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Dan Cafaro: Short Stories Should Be Nothing Less Than Hair-Raising

You don’t need an English degree, nor a deep understanding of the global literary canon, to have had your mind blown at least one time by a meticulously told short story. To become part of our collective conscience, a story must first eradicate preconceived notions and then smoothly sandblast them beyond recognition. A lasting short story must introduce novel ways of thinking about age-old concepts. The storywriter’s highest purpose is to permanently knock the reader’s equilibrium out of whack.

If a creative writer has one goal, it should be to defy physics and move mountains of dead brain matter with the weight of her pen. Humanity deserves no less.

The dark, famous Shirley Jackson parable, “The Lottery,” was the first story I read whose impact was like a stiff uppercut to my chin. It engrossed me and appalled me and sent my adolescent mind for a swirling, descending loop into fear and fascination. It scared the bejesus out of me because it pointed to a callously self-preserving primal baseness, the stark rawness of which I had never encountered. It made my flesh crawl. Most of all, it made me want to keep reading. If life was not what it seemed, then I wanted the truth slowly leaked and borne on paper, in narrative, soul-staining snippets, propelling my mind into a masterfully embellished reality.

If a creative writer has one goal, it should be to defy physics and move mountains of dead brain matter with the weight of her pen. Humanity deserves no less.


Whether they are disguised as cleverly crafted baldfaced lies or too close a shave for comfort, many short stories that raise the hair on the back of my neck take place in a barbershop or have a barber as the storyteller or main character:

1)      “About Barbers” by Mark Twain (1871)

2)      “At the Barber’s” by Anton Chekhov (1882)

3)      “The Barber Talks” by O. Henry (circa 1902)

4)      “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1920)

5)      “Haircut” by Ring Lardner (1925)

6)      “Razor” by Vladimir Nabokov (1926)

7)      Hawkshaw in “Dry September” and “Hair” by William Faulkner (1931)

8)      “The Barber” by Flannery O’Connor (1948)

9)      “The Calm” by Raymond Carver (1988)

10)   “The Barber’s Unhappiness” by George Saunders (1999)



Photo source: Global Economic Intersection

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About Dan Cafaro

Dan Cafaro is the founder and publisher of Atticus Books, a small press based in Madison, N.J. When Dan is not following his wife around the country, he is known to sit for long periods of time pondering how to live off the grid. Atticus Review is his first literary journal.

2 Awesome Comments So Far

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  1. Alex Kudera
    June 1, 2012 at 10:52 am #

    Melville’s “Benito Cereno” is a good one to add to this list (or at least leave in the comments). It’s often called a novella but always included in collections of Melville’s best short stories. The king of close-shave fiction, its characters widened their horizons when they showed up in Charles Johnson’s hilarious award-winning Middle Passage. Good list and post, Dan, and thanks for including links to the stories.

  2. Steve Himmer
    June 7, 2012 at 6:47 am #

    There’s also Poe’s “The Murders In The Rue Morgue,” (1841) which while not quite a barbershop story does feature — as Alex put it — a close shave.