I first encountered Scott Bradfield in The Mammoth Book of Wolf Men, with his incredible short story The Dream of the Wolf. I purchased his short story collection almost immediately, greedy for more of his dark and sinister writing.
The cover of my copy is not electrifying. I don’t know if there was a wraparound previously, but what arrived on my doorstep just had Bradfield’s initials stamped on the front. However, what with it being twenty three years of age, it has that lovely ‘old book’ smell, and even the hardback cover feels soft-ish to the touch. The pages are gorgeously softened and well thumbed. It had obviously been well appreciated before it was shipped over from the States.
The first story of the book is the one I introduced you to at the beginning of the review, The Dream of the Wolf. I was more than happy to read it again. I took my time, savouring each word and sometimes pausing just to let it all wash over me. I enjoyed it even more the second read around, and it has, without a shadow of a doubt, one of my favourite short story beginnings.
“Last night I dreamed I was Canis lupus tundrarum, the Alaskan tundra wolf,” Larry Chambers said, confronted by hot Cream O’ Wheat, one jelly donut, black coffee with sugar. “I was surrounded by a vast white plain and sparse gray patches of vegetation. I loped along at a brisk pace, quickening the hot pulse of my blood…’
The story is about Larry Chambers, a man utterly obsessed with wolves. He dreams of them at night. He talks to his young daughter at the breakfast table about the animals he kills when he’s a wolf. He takes his wolf clarification guides into work and is unable to focus on anything other than wolves.
Bradfield writes about the killing of a mouse with an exquisite beauty.
“…His eyes were wide with panic, his tiny heart fluttered wildly. His fear blossomed in the air like pollen…”
His fear blossomed in the air like pollen. Roll that sentence across your tongue. It’s perfection, isn’t it. Absolute perfection.
There’s a part in the story where Larry gets on the bus to go to work and one of his friends calls him over starts blabbing on about work related stuff, but Larry recalls ‘an exotic afternoon nap’ instead of paying attention to his friend.
“Canis lupus chanco, Tibetan spring, crepuscular hour. His pack downed a goat. Blood spattered the grey dust like droplets of quivering mercury.’
All through the journey, he’s in a different place entirely.
“And what about that devilish little wife of yours? Take it from me, Spaceman. A woman’s eye is always looking out for those greener pastures. It’s not their fault, Spaceman – it’s just their nature…Hey, Larry.” The rolled up newspaper jabbed Larry’s side. “You even listening to me or what?”
At one point, Larry is getting a warning at work.
“…But district managers are starting to complain. Late orders, unitemized bills, stuff like that. Harmless stuff, really. Nothing I couldn’t cover for you. But the guys upstairs aren’t so patient – that’s all I’m trying to say it’s my job, too. All right?” Finally Larry located the tundarum’s subspecies guide.”
When Larry does think about work, it’s when his wife is talking to him.
“You may not believe this, Larry, but there are actually people in the world who like to talk about some things besides wolves every once in a blue moon.” Larry turned again to his reflection. He had forgotten to finish Cabrillo’s sales figures. Tomorrow, he assured himself. First thing.
The story takes an especially dark turn and Larry’s wife leaves with their daughter. He’s been told not to go back to work, and the wolves in his dreams became shadowy, distant figures. The ending of the story is even better than the beginning, but I’ll only leave you with a bite so you can enjoy it yourself.
‘…while all across the city the wolves began to howl.’
The collection continues in a strong vein with the second story, The Darling, a shadowy tale about a woman called Delores who suffered child abuse at the hands of her farther, and goes onto kill him, and a whole host of other men. As with The Dream Of The Wolf, it’s told in the third person, and is powerful yet deeply disturbing. One of the things that I most admire about Bradfield’s writing in this tale, is the mix of the macabre and the everyday. Here is the moment after she’s shot her Dad.
Then, very slowly, Dad lowered his head onto the kitchen table as Dolores moved his Jim Beam to one side. Dad’s brains and blood virtually ruined the chequered tablecloth Dolores had bought at K Mart just that summer…’
Bradfield never ceases to amaze me with the spells he casts. There’s a part in the story where Dolores takes part in night classes, which I went back to and read five or six times over.
‘Dr. Peters, who taught functional human anatomy, looked just like Dad before he started drinking. He told her about the jugular, spine, meninges, bile duct. The body was just a delicate bubble, really, which could be broken open very easily; it made her nervous to contemplate her own physiological vulnerability. Infections, haemorrhages, renal failure, metastasis, stroke. Polio, eczema, muscular dystrophy, brain death.’
Unmistakably The Finest, is a tale about a woman who believes her issues will be solved if she makes regular payments to the church and Dazzle is a bizarre story about a super intelligent dog. There’s a particular moment when he’s out of his ‘unfenced world’ that I’ll always carry around with me.
‘Sometimes he encountered stray coyotes, or even wild wolves who had gotten lost for years in the big cities and were now almost completely insane.’
Unfortunately, Bradfield does lose me at times, and I admit that I did skip through a few of the thirteen stories when they didn’t grab me by the scruff within the first few pages. However, I would highly recommend this collection to anyone who like their short stories bleak, disturbing and highly memorable.