Short Fiction That Blew Your Socks Off

Let’s frame the discussion surrounding this post in a more positive and specific way (something I would’ve done earlier if not for this massive, all-encompassing head cold I’m suffering through).

What short fiction have you read in the last year that blew your socks off, exploded the back of your head, made you weak in the knees? And why?

Let’s forget silly things like whether what you read was published this year or last or the year before–or the decade before that. Just: what’ve you encountered that you loved, and that really “got” to you, no matter whether new or old?



  1. says

    Paul — Sybil’s Garage is one place that doesn’t disappoint, I’ve found. I don’t know if they always have one or two “greats” but they certainly deliver quirky, fascinating, thoughtful content, and I come away from their issues, maybe not blown out of my chair, but feeling the better for having read them. (And I’m happy if a story isn’t a “great”, provided it does make me think or engages with me in some way.)

    Well, I’m not talking about satisfaction, or being happy, or liking quirky or fascanating. I’m talking about mind blowing. Why isn’t there one that consistantly gives fantastic fiction? Why? And why do we make execuses about the magazines who aren’t doing it?

    As an addendum to my above post; It just struck me that maybe the function of short fiction is not to knock the socks off but to, well . . . entertain. Which is different, isn’t it?

    Didn’t we just cover this ground? That sounds like a cop out. An excuse.

  2. says

    Why isn’t there one that consistantly gives fantastic fiction?

    Surely the only magazine with a 100% hit ratio for you as a reader is the one… edited by yourself :-) Unless you’re lucky enough to find an editor who shares exactly your own taste in short fiction.

  3. says

    Naw, that’s wussing out. I mean great as in challenging as well. Certainly, we all have different tastes, but in the end there are certain stories that strike a chord and they REALLY strike a chord with a large number of people.

  4. says

    Jeff Ford, “The Boatman’s Holiday” as I stated, it knocked me down. I read it a year ago and I still think about it.

    Joe Hill, “My Father’s Mask” man that one just put shivers up my back for a week. His books are on my Xmas wish list (“20th Century Ghosts” was last year, but nobody could find a copy)

    Kelly Link, “The Hortlak” there are others by Kelly that I like, but this one keeps with me. Whenever she releases new short stories I’ll buy them,

    Neil Gaimen, “Shadows Over Baker Street” well, it’s Neil.

    Terry Bisson, “There Are No Dead” I read some of his stories in anthologies, so I started buying his collected short stories. This one let me know I needed to read all of them.

    Those are just some of my recent discoveries.

  5. says

    Naw, that’s wussing out. I mean great as in challenging as well. Certainly, we all have different tastes, but in the end there are certain stories that strike a chord and they REALLY strike a chord with a large number of people.

    I’m not convinced this is true. I trolled this list gleefully yesterday (with sharpened pencil, like Matt Staggs), and read several of the stories people had recommended, hoping to have my socks knocked off and so far, no dice. I do think stories can have a certain zeitgeist and speak to a large number of people at once, but I also think our tastes predispose us to have our socks knocked off by certain types of stories and not by others and that this may or may not have anything to do with inherent greatness in the story itself. Everyone has had the experience of despising a classic work of universal acclaim.

    When someone is really excited about a work I find insipid, it always makes me a little sad, as though I’ve stripped away some of my ability to enjoy a certain part of the spectrum.

  6. says

    I wonder though. I mean really, there has to be some sort of common qualia that a majority of people register in fiction. Look for repeating stories that are in everyone’s list so far (Specialist’s Hat, My father’s Mask, Boatman’s Holiday).

    Could also be that with this list people are stretching and grabbing stories they liked rather then blew them away, just to have something to list.

  7. says

    I’m with Anarkey. For example, I don’t get the Neil Gamain thing. I’ve read some of his short fiction – including his Hugo Award nominated ‘How to Talk to Girls at Parties’ – and my socks have not even twitched.

  8. says

    Oh, I’m no Niel Gaiman fan, either. Sandman was amazing, but his prose has always been mediocre. But still- Jeff mentioned New Worlds in his last post similiar to this, about their stories knocking his socks off every time. Why don’t we have something like that now?

  9. says

    Paul, I think if there is some common quality for why some of the same names and stories get mentioned, that it only has to do with the select audience that is commenting, not anything with the stories themselves (other than they are really good). And I can only speak for my list here, all those really blew me away. There are the hurdles I’m going for as a writer.

  10. says

    BTW- I do agree with a poster above that Clarkesworld comes closest to knocking my socks off steadily, almost every single time. And when the stories miss, they miss in big and beautiful ways.

    I want more of that. I don’t want to be satisfied. I want danger. Gimmie Danger in my fiction

  11. says


    I would not have given Gaiman an award for “How to talk to girls” either, which is why I listed him under the honorables, rather than blew me away. Used to be a big fan, but have had so many disappointments with his writing the last few years that it was a pleasant surprise to read something that I liked.
    Was it great?
    No; Gaiman kept the imagination but he never comfortably made the transition from comics to prose. His characters are still half-developed. But, it’s Neil Gaiman – who’s going to tell him to work on his characters and prose elements?
    The finest work of his I read was Books of Magic. Some day, I hope he’ll surprise me like that again.

  12. says

    I’m finding Clarkesworld and Strange Horizons to both be very good about publishing some of the more challenging stuff, although I’m not fond of reading online. I like Polyphony, but I generally have to wade through a lot of okay stuff to get to the gems. The LCRW/Say…/Flytrap/Electric Velopede group always have some interesting stories, but lately (no offense) I’d say I’m getting a little tired of the soft slipstream whimsy of some of it. F&SF just seems, for the most part, a total gray area for me. I find it very hard to concentrate reading it, but I don’t know if maybe it’s the format that’s making it difficult for me. (Although we might just be diametrically opposed in taste–F&SF has rejected everything from my World Fantasy Award-winning “The Transformation of Martin Lake” to newer fare.) Interzone looks good and publishes some good stuff, but I don’t see it enough. Realms of Fantasy tends to publish very light, airy fiction. Asimov’s I haven’t looked at in years, so I can’t comment. Same for Analog. Although I remember Asimov’s publishing some weirder, more ambitious stuff on occasion. I’m still finding cool stuff in mags like A Public Space, Tin House (still haven’t had a chance to do more than nibble around the edges of Link’s “Light” on their site), The New Yorker (yes, the much-maligned New Yorker), One Story, etc. And, it’s totally partisan, but Ann’s let me see some of the stuff she’s taking for Weird Tales and I love a lot of it. And, in another partisan gesture, there’s a ton of stuff in the pirate antho we’re editing (out now by early 2009 at the latest) that blew me away when I first read it–what comes to mind is a collaboration by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear, Conrad Williams’ story, etc.

    But, you know, I started the Leviathan series in part because I wasn’t reading enough of what I wanted to read elsewhere.

    I think I just realized I’ve never much liked the majority of short fiction I’ve read. LOL.


  13. Jessica Reisman says

    See, when it comes down to it, I’d always rather read a novel. Sometimes I feel kind of dishonest even writing short fiction, though it definitely hones some skills.

  14. says

    I’d say I’m getting a little tired of the soft slipstream whimsy of some of it. F&SF just seems, for the most part, a total gray area for me.

    I would have to agree to this. It just feels- well, not dangerous enough (if that makes any sense?). It provoked me to write a parody of it that was in Farrago’s Wainscot called Apple Magick. The sad thing is, I think Kelly Link is partially to blame for the total grey area. They take the whimsy and playfulness of her writing, but not the unease and experimentation. And I think that’s why she knocks my socks off each time- she makes me feel uncomfortable. Which is good.

    Strange Horizons, to me, has gotten too bland. Too many stories about abused children. Sigh.

  15. says

    Invisible Games, an online project by Cat Valente and Dmitri (oh crap, I don’t know his last name). They’re unfolding a really lovely audio/visual/textual game of radio signals, invisible history, and things tagged with the fantastic phrase of “feral networks.” Updated Mondays and Thursdays, and it is making me hum with joy.

  16. says

    I would have to agree to this. It just feels- well, not dangerous enough (if that makes any sense?). It provoked me to write a parody of it that was in Farrago’s Wainscot called Apple Magick. The sad thing is, I think Kelly Link is partially to blame for the total grey area. They take the whimsy and playfulness of her writing, but not the unease and experimentation. And I think that’s why she knocks my socks off each time- she makes me feel uncomfortable. Which is good.

    Now yes, this is something I definitely agree with. Things do come in waves and trends, and something done excellently will spawn imitators. I see a Kelly Link sensibilty that is permeating a lot of short speculative fiction these days. I also think that few and far between are the people who can do what she’s doing as well as she does it and that we may well be reaching a point of diminishing returns at that quarry (Jeff’s use of the word “soft” to describe much of current slipstream works well for me).

    I also agree that fiction that knocks your socks off should have an element of discomfort in the reading. And I agree (with Ian and David) that Neil Gaiman isn’t in the discomfort business (maybe excepting “The Problem of Susan”?). I like Gaiman just fine, thanks, but I’m never at his door looking to have my socks knocked off. Same category as Bujold, and a lot of the YA I enjoy. These are stories I can fall into and relish, but which won’t hijack my brain.

    Sometimes, I want my brain hijacked.

    I was hoping for that from the multiple suggestions here. I’ll freely admit that I didn’t collate people’s replies to see the most often cited stories. I chose them primarily by whether they were available in two clicks or not. Some of them I was astonished to discover I had already read, and they’d left so little impression on me that I’d forgotten I’d already read them. And, like I said, I find it a little sad that someone else’s mind-blowing experience is my “oh…wait…this again? But I found it so meh the first time around!”

    And to get at the thrust of the original thesis, I don’t have the expectations of some in this thread, that every story published be superlative, and that it completely unscrew my head, dump out my brains, mix them with salt, and shove them back in. I do like to read good stuff better than I like to read stuff I think sucks. I do like to find a gem every once in a while. Unfortunately, my shortcut to a passel of gems (this thread) turned out not so wealthy as I’d like, and although obviously anecdotal, seems a fitting example of green pastures and fences and such.

  17. says

    SH was better to me this year than last. Erratic, depending on tastes, etc, but overall I liked it more.
    June, I recall, was a surprisingly lighter in tone month. ok, I thought it was lighter in tone:)

  18. says

    I think it also has to do with what exactly art/writing is and how it functions. Every person that reads a story will react differently to that story. Each reader comes with their own history, their own preconceptions, their own mindspace (how they feel, where they are at in life, etc – this is why somethings are so great at certain times in your life, but then are “meh” at other times). So each experiences a story differenly, each takes something different away.

    As for the concept that every story needs to be Tony Tiger GREAT! Yeah, and you know what happens then? In five years what’s great now is normal then. Some people don’t understand how soldiers can sleep on helicopters or in strykers as they’re headed into battle. Well, to them it’s an everyday experience and they’re tired. So they sleep. The same thing is true about caffeine. If you keep using it, after a while the dosage has to keep climbing to get the same rush, till eventually people can sleep after drinking a cup of coffee.

  19. says

    Anarkey – could you provide examples of short fiction that you viewed as being really excellent?
    Tastes do vary, and it might be better to start with what you yourself liked and suggest from there.

    Also, on the note of “blow your socks off fiction has to have an element of discomfort” – I’m not so sure about that. Sometimes, sometimes no.
    It does depend on the nature and intent of the specific story. And this is that area where what a person reads for becomes all-important.

    MAtter of fact, looking at my list of favourites of the year – not a one of them has much discomfort in them, except possibly the Haines.
    But then, it’s possible I have a high threshold of what causes me discomfort so that won’t factor much into my appreciation of reading.
    I can see often enough when a writer is trying for this and my standard response is invariably, “So? Yeah, and? I’m still waiting for the punch dude.”

  20. Tyler says

    I agree with you, Jeff, that far too many of the stories in F&SF are slipstream, but one story in it that I really liked was “The Star to Every Wandering Barque” by James Stoddard. “The Euphio Question” by Kurt Vonnegut was amazing. Also, all of the stories in Jack London’s “Tales of the Klondyke” were exellent.

  21. Tyler says

    The Silent Towns by Ray Bradbury was hilarious, too. But that’s invalid… I read it like 2 years ago. :+

  22. Pam McNew says

    Blew my socks off. This year. And, I think this is different than finding the best crafted story of the year or a story that I believe follows the rules of genre but adds to its history. Even if my list of mind-blowing stories carry these elements within them as well.

    “Light” by Kelly Link, Tin House Issue 33, Fantastic Women for its language, form and exploration of fractured individuals.

    “Dr. Black and the Village of Stones” by Brendan Connell, Electric Velocipede Issue No. 12 for its it unconventional setup of a story form, and, well, the story itself.

    “The Good Detective” by M. John Harrison, Interzone April 2007 for reversing a standard and making it work.

    “Stone and the Librarian” by William Browning Spencer, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, February 2007, for its use of the literature.

    “Vacancy” by Lucius Shepard, Subterreanean Issue # 7 (Guest Edited by Ellen Datlow) not for its horror, although the graphic, supernatural horror is present, but because of the horrific ideal expressed through the main character.

  23. says

    Can you explain what you mean by challenging?

    For instance, I have read all of Clarkesworld online, and read all of Fantasy and Science Fiction this year, too. I see no real difference in what they are doing, apart from the fact that in general, Clarkesworld is nowhere near as good. First thought would be they have been doing more wishy-washy stuff that isn’t about anything, sort of like what is being complained about.

    It is still the same bunch of basically Northern Hemisphere western writers writing the same sort of thing that would be in Fantasy and Science Fiction if it was better. Bear’s Orm the Beautiful is excellent. De Vries’ Qubit Conflicts likewise, could have been in Analog or Asimov’s, no problem. Your story was good. The rest of it is competent to below average.

    Certainly a good deal for the price though. :)

    I have seen one issue of Weird Tales (one recent one that is, as opposed to current people challenging Lovecraft, Smith and Howard and company), and that was better than Clarkesworld as a whole, too. Only a single example though.

    Subterranean Online is clearly better, as well. Shepard/Wolfe/Lansdale/Stross/Bear/Scalzi/Sterling? No crappy fractured fairy tales to be found in those.

  24. Lula_Mae says

    Goliath by Neil Gaiman

    L.deBard and Aliette: A Love Story by Lauren Groff
    Wait by Roy Kesey
    (from Best American Short Stories 2007)

    When She is Old And I Am Famous, both by Julie Orringer

    in poetry, The Graveyard Shift by Nicholas Christopher

  25. says

    David –

    I went back and read a couple of stories off your list: Ruth Nestvold’s “The Leaving Sweater” and Paul Tremblay’s “The Teacher”.

    “The Teacher” knocked my socks off. Amazing. Best story I’ve read so far of the ones I cherry-picked from the list. I don’t think anyone but you mentioned it, but I’m so glad you did. Thanks!

    (BTW, my list, since you asked, is way way way upthread and was very narrow and included obligatory Kelly Link).

    I’m also willing to grant the element of discomfort that I need to have my socks blown off may not be a prerequisite in the sock blowing off of others. There’s plenty of stories I like, or even love that cause me no discomfort at all and I wouldn’t include them in this list.

  26. says

    ah, I found your list; have heard very promising things about Laird Barron.

    I remember The Faery Handbag, was a very cool story.

    And you’re welcome, re: The Teacher:)

  27. says

    Thanks for the kind words, David and Anarkey.

    Nathan Ballingrud’s “The Monsters of Heaven,” which appears in the forthcoming Datlow anthology INFERNO is fantastic. Very likely the best short story I’ve read this year.

    I agree with the earlier praise heaped upon Laird Barron. His new Nightshade collection (THE IMAGO SEQUENCE) is a must read.

    While at Fantasy Magazine, I’ve had the pleasure of publishing stories by Afi Muffaz, Stephanie Campisi, and Leslie Claire Walker (among others). But those three writers never dissipoint nor fail to amaze me with their originality and depth. Three writer’s to watch, for sure.

  28. says

    I can’t honestly remember the frame of a year too well, (and I’ll second “my favorites change every week” but twist it further to, “my favorites change every time I’m asked, and maybe a little more”):

    (here’s a little self-promotion of sorts, first)

    “Purple Sun with Yellow Crayon” by Michelle Garren Flye is a powerful punch of 75 beautiful words.

    “The Infinite Monkeys Protocol” by Lavie Tidhar, because it spoke to my youth and was elegantly written with zen koans, and touched on subjects much larger than the subject matter itself. It was even cooler to realize it was “based on a true story”.

    “The Eternal’s Last Request” by Joshua Babcock almost lovingly turns the “fantasy hero” on its head with the aged (and nigh-immortal) Kratos drinking himself into oblivion–and his daughter’s solution to his plight. It was a fresh look at what, for me, was an unexplored niche of an old trope.

    “Chicken” by John Mantooth is a straight forward and non-sfnal story that set its hooks in me quickly with its vivid tone and sharp characterizations. It’s a beautiful and, to an extent, frightening look at mundane people in mundane situations, and how easy and far it is to drop off the end.

    Those are all in Issue 0 of GUD Magazine, and many more besides (though a few I know I first read more than a year ago). And I could go on about all of them, because it was “my” issue; though some were selected for things other than just “knocking your socks off”. A magazine is a lot like a mix tape, and I think it’s good to try to play pieces off of each other.

    And then pulling some reviews that I’ve done, because reviewing has been the large part of my reading this last year:

    “Fraise, Menthe, et Poivre 1978″ by Jared Hohl — Another piece of meta-fiction, this follows a group of people through the more traditional trope of being the last survivors in a ruined post-apocalyptic city. What makes this piece stand out is the manic bent of the narrator and the push for the show to go on–the story weaves the primary narrative with a small handful of abbreviated stageplays that emphasize much about human nature, hope, and despair, while retaining a very human humor.

    “Some Approaches to the Problem of the Shortage of Time” by Ursula K. Le Guin — This is a clever set of abstracts that are ever timely and consider a novel scenario for the end of the modern-day universe. The shortage of time is pervasive, and this story is brief to give you a maximum pleasure for what it takes.

    “Think Warm Thoughts” by Allison Whittenberg — A bite-sized slice of apocalypse that is poetically poignant; every word counts.

    “The Real, True-Life Story of Godzilla” by Curtis Smith. It tells the story of Billy Glenn–how he found himself touring Japan playing basketball, and how that fell into donning the rubber Godzilla suit and stomping miniature Tokyos. It’s a love story, a story of perseverance overcoming difficulties, without having any particular dream to follow. It’s sad, and sweet, and ultimately memorable and although, as far as I can tell no Billy Glenn was ever credited in a Godzilla movie, it was believable enough.

    [[oh, and I have to ditto The Imago Sequence]]

    And if I can stretch back so far for something I read several years ago, but I consistently recommend to people:

    “Incommunicado” by Katherine MacLean — I have to admit, what mostly blew me away was the playfulness of the very, very analog technology. But it was twisted, and wonderful.

    Words are failing me, so I’ll hop skip and disappear now…

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