Fifty Beasts to Break Your Heart: And Other Stories

  • By GennaRose Nethercott
  • Vintage
  • 272 pp.
  • Reviewed by Tara Laskowski
  • March 11, 2024

These smart, trippy tales will delight fans of the paranormal.

Fifty Beasts to Break Your Heart: And Other Stories

GennaRose Nethercott is a folklorist and a performer, and these talents are on full display in the deeply weird and satisfying Fifty Beasts to Break Your Heart. These dark, delightfully unique fairytales are somehow both utterly modern and classically timeless.

This is Nethercott’s first collection of short stories, following her novel, Thistlefoot, and book-length poem, The Lumberjack’s Dove. She is a self-proclaimed fan of “strange tales” and dives deep into the way that the stories we tell reflect society and our humanity. From the fiercely loyal friendship between a vampire and carnival-sideshow goat woman to a never-ending staircase that lures people into its dizzying vastness and doesn’t let go, these tales hook you with their fascinating premises and then deliver so much more.

At times, the odd details and plot wanderings could throw the reader for a loop, perhaps making them feel, like the narrator in “Fox Jaw,” as if “This story has no purpose. At least, not one I can identify.” However, in most of them, Nethercott has a way of bringing those small details back and weaving them into the story in ways that sneak up on you. A tooth stolen from a skull, for example, becomes a symbol of time slowing ticking away; a terrible cursed item becomes the sweet scent of revenge.

The best of the offerings rise above their particular gimmick and explore character in interesting ways. “A Diviner’s Abecedarian,” which is told in 26 sections (a spell for each letter of the alphabet), features a group of teenage girls who unleash their wicked powers on those they deem unworthy. The story’s clever form captures the power of a pack — the magic and influence a tight-knit group of teens can have on anyone who doesn’t quite mold to their idea of what’s acceptable. Says the narrator:

“We aren’t stupid. And we also know that being a sixth-grade girl doesn’t mean you can’t have a terrible sort of power. We know all about power. We’ve felt a heart stop under the pressure of our hands, and start up again…We know how powerful a girl can be.”

In “Homebody,” about a woman literally turning into a house, Nethercott brilliantly explores the sacrifices we make to attempt to save our suffocating relationships. And the author’s folklorist interests are highlighted in the book’s title story, which features 50 illustrations and descriptions of mythical creatures and the florists who “edited” their bestiary.

One of my favorites in the collection is “Dear Henrietta,” a pitch-perfect tale of cold, long-awaited revenge told in the form of a letter. Another standout is “Drowning Lessons,” a story about heartache, about the overwhelming sensation of no longer being wanted — and worse, about the great fear of what can happen to us when we’re left alone.

This is a literary assemblage, but it crosses into other genres, including fantasy, horror, and magical realism. It’s sure to delight readers who enjoy tales that don’t necessarily wrap up neatly but rather unspool, trailing into shadowed corners full of possibility. The kind that leave us either full of wonder or heavy with the weight of our own flaws. Nethercott seems to be telling us over and over that no matter how much magic we conjure, we can’t escape the mistakes that make us human or the obsessions that make us weak. But she unveils, too, the beauty in those flaws, and the sheer luck it is to be alive.

[Editor’s note: Tara Laskowski will appear at the Gaithersburg Book Festival on May 18th in Gaithersburg, MD. Learn more here.]

Tara Laskowski is a suspense novelist who lives in Virginia. Her latest book, The Weekend Retreat, is a finalist for the 2024 Agatha Award for Best Contemporary Novel.

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