

Robert Irwin (review date 12 February 1993)

SOURCE: Irwin, Robert. “Californian Dreams.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4689 (12 February 1993): 22.

[In the following review of Greetings from Earth, Irwin observes that Bradfield is a fluent and intelligent writer, but criticizes the collection for its lack of variation in narrative voice, emotional pitch, and plot structure.]

Although only “The Flash! Kid” can be reckoned to be science fiction in the strictest sense, several of the items in this collection of short stories [Greetings from Earth] were first published in such magazines as Interzone and Omni, and Scott Bradfield is commonly regarded by science-fiction readers as...

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Kathy O'Shaughnessy (review date 6 April 1993)

SOURCE: O'Shaughnessy, Kathy. Review of Greetings from Earth, by Scott Bradfield. Guardian (London) (6 April 1993): 9.

[In the following review, O'Shaughnessy offers high praise for Greetings from Earth, calling it a brilliant collection, and asserting that Bradfield's stories are original, witty, and wide-ranging.]

Most of Scott Bradfield's stories [in Greetings from Earth,] are what might be called “whacky”. Characters dream with strange vividness of earthquakes, natural upheavals, or wolves. Others are more than whacky—they're frankly unrealistic: ghosts appear, animals talk. “I mean, my hormones had slipped into overdrive,” confesses...

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Eva Salzman (review date 15 May 1993)

SOURCE: Salzman, Eva. “A Finger in Every Cosmic Pie.” Independent (London) (15 May 1993): 30.

[In the following review of Greetings from Earth, Salzman comments that Bradfield's stories are imaginative and humorous.]

In Dr. Simonson's West Coast office-come-guest room, original Dalis, Braques and Chagalls co-habit with a Marvel comics collection. This is the Land of the Fruitcakes. This is World Headquarters for the Captain Kirk School of Cosmology. This is California—where else?—and Scott Bradfield's territory in his book of short stories—Greetings From Earth. Laugh if you dare, but there's some fairly deep philosophising going on. Bradfield's...

(The entire section is 575 words.)

Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 February 1996)

SOURCE: Review of Greetings from Earth, by Scott Bradfield. Kirkus Reviews 64 (15 February 1996): 260.

[In the following review of Greetings from Earth, the critic praises Bradfield's skillful prose and effective metaphors.]

[Greetings from Earth includes the] contents of Bradfield's 1990 collection, Dream of the Wolf, plus eight newer stories that continue to explore the fantasies and nightmares of lonely people who surrender to the lure of the unconscious and find themselves figuratively, and sometimes literally, transformed into the persons (or creatures) they've always feared they might actually be. The best pieces here (“Dream of the...

(The entire section is 136 words.)

Publishers Weekly (review date 19 February 1996)

SOURCE: Review of Greetings from Earth, by Scott Bradfield. Publishers Weekly 243, no. 8 (19 February 1996): 209.

[In the following review of Greetings from Earth, the critic remarks that Bradfield's stories are inventive, startling, and effective.]

Bradfield (What's Wrong With America) is an acutely—sometimes painfully—unsentimental chronicler of our times in these inventive short stories [in Greetings from Earth]. Only eight of these stories are new to publication, but all are startling and effective. Bradfield often uses animals in his fiction, sometimes as recurring metaphors, and sometimes as characters. For example, Larry Chambers...

(The entire section is 238 words.)

Donna Seaman (review date 15 March 1996)

SOURCE: Seaman, Donna. Review of Greetings from Earth, by Scott Bradfield. Booklist 92, no. 14 (15 March 1996): 1239.

[In the following review, Seaman cites Greetings from Earth as a collection of stories “of our time, sharp-edged yet seething with ambiguity.”]

Bradfield's novels, including Animal Planet, veer toward the anarchistic. In his meticulously structured, high-voltage, surprising short stories [Greetings from Earth,] he explores the more instinctive, less “civilized” aspects of our enigmatic natures. Bradfield is a virtuoso of dialogue and a connoisseur of personality, and his narrators are steeped in stress, from the...

(The entire section is 130 words.)

Adam Mazmanian (review date 15 March 1996)

SOURCE: Mazmanian, Adam. Review of Greetings from Earth, by Scott Bradfield. Library Journal 121 (15 March 1996): 98.

[In the following review, Mazmanian chronicles Greetings from Earth as disappointing and ineffective, but adds that the volume does contain “a few gems.”]

In this collection of short stories [Greetings from Earth,] Bradfield dilutes the dark satire of his novel Animal Planet with literary aspirations. The result, while often funny, is not as effective. In “Dazzle,” a ennui-plagued dog suffers through psychotherapy and one-sided conversations with less-gifted dogs before going on the lam into the “unfenced world.”...

(The entire section is 234 words.)

Eileen Pollack (review date 30 June 1996)

SOURCE: Pollack, Eileen. “Into the Twilight Zone.” Washington Post Book World 26 (30 June 1996): 4.

[In the following review of Greetings from Earth, Pollack comments that, while Bradfield's fiction focuses on the internal lives of his characters, his stories lack emotionally engaging content.]

In Chekhov's Moscow, people trying to escape the dreariness and deception of their public lives have an affair. In Scott Bradfield's Los Angeles, they engage in out-of-body experiences in which their “disembodied essences” take the RTD bus to Santa Monica or “travel through space like a beautiful angel and walk on the icy moon.”

And here I...

(The entire section is 702 words.)

Scott Bradfield (essay date June 1998)

SOURCE: Bradfield, Scott. “Art on the Short Side.” Writer's Digest 78, no. 6 (June 1998): 23-5.

[In the following essay, Bradfield offers advice to aspiring fiction writers on the art of the short story.]

The best part about being a short-story writer is that there's no chance anyone will try to corrupt you with money. Short stories are never sold in high six-figure paperback auctions; nobody will ever offer you a sizable advance for a short story you're thinking about writing (no matter how many serial-killers you've got in it); and in Hollywood, where producers work hard all day figuring out ways to turn down projects so they don't have to read them, stories are...

(The entire section is 1699 words.)

Further Reading


Bradfield, Scott. “California: It's a Jungle Out There.” Times (London) (21 June 2000).

Bradfield puts forth four categories of California writers: Hard-Boiled, Spaced Out, Streetwise, and Hippy-Dippy.

Kellman, Steven G. “Psychobabble of the Doppelgängers.” New York Times Book Review 95 (25 November 1990): 33.

Review of Dream of the Wolf claiming that Bradfield's “fiction mirrors the gaudy mediocrity of a consumer society while probing beneath the glistening surfaces to discover the real life beyond.”

Posser, Simon. “Suburban Dreams.” Sunday Telegraph (21...

(The entire section is 126 words.)