Sana Pirzada demonstrated undeniable competence in writing a modern gothic novel with her debut The Rose Within. She continues confidently in this vein with her second book, Vernon Hall and Other Stories. Although the main bulk of the book is taken up by the extended novella ‘Vernon Hall’, Pirzada provides some tantalising hors d’oeuvres to the main feast in the form of two short stories and a narrative poem. Indeed, beautiful black-and-white illustrations throughout by the talented Jelena Zibert make the book, quite literally, a feast for the eyes as well as for the imagination.

It is never easy to write stories in verse, but in her own quiet way, Pirzada is nothing if not a risk-taker. ‘The Withered Mistletoe’ is a ghost story in verse, reminiscent in terms of pace and momentum of Christina Rossetti’s enchanting ‘Goblin Market’. Pirzada’s opening tale, ‘Lord Ravenson’, dwells on the adventures of a hero who appears too good to be true. However, he really is as virtuous as he comes across, which is just as well since that gives him the moral and spiritual strength to combat demonic creatures such as werewolves. Nocturnal beasts and magic are staples of the gothic genre, and Pirzada’s other short story, ‘Madame de Quincey’, does not disappoint on this front. A woman who relies on spooky means in order to retain her youth and vitality, the protagonist Madame de Quincey is as tragic a figure as she is a disturbing one.

Therefore, by the time one reaches ‘Vernon Hall’ itself, one feels as if one has got fully into one’s stride when it comes to immersion in elements of the gothic. But what makes the perusal of the novella especially pleasant is the fact that it is clear that Pirzada herself has also gained strength and momentum when it comes to constructing the work. Like many classic novels, the author frames her narrative within a story set in a more modern period than the major portion of the tale. Christine Mallory, a war widow in the 20th century, is drawn to a mansion called Vernon Hall where her mother, Eleanor, resided some decades ago. Eleanor’s tale constitutes the main action of the novel: Amelia, the mistress of Vernon Hall, took in the poverty-stricken child and raised her as a member of her own family. Sincerely responsive to the love that Amelia bestows on her, Eleanor is devastated when Amelia passes away.

The latest literary endeavour from a Pakistani author is a satisfying novella, two short stories and a narrative poem set far away from issues of politics and terrorism

Amelia’s body is embalmed, and it is here that Pirzada demonstrates her utter mastery of gothic elements. She describes the embalming technique with an exactness of which Mary Shelley herself would have been proud. Famous for conceiving the remarkable Frankenstein when she was in her late teens, Shelley demonstrated an understanding of science not often found in women of the 18th century. From the detail with which Amelia’s embalming is described, it is evident that Pirzada put considerable research, as well as passion, into creating her novella.

The gothic is as much a blend of science and fantasy as it is an amalgamation of horror and romance. Thus it comes as no surprise to readers well versed in the gothic tradition that Amelia’s body appears to take on a life of its own at night. While watching over her form, Eleanor experiences hallucinations that have a distinctly Macbeth-like quality — for instance, the image of a serpent in a stained-glass window seems to acquire a chilling type of animation that sends shivers up both Eleanor’s spine as well as the reader’s. This aspect of ‘Vernon Hall’ is strikingly reminiscent of George Eliot’s foray into the gothic realm, ie her novella The Lifted Veil. In fact, the villainess of Eliot’s piece bears the same name as Eleanor’s maid: Bertha. Eliot’s Bertha is often compared to a serpent, and one realises that this image bodes no good for Pirzada’s plot.

Things become especially exciting when the charismatic, albeit slightly sinister and serpentine, Ezekiel Lloyd makes a dramatic entrance and sweeps Eleanor off her feet. However, as William Shakespeare noted, the course of true love never does run smoothly and, in true Jane Eyre style, Eleanor is left abandoned with nothing but the lacy white wedding dress she has on to keep her company. To reveal more of the plot would mar some of the clever twists that Pirzada has in store for the reader, but the novel does come to a satisfying conclusion with all loose ends neatly wrapped up.

I gulped several times, and when I again attempted to speak, the ravishing parlour maid’s eyes blazed with savage fire. She growled like a wild animal and transformed into that monstrous serpent with toxic fangs. She stormed at me, and I shrilled so piercingly that my eardrums throbbed. I closed my eyes tight and shielded my face to protect myself from the vicious beast...— Excerpt from the book

Since the majority of novels by Pakistani writers are about politics and terrorism, it is remarkably refreshing to watch Pirzada stubbornly, but rhythmically, beat her own drum when it comes to engaging with what she personally feels compelled to write, as opposed to what others believe she should write. No stone is left unturned in her inclusion of the major gothic elements into ‘Vernon Hall’; she faithfully brings pious clergymen, jilted suitors, seductive ghosts, essential servants and star-crossed lovers into her novel. The gothic is a notoriously tough genre to cope with because it is all too easy for uncontrolled elements of its writing to slip into the parodic, but to Pirzada’s credit, she never allows that to happen insofar as her plot and characterisation are concerned.

Moreover, her novella is imbued with a sincere spirituality that one got promising glimpses of in The Rose Within; however, with ‘Vernon Hall’, her complete command over this fundamental aspect of the gothic genre is far more evident.

Postmodern literature is so anxious about fulfilling global agendas that very few books can now count as pure escapism. But Sana Pirzada’s latest literary endeavour provides its readers with a chance to be blissfully transported into a milieu suffused with an old world charm, underpinned by timeless traits of humanity, such as love, revenge, passion, justice and deep gratitude. Not only does Pirzada’s book make for a truly enjoyable reading experience, it leaves one yearning for a longer and more extensive gothic novel penned by this author who understands only too well what treasures the past consistently has to offer us.

The reviewer is assistant professor of social sciences and liberal arts at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi

Vernon Hall and
Other Stories
By Sana Pirzada
Illustrations by Jelena Zibert
Book Empire, UK
ISBN: 978-1911357902
302pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 21st, 2019