JUST WHAT is it about bears? Why do we feel such a mixture of delight, humor and almost reverential awe in their presence? What continues to make them the irresistible beast-buffoons of fiction writers and storytellers?

Ever since William Shakespeare penned the memorable stage direction, "Exit pursued by a bear," at the close of Act III, scene iii of The Winter's Tale , bears have been sure-fire agents of literary fun. Shakespeare's bear was real, and the mobs loved it. Since then we have had a long procession of more domesticated but no less beloved ursine heroes.

The 19th century brought us Goldilocks and the Three Bears , bears who were models of Victorian decorum in the original version by Robert Southey. The 20th century would seem to have a touch of bearmania, beginning as it did with teddy bears (named after President Theodore Roosevelt). Next came Winnie-the-Pooh , the "Helpful . . . Brave Bear" of A. A. Milne's classics, William Faulkner's mythic novella, The Bear , Richard Adams' God-bear in Shardik , the zoo bears in John Irving's first novel, Setting Free the Bears , and an aging bear unicyclist in his bestknown work, The World According to Garp -- to name just a few.

In very different ways, these first novels by two young writers play heavily on our wealth of ursine associations. Through Ursus Major is a tender paean to ursine adorableness and Crooked Tree , a conventional thriller, both keep our reverent delight in bears intact.

In Crooked Tree Wilson lays out the horrors in an ordinary Midwestern community when an entire bear population goes berserk. Watch for "Paws" at local theaters (or will it be "Claws? or even "Hugs"?). Movie rights have already been sold.

Wilson, an assistant prosecuting attorney for Wayne County, Michigan, has researched the geography and legends of Upper Peninsula Michigan to construct this neatly plotted, if somewhat mechanistic, tale. The terror begins when a lawyer on his way to a trial takes a detour through Crooked Tree State Park and is stalked and savagely mauled by a bear duo. Wilson makes it clear that black bears normally are timid fellows, so that when five more inexplicable killings follow, accompanied by a bizarre atrocity -- the tongues sliced clear out of the victims' mouths -- all know an evil power is loose. Only the Ottawa Indians who live deep in the Crooked Tree wilderness have an explanation for the mystery. Young attorney Axel Michaelson must delve into tribal lore and somehow resurrect a 200-year-old Indian funeral chant to save both his wife, a full-blooded Ottawa, and the rest of the community.

I won't give away Crooked Tree's dark secrets here, except to say that the supernatural plays a large role, and that woman-as-victim-of-nature figures prominently in the theme. Michaelson, the cool male, must use heroic rationality and lawyerly research skills to solve the increasingly bloody dilemma. The book's erits are more cinematic than literary, but it makes for pleasant light reading. Wilson manages to keep vulnerable humans and fury driven bears moving inexorably toward each other at a steady pace through the entire narration, and his climax is no disappointment. There is one flaw. Alas, the bears just aren't real enough to be scary: "The air rushed from their lungs at an even tempo, punctuating the resonant thuds of their paws crashing to the ground. They marched in single file, an easy lope belying a quiet tension."

In contrast, Roberta Smoodin's nameless bear in Ursus Major is so achingly real that one imagines Smoodin was married to one in a previous incarnation. "The bear," as he is called, is a free spirit of the '60s, a dancer with an artist's soul, wandering across the lonely '70s. When the book opens, he is performing in a stale, dimly lit bar, the oppressed breadwinner of a lackluster couple, Joy and Ray, destined to lose him.

Reality in fiction is not life's measurable biological fact, but rather a matter of convincing imaginative portrayal. It is hard to say whether it is the "red and yellow striped clown flounce of some stiff material around his neck" that makes the bear in Ursus Major so poignant, or if lit is the "ringing jingling of his shackles [that seems] . . . the sound of faraway stars vibrating messages to one another." The empathy we feel for the bear is furthered by Ray's patronizing humoring of him -- " 'Wouldn't you like an ice cream cone right now, big fella?' " -- and Joy's weary compassion as she admonishes Ray, " 'The bear does the best he can.' "

But by the time the bear quietly "puts his costume into a small wooden chest" back in the van and speaks, he is a full-blown character, the dignity and innocent pathos of his nature glimmering through.

The bear is the single major character in Ursus Major . This is both the book's strength and its significant failing. The plot, which carries him through gigs as a prizefighter, a basketball player, a rock group performer and a Hollywood star, is secondary to the book's purpose: the presentation of sheer bear being. We see the world, memorably through ursine eyes. The "vast panorama of night sky" is a perfect metaphor for bear consciousness: "wating for something to happen there resembles his thought processes: the lack of control, the joy of revelation, the anticipation until revelation comes . . . for there, above him, are more bears: Ursa Major and Minor . . . shine bear-ness out of the great void . . . their essence so akin to his in isolation and vulnerability that he closes his eyes and can still see them." Smoodin clearly has a natural gift for the freeflowing metaphor.

Writers who bring bears onto center stage are sure to have some audience. But it is real bears in the special fictional sense that produce mingled delight and terror. For that reason, I prefer Smoodin's unforgettable "Mister Bear" to a hundred of Wilson's heavy-breathing contraptions.