“The Third Bear” [published 2010 by Tachyon press] is a collection of 14 weird and often absurd short stories by Jeff VanderMeer. The following pieces stand out: The Third Bear, Three Days in a Border Town, The Situation, The Surgeon’s Tale and Appoggiatura.
In The Third Bear an isolated medieval village is cut off from the rest of the world by a bear that may not be a bear who kills anyone traveling through the forests or the fields surrounding the village. Men sent to hunt down the bear are invariably killed and their heads added to a shrine which the bear is building in its lair for the purpose of creating an inter-dimensional rift so that it can go home to its world. In time the bear disappears, back to wherever it came from, but the villagers do not know it and continue to live in dread and by now religious awe of the bear. Long after the bear is gone the villagers continue to sacrifice virgins to the monster of the forest to buy its forbearance. The story sticks with you long after you have read it and my summary does not do justice to the author’s skill in making the bizarre seem plausible. To say that I liked the story is an understatement.
This was the opening story in the collection, and it made me eager to read the rest. Unfortunately, some of the stories in the collection did not live up to the standards set by The Third Bear and were somewhat disappointing. I will not summarize those stories and will focus instead on the ones that are remarkable and well written.
In Three Days in a Border Town, a female gunslinger journeys through the desert to reach a town where the people are more than a little off. At first the story seems like it is a normal Western. But soon VanderMeer subtly introduces clues that this is a futuristic desert, after some sort of apocalyptic environmental collapse and the border is not the kind of border between countries but between universes. The woman is on a quest to find out what happened to her husband, who was apparently abducted by the City, an ethereal mirage of an indescribably beautiful and futuristic city that appears randomly at spots throughout the world but can never be reached. I enjoyed the author’s understated description of this Fay world and the female gunslinger character was well-developed.
The Situation is a surreal tale in which the narrator is making a report to human resources about the personnel and organizational problems at a biotech engineering firm where he is employed. We soon learn however that this is no ordinary biotech firm. It produces commonplace monstrosities for a mutated version of capitalism, such as a giant Manta Ray that swallows schoolchildren in order to implant lessons into their brain. It only gets weirder from there.
Mundane staff and planning meetings are attended by genetically mutated coworkers and management itself is alien beyond description. As crazy as the corporate world has become, life outside is even worse. The city has descended into violent anarchy and the narrator only has a few precious memories of the world that existed before rampant and unchecked genetic engineering destroyed humanity. Apparently, humanity may die, or be transformed beyond recognition, but office politics and bureaucratic red tape will go on forever. I enjoyed the story enormously for its inventiveness and the subtle point that it was making, though I think it could have been shortened considerably and still achieved its objective.
The Surgeon’s Tale is a weird story set in a university town where the academic institution teaches both magic and medicine. The story appears to be in the future after many civilizations have fallen and re-started and where much knowledge has been lost but also much knowledge has been gained. Among the dusty and moldering books of the University’s library are books that teach resurrection. One day the narrator, a medical student, falls in love with one of the cadavers in the morgue where he is training and decides to bring her back to life.
He steals the body and takes her to a secluded cove by the seashore. He applies the magic formulas and potions as set out in the book but with only partial success. The woman does not come back to life but one of her arms does. It moves and reaches out to him. In horror the man attempts to destroy the partially reanimated corpse only to have the now dismembered arm literally follow him everywhere. He simply cannot get rid of it no matter how many times he buries it, attempts to burn it, or throw it away. The arm always comes back.
The narrator therefore does the only sensible thing that a necromancer/surgeon could do. He amputates his own healthy arm and replaces it with the reanimated zombie arm of the woman because of course this is what one does in this kind of situation. Obviously. Gaining his medical degree, he then signs on as a ship’s surgeon and wanders the seven seas of the strange world. Years and decades go by. His parents die, their passing announced only by letters that reach him years after the fact. While he is away at sea the world changes. When he finally does return to his hometown it is unrecognizable; the university no longer teaches magic, and what magic remained in the world has now been replaced by science.
He rents the home by the sea, earning a living as a healer for the local fishermen and contemplates his life and his approaching death. The woman’s arm that he has attached himself has never aged, eternally preserved by his magic, and he wonders what will happen to it when he dies. Will it simply detach itself and continue on? There are no answers in VanderMeer’s absurd yet often moving stories.
The final short story of note in the collection is called Approggiutara and tells the story of a weird quest for a green, emerald Tablet belonging to a lost civilization somewhere in Central Asia. The quest is told by different characters from different viewpoints. Often people in quest of the tablet do not even know that there in quest or that they have come in contact with its traces. Past and future, fact and fictional history are interwoven, and you can almost believe that there was a city called Smalgardinne of the Green Tablet. But no one will ever find the tablet because the template is nowhere and everywhere at the same time; it is the quest that matters. The closing paragraph of the story sums it up:
In a hundred ways, the Green Tablet re-entered the world, but like the men, it had been buried alive and its knowledge with it. Reborn, it became a hidden thing, seen in glimpses from the corner of the eye. Sometimes things happened because of the Tablet that no one could understand because no one knew what the Tablet said anymore. Perhaps they never had.
And still people searched for it, never realizing that they could search their whole lives, die because of it, and yet it was there all the time, in front of them, even in the pattern of green mold across the dirty floor in a Tashkent coffeehouse or somewhere in the blood leaking from my body or in the patient whir of the ceiling fan overhead or in anything in the world that received love or hate or some lingering attention or… anything always forever.
I very much liked Appoggiatura and found it to be a worthy homage to Borges, particularly Borges’ “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” However, at times. it seemed that VanderMeerwas trying too hard to be Borgesian and not quite succeeding in copying the master.
VanderMeer closes the book by pointing out that the stories are interrelated but that it is up to the reader to notice the points of similarity and contact between them. I have to admit that I failed in this regard. Although there are some stories do make some passing references to events and characters in other stories (for example, the tale of the surgeon and his zombie arm is mentioned in Appoggiatura) I did not see how the stories were interlinked to the extent that the author claims.
I very much enjoyed reading this collection of VanderMeer’s short stories and found it to be considerably superior to his flawed Veniss Underground, which I did not like.
Verdict: although the stories are uneven in quality and some much better than others, the book is definitely worth reading if you like absurd weird tales.