Pakistanis love a good jinn story, yet local fiction seems to have rarely explored the genre. What could be the reasons?
Ghost stories are more than just folklore in Pakistan. The commonplace moments of family and friends gathered around in a room at night, eagerly listening to one another’s eerie encounters with the supernatural, develop into tales transmitted through time and generations. Our fascination with the horror story has turned it into a staple sleepover pastime; ask any Pakistani and they’ll confidently attest to having heard of at least one ghost story featuring a churail, jinn, bhoot or a haunted house, told to them by a superstitious acquaintance or an elderly family member.
This rich culture of swapping horror stories, myths and urban legends (remember Devil’s Point in Karachi?) speaks of an evolving fondness for the genre in Pakistan. Locals love a good jinn story, yet Pakistani fiction, where the genre is bound to flourish, seems to rarely explore it. But let’s talk here about those who have dared to explore the genre.
The flair with which these stories are shared – often in a spooky tone, coupled with whispers and mumbling – is one of the reasons for their overgrowing popularity. A few local writers have taken to this element to provide readers with a satisfying taste of horror that hits close to home for all of us. Among them is Ayesha Muzaffar – author of the recent bestselling books, Jinnistan: Scary Stories to Tell Over Chai and Abu’s Jinns – who has mastered the genre. With just the right desi-ness and local relevance, the stories have become a favourite among horror aficionados. Shazaf Fatima Haider, popular author, in her book Firefly in the Dark, evokes hard-hitting nostalgia – stories about jinns and supernatural creatures we would squirm to hear as a child - come to life in a tale that warps myth and reality in a world inhabited by jinns.
Works like these comprise sentimental storytelling that sets Pakistani horror fiction apart from mainstream works of suspense. The canon of horror fiction in Pakistan lacks a literary tradition. With less titles produced in the genre, readers have less of a choice. In the larger sphere of horror fiction, the premise acts as a mirror to society’s biggest fears. Our ardent belief in myths is a part and parcel of the many idiosyncrasies in Pakistani culture. Writers in the horror fiction genre are thus orators themselves – capable of establishing a fort of nostalgically driven tales that imprint a fresh literary tradition.
Keeping this in mind, what could be the reason behind the relative lack of horror stories in Pakistan? Sana Pirzada, author of the popular Victorian legal thriller, Naomi Byron, says, “there’s a huge demographic that leans more towards romance and the history of Pakistan. There’s less readership here and less imagination required beyond a certain limit.” The more popular genres of romantic tales is supported by the strong appeal to Bollywood stories among the masses. The lack of imagination holds sentimental storytelling back from establishing itself as a pronounced genre in Pakistan. As a result, writers are less keen to explore it. Horror stories are thus confined to the hushed conversations in the middle of the night, traded between family members.
In the larger sphere of horror fiction, the premise acts as a mirror to society’s biggest fears. Our ardent belief in myths is part and parcel of the many idiosyncrasies in Pakistani culture.
Despite horror fiction’s gradual evolution, evident from the successes of Jinnistan and Firefly in the Dark, it is essential to begin delving into a category of fiction that captures local imagination vividly. Good writing accentuates a great story, and the genre of horror fiction swears by it. The ability to craft horror fiction well for a nostalgic audience can introduce the next big literary canon in Pakistan.
Stephen King once said, “You cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing until it has been done to you. So, we read to experience the mediocre and the outright rotten; such experience helps us to recognise those things when they begin to creep into our own work, and to steer clear of them.” Horror stories force readers to confront the unknown. Myths and urban legends induce a true-to-reality element and a style of storytelling that makes the unknown appear all too familiar, especially in Pakistan. One such book was The Boy of Fire and Earth by Sami Shah, where the element of horror is taken into inspection to explore the concept of djinns. These add to archaic verses of old folklore and transform them into the space and time we share today, for greater relevance and appeal. Though the stories are the same, they are brought in new light by such adaptations.
We’ve been fearful of the terrifying creatures in the ghost stories we’ve grown up with. To be read as to be heard takes a different composition. However, the authenticity with which good horror is said to be the most direct writing leverages these stories into vivid snapshots of human experience. Alistair Cross, author of the vampire thriller, Crimson Corset, says, “horror, when done well, is one of the most direct and honest ways to get to the core of the human experience because terror reduces all of us to our most authentic forms.”
The authenticity and terror of horror fiction are reminiscent of South Asian mythology that predominates urban legends in Pakistan. The genre’s popularity in South Asia is on account of a rich culture that regards superstitions and belief in ghosts and supernatural creatures standard.
The imaginative element in horror stories is thus for Pakistani writers to explore in its vastness. Horror fiction contributes to the variety of folk storytelling; a category less sought over time, but still strong as one of the most invigorating and captivating genres. Many young adult novels bear testament to the illustrious offerings of horror fiction. As more of this genre is delved into, Pakistan can begin to dig into its long standing obsession with ghost stories and develop a rich repository of nostalgic fiction, ready to scare friends in the next slumber.
The writer is a content development officer at Habib University and a freelance journalist