Fifty Beasts to Break Your Heart

The stories’ sense of unease is leavened by sly humor.

Fifty Beasts to Break Your Heart (Vintage, $17) by Gennarose Nethercott (Thistlefoot), explores a world that’s both familiar and strange. The stories unfold among truck stops and high school parties, but Nethercott’s fiction is characterized by the fantastic, ranging from a mysterious tourist attraction known as the Eternal Staircase to an undead talking rooster. These peculiarities connect and propel 14 number of unsettling tales, and she experiments with a variety of narrative formats, including an abecedarian, an epistolary story, and a history which is interrupted by its author’s daughter.

Nethercott’s skill as a poet (Louise Glück selected her book-length poem The Lumberjack’s Dove as a winner of the National Poetry Series in 2017) is clear from her lively and astonishing language. Combat is “a boot print permanently crushed into the heart” (“The War of Fog”). In “Fox Jaw,” the sight of a sleeping boyfriend is described with a lyrical grace: “light from a streetlamp licks your cheek through the window.” And in the title story, a guide to imaginary and absurd animals, a “gluttonous eavesdrop- per” called the sono thrives on bad news: “there is simply a fattiness to the moment a person realizes the worst is here.”

The stories’ sense of unease is leavened by Nethercott’s sly humor. In “Fifty Beasts to Break Your Heart” we learn that creatures called Olni “constantly sneaking up on one another, snatching handbags and running off.” The story is also a deadpan chronicle of the doomed romance between two of the collection’s editors, whose “first date was over a hatching Lepidome. The magic of each great wing emerging from almost-death—it was romantic. After the Lepidome flapped away, the editors went home together under the auspices of filing this report. They did not file this report.” Nethercott’s wit, reminiscent of both Edward Gorey and Terry Pratchett, is particularly disarming in the context of a bestiary.

Nethercott is likewise insightful about the ways our hearts break. In “Possessions,” about a group of teenagers trying to discover what’s happened to their missing friend, the narrator reflects, I heard once that everybody dies twice—once when their heart stops, and once again when their name is spoken for the last time. But there is another sort of dying in between, a crueler death: when those you love begin to make choices they would never make if you were there. Things that would be thoughtless, brutal even, but in your absence, become benign. Like giving away your clothes. Or removing the flurries of magazine clippings you carefully curated across your bedroom walls.

And in “A Lily Is a Lily,” when lovelorn college student Tristan encounters a ghostly version of his faraway girlfriend, he finds a dangerous fulfillment in longing: “Tristan couldn’t touch her, so he never stopped wanting her.” He shapes the faux Lily to “fill the container of his heart in whatever way it needed to be filled.” How can the living Lily compare? When she visits, Tristan is confused and repulsed; his girlfriend is “racked with human defect … lousy with gravity…. She left nothing to long for, to reach toward, and miss.” He runs away.

At the heart of these 14 stories are girls and women. They’re simultaneously powerful and vulnerable—targeted by a chorus of murderous sixth-grade girls, wreaking vengeance on those who’ve betrayed them, and sacrificed and reborn as huntresses. They drown in bowls of soup and are revived. Their lives are frequently colonized and diminished by the ordinary selfishness of men. In “Homebody,” the narrator sacrifices her own artistic ambitions for those of her male lover, and eventually finds herself turning into a house. “You are becoming hospitable,” she observes ominously. Meanwhile, the 14-year-old narrator of “The War of Fog” notes, “The more I grow to love a man, the less I tend to like him.” Even in stories told from men’s points of view, women are the focus. They’re a source of fascination and a conduit for the uncanny forces that inhabit Nethercott’s accomplished tales.

Elizabeth Michaelson Monaghan lives and writes in New York City.