Scott Bradfield Critical Essays


(Short Story Criticism)

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.”