01/01/2011. Contributed by Patrick Mahon
pub: Tachyon. 270 page enlarged paperback. Price: $14.95 (US). ISBN: 978-1-892391-98-8.
check out website: www.tachyonpublications.com
‘The Third Bear’ is a collection of fourteen short stories published between 2004 and 2010 by Jeff VanderMeer, an American writer of speculative fiction. This collection should add to his growing and well-deserved reputation as a writer of well-crafted weirdness.
My favourite story is the penultimate one, ‘The Surgeon’s Tale’. This is the longest story in the collection and is a variation on ‘Frankenstein’. It is also the only story in the collection that was jointly written with another author, Cat Rambo, the co-editor of ‘Fantasy’ magazine. The story is narrated by a retired doctor living in a world where magic is on the wane, replaced by scientific rationalism. He thinks back to his days as a cocky medical student when, fuelled by alcohol, ambition and ego, he tried to resurrect a corpse, using a combination of his growing surgical skills and magic learned from ancient tomes in the college library. He chooses the body of a freshly drowned young woman to experiment on. That is his downfall. When his experiment is only partially successful, re-animating her right arm but nothing more, he becomes obsessed with his anonymous would-be lover. Abandoning his studies and his friends, he tries in vain to bring the rest of her back to life. When he eventually accepts the failure of his experiment, puts the body in a boat and sends her off to a watery cremation, he thinks that his life will be able to get back to normal. So when the reanimated right arm appears in his bedroom three nights later, evidently protected from the flames by his resurrection rite, he doesn’t know what to do. His eventual solution, both radical and perhaps inevitable, is to replace his own right arm with the resurrected one so that he can be close to his doomed lover forever more. This story is wonderfully written, getting inside the head of a character who has had a lifetime to atone for the error of his youth. By the end of it, you may even feel sorry for him. I certainly did.
The title story, ‘The Third Bear’, is also excellent. The title refers to an intelligent supernatural bear which terrorises a small medieval village after they exile an old woman suspected of witchcraft. The bear kills lots of the villagers but doesn’t eat them. Instead, it rips their heads off, paints them bright colours and uses them to make a sculpture in its cave. The village elder tries to protect his village but can’t do anything to defeat the bear, even after finding the old witch and asking for her help. In the end, he sacrifices himself to the bear in order to allow his wife and children time to escape. The rest of the village then descends into madness, after which the bear moves on to pastures new having fulfilled the witch’s curse. This is an engrossing story, horrific at times but also thought-provoking.
One of the strangest stories in the collection is ‘Errata’. In it, Jeff VanderMeer re-imagines himself as a formerly successful writer who becomes in turn disillusioned, unemployed, divorced and finally an alcoholic. He is redeemed by an editor friend who asks him to go on assignment to Lake Baikal. While there, he is to write a short story of his own whilst re-writing sections of short stories by other writers previously published in his editor friend’s magazine. He is also told to keep two pearly-handled revolvers with him at all times, as someone may turn up at any point and try to kill him. Once you add in that during his time near Lake Baikal, he lives in a semi-flooded apartment block with some talking seals and a penguin as his only company, you may see just how surreal this story is. However, it is also funny, satisfying and a great read.
There are several other highlights to this collection. ‘The Quickening’ is the amusing tale of a twelve year-old girl, her talking rabbit and avaricious maiden aunt’s unsuccessful attempts to make money out of the rabbit’s unique talent. In ‘Finding Sonoria’, a retired stamp collector asks a private detective to find the non-existent country of Sonoria after he sees the name on a stamp. ‘The Goat Variations’ takes the well-known footage of President George W. Bush being told of the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers whilst reading to a group of schoolchildren and re-imagines the President’s day in several parallel universes, some better and some much worse.
I greatly enjoyed reading this collection. It showcases several of VanderMeer’s strengths as a writer. First is the range of the stories, each one laying claim to a unique story world totally unlike any of the others. Second is the strangeness at the heart of VanderMeer’s imagination, highlighted particularly in stories like ‘Errata’ and ‘Finding Sonoria’. Third is the strength of his writing craft, which makes each of these short stories a near perfect jewel in its own right. However, perhaps the greatest of VanderMeer’s strengths is his compassion, which asserts itself in almost every story, moving you to sympathy with the most unlikely of characters. It is this compassion which ultimately animates the stories and makes you want to re-read almost everyone just as soon as you have finished it.
In a collection of fourteen stories, it is inevitable that they won’t all appeal equally to any particular reader. In my case, the story I liked least was ‘Predecessor’, a Poe-like tale of horror in a supernatural house. It is just as well-written as the rest but I personally found it unnecessarily horrific, given how little actually happens in the story. Other readers, however, may well disagree.
‘The Third Bear’ is a wonderful collection of strange speculative fiction. It defies categorisation yet it has its own strange logic, not least because of a number of thematic links between several of the stories. I greatly enjoyed reading these fourteen stories and look forward to re-reading them again in future. I would warmly recommend the collection to anyone who wants to be taken out of themselves by a skilled and original storyteller.
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