The Third Bear, by Jeff Vandermeer
Posted December 23, 2010on:
You don’t read VanderMeer, you experience it, you swim through it, you breathe it, you smell it. anyone who knows me knows that is one of the highest compliments I can give anything. I made my way through The Third Bear, sometimes meandering, sometimes biting my nails, sometimes swimming through the salty surf. Wherever VanderMeer took me, it wasn’t where I was expected. Most of these stories start out light if strange, and then the light turns to dark and the strange only gets perfectly stranger. They are startling and surreal, and much Lovecraftian deliciousness abounds.
So spoiled on epic series and 800+ page books, it’s no surprise I often have a tough time with short stories. What happened before? what happens next? who are these people? where the hell are we? I don’t know what specifically I need for a short story to work for me, but I know VanderMeer does it. Most of the stories contained in The Third Bear are told in first person, often by people who are at a crossroads – they’ve done something horrible, or they are about to.
I was happily surprised at how much of The Third Bear worked for me. On the rare occasion that I do pick up a book of short stories, I expect a bell curve of enjoyment: a few stories will knock my socks off, most of them will be OK, and a few will suck. The Third Bear worked out pretty much like this: One entry didn’t do it for me, and the rest knocked my socks off to one extent or another. There is a reason I can’t say no to Jeff VanderMeer.
A few thoughts on some of the stories:
Third bear – horror story about a bear that isn’t a bear. A woman, believed to be a witch is kicked out of the village. To take her revenge she calls a beast from another dimension. It becomes known as the third bear, and systematically and intelligently it kills as many villagers as it can, decapitating them. It is making a pattern with their heads, and can only stop once the pattern is complete. Very surreal, very creepy.
Lost - This could be in Ambergris, but it might not be. A short, sad, and satisfying story about a man who recently lost his wife. He may not know exactly where he is, but he knows he is not lost. Written in a stream of conscienceness style, don’t worry, you’ll get used to it.
The Situation – Brilliant and Utterly creepy. I’m not sure what’s going on here, but I really like it. A man’s situation at work is going from bad to worse, and he is formally reporting what’s happening. He’s suddenly left out of new projects, his supervisor spontaneously combusts when he won’t proclaim his love for her. He has nicknames for his coworkers and supervisors based on their habits and behavior. Like I said, brilliant and creepy.
Shark God versus Octopus God - epic mythos of the deepwater sea! I am now a devotee of the Turtle God. I need a kid friendly version of this to tell to kids as a bedtime story.
Errata – this is so Jeff Vandermeer it’s not even funny. a metafictional tale involving penguins and a body in the freezer, Vandermeer is spending some time in Siberia. Ostensibly to be correcting portions of a magazine edited by brothers Jeremy and James, VanderMeer is joined in his swampy hotel by a penguin named Juliette and lots of alcohol. Odd mesages from James warn him that “someone doesn’t want them to succeed”, as the right changes to the magazine articles could and should change everything. Would I feel differently about it the main character’s name wasn’t Jeff VanderMeer? It’s almost written in reverse, as well: we don’t find out why he’s there or how he got there till nearly the end, just before the oh shit moment that’s been lurking all the time.
The Goat Variations – Obviously set in a future or a parallel dimension, the Unites States government secretly keeps precognitives who can tell the government the future. New presidents are introduced to the precog program on the night of their inaguration. Our narrator, the new president, tells of his surprise and then dependence on the precog program. At first, I was wondering where Vandermeer was going. . . and then I thought, almost with a laugh on my lips: “you are seriously going to do this?”. And then he did it, and it couldn’t have been done better.
One of my inexperienced gripes with short story collections and anthologies is that nothing feels like it is connected. In a sense, VanderMeer brings some things together at the end. I know there are other threads of connection that will only reveal themselves upon further rereading. I know this is a trick he likes to pull, and I love it.