Ring Lardner: Haircut

April 30, 2009

A barber is the narrator in this classic American short story. As a customer sits in his chair, he asks, “You’re a newcomer, aren’t you?” So here is a chance for him to tell his story once again. It is not imaginary but it is of people and incidents in the very town where he is living and working, many of whom walk in and out of his shop.

Jim, a former salesman, is a wastrel. He likes to play pranks on people. One butt of his numerous practical jokes is Julie who has steadily rebuffed his advances to her. And another is Paul, a young and mentally challenged boy, who counts Julie as one of his few friends. Julie’s lover, a doctor who has just come to the town for his practice, swears to take revenge on Jim for having publicly humiliated her. Does he?

The barber narrates a terrible incident in a cool, detached manner.

The story ends and so also the trimming of the head of hair. All the while the customer has been there without a grunt or a nod of his head (which would have disturbed the barber in his work anyway).

The story, coming as it does from a tradesman, is in a conversational, dialectical  style. 

The last sentence is unforgettable.





Tom Sharpe: A Visit to the Barber

April 29, 2009

Today it is a humour story. Well, a sort of humour story because as you read it you may not guffaw like you do while reading a PGW story.

I found it in the book The Ultimate Humour Book (Chancellor Press, 1988) that I bought at a book fair. I have read this story three or four times.

A young man goes to a barber’s shop. He doesn’t really need a haircut but then he needs to buy something that was available only in hairdressing salons. After the haircut ritual (“Just a trim, please,”) he asks for what he wants but alas the barber says that the shop owner is a conservative person and doesn’t stock the said product.

The young man ambles into another barber’s shop and there too settling in the chair demands “just a trim”,  despite protestations from the hairstylist that it seemed that he had had a haircut only a while ago.

A chatter ensues, a chatter that barbers are given to make as they ply their comb and scissors. It is about what thoughts the customers might be having in their heads as he works on their hair.

What thoughts, peculiar thoughts (if you like), did the young man have?

Luckily this old story is available online:


(With thanks to T. S. Ganesh for suggesting a better link than the one I provided in an earlier version of this post)

Thomas Hood: A Tale of Terror

April 27, 2009

Before I came across this short story I knew Thomas Hood only as a poet. 

This one is in a book of SS collection titled Adventure but I would put it under Terror or Horror or Suspense. Do tell me how you would classify it after you have read it. Luckily, a PDF of the SS is available online.

According to Hood’s son, this story was written hurriedly to fill an unexpected gap in a magazine. The printer’s devil was waiting for copy downstairs while Hood wrote it, handed it to him and asked him to run back to the press.

It is first-person narrative within a first-person narrative.

The action takes place on a hot air balloon that is slowly ascending into the blue sky as bags of sand are emptied one after the other.

With the narrator is a last-minute companion, the original volunteer not having turned up in time.

This fellow-traveller urges the narrator to go higher and higher.

Just the mention of something by his companion and the narrator finds himself in a tizzy.

What happens as the balloon drifts up, up and away?

Read the story and decide for yourself.


In comments do not reveal the end. If you wish to speculate, write me an email.

A. M. Burrage: Browdean Farm

April 26, 2009

“Browdean Farm” is a ghost story. Written in 1927.

I have it in a book titled Murder Most Foul, A Collection of Great Crime Stories.

In each of these books that I have, there are many stories, but I find that only some I reread. Others I may have begun reading but left off in the middle because they did not hold my interest. Mind you, they are chosen and included by someone, yet…

Two men pass by a lonely, untenanted house in a remote village. They rent it out as one wants to write a book in quiet and the other wishes to spend time fishing in a lake in the vicinity.

After a few days strange things happen and on enquiry they learn that this was where a man by name Stryder had lived. He was married but at the same time he fell in love with another girl. The older woman goes missing and her body is exhumed from where she was buried. Stryder is convicted of murder and hanged.  His pleas to the jury that he found her dead but hastily interred her are ignored.

The two tenants bravely face the anniversary of the woman’s death and amidst creaking of gates, smashing of windowpanes, slow footfalls shuffling through the hall and other weird happenings they discover the truth.

“The Waxwork”, another story by the same author, is a favourite of mine and I read that to a gathering of SSLC (Short Story Lovers’ Club) in my house some years ago.  It must wait for its turn.

Shirley Jackson: Charles

April 26, 2009

The story that I chose for today is “Charles” by Shirley Jackson.

“The Lottery” by the same author is perhaps  more famous and more anthologised but that dark story can wait for another day.

In this, the narrator is the mother of two small children. Laurie, the older of her two children, has just joined the kindergarten class in a school.

For several days from the first day Laurie on returning home from school describes the mischiefs that Charles did and the punishments that he received from the teacher.

With the third week of KG, Charles was an institution in the narrator’s family. There were some signs of the clever little nipper improving but still his tricks don’t seem to have ended completlely. Laurie’s mother is eager to go to the PTA meeting where she would have a chance of coming face to face with Charles’s mother.

Read the story. It is available for free online. Please google for it and select a suitable site from where you can get a doc file. (I am unable to provide a link. I reread it in a book that I have.)

In what genre would you put this story? Parenting? Psychological? Fantasy? Humour?


“I watched him go off the first morning with the older girl next door, seeing clearly that an era of my life was ended, my sweetvoiced nursery-school tot replaced by a long-trousered, swaggering character who forgot to stop at the corner and wave good-bye to me.”

W. Somerset Maugham: Mr Know-all

April 25, 2009

This is also an old story, much anthologised.

This setting is a shipboard. There is an assortment of travellers cruising from the US to Japan. Among them is Kaleda, a fellow who brags that he knows everything and that he can never be wrong.

The narrator dislikes him for his breezy manners and for his cocksureness.

There is the inevitable cardgame and during one session Kaleda bets that the pearl necklace that an Ambassador’s wife was wearing was of high quality. This is disputed by the diplomat who says it is an imitation jewellery.

Kaleda discloses that he is in pearl business and ought to know. He then bets an amount and asks the lady to unfasten and give the necklace for him to examine.

Did he win the bet or not?

Reread or read:


Readers may pardon me if I am recalling classic stories. Please remember that this is a personal record of short stories that I have read through my life and have liked to return to them again and again.

And is Somerset Maugham read still? It so happened that after I chose  this story this morning and then opened my mailbox, I had a message from a niece who wrote: “In the last few weeks having run out of books to read, I picked up from my collection (my favourite old-time SS writer) Maugham’s South Seas stories for the train commute.”

Of course there are so many other good stories by this master storyteller like “Rain” and maybe I will mention some in my future postings but this one, Mr. Know-All is just unforgettable.

I find that this story is sometimes included in textbooks meant for young adults but how unthinking the anthologists can be! Certainly schoolgoing yongsters are sure to miss the subtle suggestion at the end of the story and it can be embarrassing for a parent or teacher to be explaining what it is all about.

Robert Barr: An Alpine Divorce

April 24, 2009

Today it’s a crime story.

I have read it three or four times.  I don’t remember when I read it first but I was glad to come across it in one of some dozen short story books that I bought at  a book fair in Madras.

Once I read it to an audience at a meeting organised by Pooram Short Story Lovers’ Club run by a venerable Tamil writer with knowledge also of English and Sanskrit. The writer is visually impaired and welcomes others reading to him and a bunch of friends.

Now whenever I meet him he recalls the author and the title and thanks me for introducing the story to him.

Mr John Bodman and his wife have an uneasy matrimony. An idea of uxoricide occurs in John’s mind and he plans a trip with his wife to Switzerland with its precipitous heights. From a previous visit he has decided on a spot to carry out his intent.

The two reach the Hanging Outlook. 

Does a death take place? If so, how? If not, why not?

For me the story’s the thing. I had never bothered to find about this author.  I was under the impression that the SS might still be under the copyright law and so I might not be able to give my readers a link. But luckily it’s available online:



“In some natures there are no half-tones; nothing but raw primary colours.”