The Third Bearby Jeff VanderMeer
In The Situation,” a beleaguered office
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Compared by critics to Borges, Nabokov, and Kafka, contemporary fantasist Jeff VanderMeer continues to amaze with this surreal, innovative, and absurdist gathering of award-winning short fiction. Exotic beasts and improbable travelers roam restlessly through these darkly diverting and finely honed tales.
In The Situation,” a beleaguered office worker creates a child-swallowing manta-ray to be used for educational purposes (once described as Dilbert meets Gormenghast). In Three Days in a Border Town,” a sharpshooter seeks the truth about her husband in an elusive floating city beyond a far-future horizon; Errata” follows an oddly familiar writer who has marshaled a penguin, a shaman, and two pearl-handled pistols with which to plot the end of the world. Also included are two stories original to this collection, including The Quickening,” in which a lonely child is torn between familial obligation and loyalty to a maligned talking rabbit.
Chimerical and hypnotic, VanderMeer leads readers through the postmodern into a new literature of the imagination.
Reminiscent of Japanese surrealist author Haruki Murakami . . . VanderMeer's stories are provocative marvels.
“Elegantly crafted stories ably demonstrate VanderMeer’s skill at telling tales of wonder in language that enhances the reading experience”
Library Journal, starred review
“One of our very best contemporary practitioners of the fantastic...superb prose, overwhelmingly odd situations, and fascinating, eccentric characters.”
Publishers Weekly, starred review
“Jeff VanderMeer is not to be trusted. He hypnotizes with shiny objects, bizarrely beautiful shapes and phrases, then (more often than not) gently drifts you into very dark places. You won’t know where you’re going till you get there and then, of course, it’s too late.”
Mike Mignola, creator of Hellboy
"In the hands of a brilliant writer like Jeff VanderMeer, writing fantasy can be a means of serious artistic expression. . . . It is also playful, poignant, and utterly, wildly imaginative."
—Peter Straub, author, The Talisman
“Cunningly crafted stories full of wonder and intelligence.... VanderMeer proves again why he is so essential and why everybody should be reading him.”
Junot Diaz, Pulitzer Prizewinning author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
“Vandermeer’s stories hit one’s hindbrain slantwisethey offer no easy answers and no comfort. Rather they are hard, brilliant gems meant to cut and shinethese are some of the most beautiful, upsetting, and accomplished tales I have ever read.”
Catherynne M. Valente, author of The Orphan’s Tales
“The Third Bear contains some of my favorite stories of recent years. There’s the meticulous workplace surrealism of ‘The Situation,’ the remorseless multiworld cataclysms of ‘The Goat Variations,’ the beautiful eldritch heartsickness of ‘The Surgeon’s Tale.’ Jeff VanderMeer is one of the very best.”
Kevin Brockmeier, author of The Brief History of the Dead
“Annexing the weird half-lit spaces between genres, these stories lean sometimes into fantasy and SF, sometimes into metafiction, but are always deft and pleasurable reads. VanderMeer is one of the few writers out there able to coax something startling and necessary from anything...a very strong collection.”
Brian Evenson, author of Last Days
“The stories in this collection are smart, gorgeous, allusive, and tricky. VanderMeer is a fantasist extraordinaire.”
Jack O’Connell, author of The Resurrectionist
“Jeff VanderMeer’s work is subversive and disquieting, possessed of an almost kinetic force in its impact upon the mind. Body horror gone viral, fairy tales wrapped in their own entrails, and metafictional murder; these and other images herein are sure to leave their mark and fester in the subconscious. Already a well-regarded fantasist, The Third Bear reveals VanderMeer at his most fearsome.”
Laird Barron, author of The Imago Sequence and Other Stories
“One of the leading fantasists of this generation, Jeff VanderMeer’s new collection is a must-have for any discerning reader.”
Rick Klaw, editor of The Apes of Wrath
“Reminiscent of Japanese surrealist author Haruki Murakami...VanderMeer’s stories are provocative marvels.”
Sacramento Book Review
“...Crisp, elegant slightly detached prose and stories...much to admire and enjoy.”
“When you add all these [stories] together, what you have is a collection that the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Anderson might have written if they really wanted to mess with the heads of small children.... Ten out of ten.”
Graeme’s Fantasy Book Review
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The Third Bear
By Jeff VanderMeer, Jill Roberts
Tachyon PublicationsCopyright © 2010 Jeff VanderMeer
All rights reserved.
The Third Bear
* * *
It made its home in the deep forest near the village of Grommin, and all anyone ever saw of it, before the end, would be hard eyes and the dark barrel of its muzzle. The smell of piss and blood and shit and bubbles of saliva and half-eaten food. The villagers called it the Third Bear because they had killed two bears already that year. But, near the end, no one really thought of it as a bear, even though the name had stuck, changed by repetition and fear and slurring through blood-filled mouths to Theeber. Sometimes it even sounded like "seether" or "seabird."
The Third Bear came to the forest in mid-summer, and soon most anyone who used the forest trail, day or night, disappeared, carried off to the creature's lair. By the time even large convoys had traveled through, they would discover two or three of their number missing. A straggling horseman, his mount cantering along, just bloodstains and bits of skin sticking to the saddle. A cobbler gone but for a shredded hat. A few of the richest villagers hired mercenaries as guards, but when even the strongest men died, silent and alone, the convoys dried up.
The village elder, a man named Horley, held a meeting to decide what to do. It was the end of summer by then and the leaves had begun to disappear from the trees. The meeting house had a chill to it, a stench of thick earth with a trace of blood and sweat curling through it. All five hundred villagers came to the meeting, from the few remaining merchants to the poorest beggar. Grommin had always been hard scrabble and tough winters, but it was also two hundred years old. It had survived the wars of barons and of kings, been razed twice, only to return.
"I can't bring my goods to market," one farmer said, rising in shadow from beneath the thatch. "I can't be sure I want to send my daughter to the pen to milk the goats."
Horley laughed, said, "It's worse than that. We can't bring in food from the other side. Not for sure. Not without losing men." He had a sudden vision from months ahead, of winter, of ice gravelly with frozen blood. It made him shudder.
"What about those of us who live outside the village?" another farmer asked. "We need the pasture for grazing, but we have no protection."
Horley understood the problem; he had been one of those farmers, once. The village had a wall of thick logs surrounding it, to a height often feet. No real defense against an army, but more than enough to keep the wolves out. Beyond that perimeter lived the farmers and the hunters and the outcasts who could not work among others.
"You may have to pretend it is a time of war and live in the village and go out with a guard," Horley said. "We have plenty of able-bodied men, still."
"Is it the witch woman doing this?" Clem the blacksmith asked.
"No," Horley said. "I don't think it's the witch woman."
What Clem and some of the others thought of as a "witch woman," Horley thought of as a crazy person who knew some herbal remedies and lived in the woods because the villagers had driven her there, blaming her for an outbreak of sickness the year before.
"Why did it come?" a woman asked. "Why us?"
No one could answer, least of all Horley. As Horley stared at all of those hopeful, scared, troubled faces, he realized that not all of them yet knew they were stuck in a nightmare.
Clem was the village's strongest man, and after the meeting he volunteered to fight the beast. He had arms like most people's thighs. His skin was tough from years of being exposed to flame. With his full black beard he almost looked like a bear himself.
"I'll go, and I'll go willingly," he told Horley. "I've not met the beast I couldn't best. I'll squeeze the 'a' out of him." And he laughed, for he had a passable sense of humor, although most chose to ignore it.
Horley looked into Clem's eyes and could not see even a speck of fear there. This worried Horley.
"Be careful, Clem," Horley said. And, in a whisper, as he hugged the man: "Instruct your son in anything he might need to know, before you leave. Make sure your wife has what she needs, too."
* * *
Fitted in chain mail, leathers, and a metal helmet, carrying an old sword some knight had once left in Grommin by mistake, Clem set forth in search of the Third Bear. The entire village came out to see him go. Clem was laughing and raising his sword and this lifted the spirits of those who saw him. Soon, everyone was celebrating as if the Third Bear had already been killed or defeated.
"Fools," Horley's wife Rebecca said as they watched the celebration with their two young sons.
Rebecca was younger than Horley by ten years and had come from a village far beyond the forest. Horley's first wife had died from a sickness that left red marks all over her body.
"Perhaps, but it's the happiest anyone's been for a month," Horley said.
"All I can think of is that he's taking one of our best horses out into danger," Rebecca said.
"Would you rather he took a nag?" Horley said, but absent-mindedly. His thoughts were elsewhere.
The vision of winter would not leave him. Each time, it came back to Horley with greater strength, until he had trouble seeing the summer all around him.
* * *
Clem left the path almost immediately, wandered through the underbrush to the heart of the forest, where the trees grew so black and thick that the only glimmer of light came from the reflection of water on leaves. The smell in that place carried a hint of offal.
Clem had spent so much time beating things into shape that he had not developed a sense of fear, for he had never been beaten. But the smell in his nostrils did make him uneasy.
He wandered for some time in the deep growth, where the soft loam of moss muffled the sound of his passage. It became difficult to judge direction and distance. The unease became a knot in his chest as he clutched his sword ever tighter. He had killed many bears in his time, this was true, but he had never had to hunt a man-eater.
Eventually, in his circling, meandering trek, Clem came upon a hill with a cave inside. From within the cave, a green flame flickered. It beckoned like a lithe but crooked finger.
A lesser man might have turned back, but not Clem. He didn't have the sense to turn back.
Inside the cave, he found the Third Bear. Behind the Third Bear, arranged around the walls of the cave, it had displayed the heads of its victims. The heads had been painstakingly painted and mounted on stands. They were all in various stages of rot.
Many bodies lay stacked neatly in the back of the cave. All of them had been defiled in some way. Some of them had been mutilated. The wavery green light came from a candle the Third Bear had placed behind the bodies, to display its handiwork. The smell of blood was so thick that Clem had to put a hand over his mouth.
As Clem took it all in, the methodical nature of it, the fact that the Third Bear had not eaten any of its victims, he found something inside of him tearing and then breaking.
"I...." he said, and looked into the terrible eyes of the Third Bear. "I...."
Almost sadly, with a kind of ritual grace, the Third Bear pried Clem's sword from his fist, placed the weapon on a ledge, and then came back to stare at Clem once more.
Clem stood there, frozen, as the Third Bear disemboweled him.
* * *
The next day, Clem was found at the edge of the village, blood-soaked and shit-spattered, legs gnawed away, but alive enough for a while to, in shuddering lurches, tell those who found him what he had seen, just not coherent enough to tell them where.
Later, Horley would wish that he hadn't told them anything.
There was nothing left but fear in Clem's eyes by the time Horley questioned him. Horley didn't remember any of Clem's answers, had to be retold them later. He was trying to reconcile himself to looking down to stare into Clem's eyes.
"I'm cold, Horley," Clem said. "I can't feel anything. Is winter coming?"
"Should we bring his wife and son?" the farmer who had found Clem asked Horley at one point.
Horley just stared at him, aghast.
* * *
They buried Clem in the old graveyard, but the next week the Third Bear dug him up and stole his head. Apparently, the Third Bear had no use for heroes, except, possibly, as a pattern of heads.
Horley tried to keep the grave robbery and what Clem had said a secret, but it leaked out anyway. By the time most villagers of Grommin learned about it, the details had become more monstrous than anything in real life. Some said Clem had been kept for a week in the bear's lair, while it ate away at him. Others said Clem had had his spine ripped out of his body while he was still breathing. A few even said Clem had been buried alive by mistake and the Third Bear had heard him writhing in the dirt and come for him.
But one thing Horley knew that trumped every tall tale spreading through Grommin: the Third Bear hadn't had to keep Clem alive. Theeber hadn't had to place Clem, still breathing, at the edge of the village.
So Seether wasn't just a bear.
* * *
In the next week, four more people were killed, one on the outskirts of the village. Several villagers had risked leaving, and some of them had even made it through. But fear kept most of them in Grommin, locked into a kind of desperate fatalism or optimism that made their eyes hollow as they stared into some unknowable distance. Horley did his best to keep morale up, but even he experienced a sense of sinking.
"Is there more I can do?" he asked his wife in bed at night.
"Nothing," she said. "You are doing everything you can do."
"Should we just leave?"
"Where would we go? What would we do?"
Few who left ever returned with stories of success, it was true. War and plague and a thousand more dangers lay out there beyond the forest. They'd as likely become slaves or servants or simply die, one by one, out in the wider world.
Eventually, though, Horley sent a messenger to that wider world, to a far-distant baron to whom they paid fealty and a yearly amount of goods.
The messenger never came back. Nor did the baron send any men. Horley spent many nights awake, wondering if the messenger had gotten through and the baron just didn't care, or if Seether had killed the messenger.
"Maybe winter will bring good news," Rebecca said.
* * *
Over time, Grommin sent four or five of its strongest and most clever men and women to fight the Third Bear. Horley objected to this waste, but the villagers insisted that something must be done before winter, and those who went were unable to grasp the terrible velocity of the situation. For Horley, it seemed merely a form of taking one's own life, but his objections were overruled by the majority.
They never learned what happened to these people, but Horley saw them in his nightmares.
One, before the end, said to the Third Bear, "If you could see the children in the village, you would stop."
Another said, before fear clotted her windpipe, "We will give you all the food you need."
A third, even as he watched his intestines slide out of his body, said, "Surely there is something we can do to appease you?"
In Horley's dreams, the Third Bear said nothing in reply. Its conversation was through its work, and Seether said what it wanted to say very eloquently in that regard.
* * *
By now, fall had descended on Grommin. The wind had become unpredictable and the leaves of trees had begun to yellow. A far-off burning smell laced the air. The farmers had begun to prepare for winter, laying in hay and slaughtering and smoking hogs. Horley became more involved in these preparations than usual, driven by his vision of the coming winter. People noted the haste, the urgency, so unnatural in Horley, and to his dismay it sometimes made them panic rather than work harder.
With his wife's help, Horley convinced the farmers to contribute to a communal smokehouse in the village. Ham, sausage, dried vegetables, onions, potatoes — they stored it all in Grommin now. Most of the outlying farmers realized that their future depended on the survival of the village.
Sometimes, when they opened the gates to let in another farmer and his mule-drawn cart of supplies, Horley would walk out a ways and stare into the forest. It seemed more unknowable than ever, gaunt and dark, diminished by the change of seasons.
Somewhere out there the Third Bear waited for them.
* * *
One day, the crisp cold of coming winter becoming more than a promise, Horley and several of the men from Grommin went looking for a farmer who had not come to the village for a month. The farmer's name was John and he had a wife, five children, and seven men who worked for him. John's holdings were the largest outside the village, but he had been suffering because he could not bring his extra goods to market.
The farm was a half-hour's walk from Grommin. The whole way, Horley could feel a hurt in his chest, a kind of stab of premonition. Those with him held pitchforks and hammers and old spears, much of it as rust-colored as the leaves now strewn across the path.
They could smell the disaster before they saw it. It coated the air like oil.
On the outskirts of John's farm, they found three mule-pulled carts laden with food and supplies. Horley had never seen so much blood. It had pooled and thickened to cover a spreading area several feet in every direction. The mules had had their throats torn out and then they had been disemboweled. Their organs had been torn out and thrown onto the ground, as if Seether had been searching for something. Their eyes had been plucked from their sockets almost as an afterthought.
John — they thought it was John — sat in the front of the lead cart. The head was missing, as was much of the meat from the body cavity. The hands still held the reins. The same was true for the other two carts, their wheels greased with blood. Three dead men holding reins to dead mules. Two dead men in the back of the carts. All five missing their heads. All five eviscerated.
One of Horley's protectors vomited into the grass. Another began to weep. "Jesus save us," a third man said, and kept saying it for many hours.
Horley was curiously unmoved, his hand and heart steady. He noted the brutal humor that had moved the Third Bear to carefully replace the reins in the men's hands. He noted the wild, savage abandon that had preceded that action. He noted, grimly, that most of the supplies in the carts had been ruined by the wealth of blood that covered them. But, for the most part, the idea of winter had so captured him that whatever came to him moment-by-moment could not compare to the crystalline nightmare of that interior vision.
Horley wondered if his was a form of madness as well.
"This is not the worst," he said to his men. "Not by far."
At the farm, they found the rest of the men and what was left of John's wife and children, but that is not what Horley had meant.
* * *
At this point, Horley felt he should go himself to find the Third Bear. It wasn't bravery that made him put on the leather jerkin and the metal shin guards. It wasn't from any sense of hope that he picked up the spear and put Clem's helmet on his head.
His wife found him there, ready to walk out the door of their home.
"You wouldn't come back," she told him.
"Better," he said. "Still."
"You're more important to us alive. Stronger men than you have tried to kill it."
"I must do something," Horley said. "Winter will be here soon and things will get worse."
"Then do something," Rebecca said, taking the spear from his hand. "But do something else"
* * *
The villagers of Grommin met the next day. There was less talking this time. Horley tried to gauge their mood. Many were angry, but some now seemed resigned, almost as if the Third Bear were a plague or some other force that could not be controlled or stopped by the hand of Man. In the days that followed, there would be a frenzy of action: traps set, torches lit, poisoned meat left in the forest, but none of it came to anything.
One old woman kept muttering about fate and the will of God.
"John was a good man," Horley told them. "He did not deserve his death. But I was there — I saw his wounds. He died from an animal attack. It may be a clever animal. It may be very clever. But it is still an animal. We should not fear it the way we fear it."
"You should consult with the witch in the woods," Clem's son said.
Clem's son was a huge man of eighteen years, and his word held weight, given the bravery of his father. Several people began to nod in agreement.
"Yes," said one. "Go to the witch. She might know what to do."
The witch in the woods is just a poor, addled woman, Horley thought, but could not say it.
"Just two months ago," Horley reminded them, "you thought she might have made this happen."
"And if so, what of it? If she caused it, she can undo it. If not, perhaps we can pay her to help us."
This from one of the farmers displaced from outside the walls. Word of John's fate had spread quickly, and less than a handful of the bravest or most foolhardy had kept to their farms.
Rancor spread amongst the gathered villagers. Some wanted to take a party of men out to the witch, wherever she might live, and kill her. Others thought this folly — what if the Third Bear found them first?
Finally, Horley raised his hands to silence them.
Excerpted from The Third Bear by Jeff VanderMeer, Jill Roberts. Copyright © 2010 Jeff VanderMeer. Excerpted by permission of Tachyon Publications.
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Meet the Author
Jeff VanderMeer is the best-selling author of City of Saints and Madmen, the noir thriller Finch, and the quintessential guide to writers, Booklife. His award-winning novels have made the year’s best lists at Publishers Weekly, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Wall Street Journal. His nonfiction and reviews have appeared in Washington Post Book World, the Huffington Pos, and the New York Times Book Review.
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