by Fritz Leiber
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted September 30, 2019
The image to the right is not from the edition I just read, but I think it's way cooler. It may be from its first book publication in 1952, but Fritz Leiber's Conjure Wife originally appeared in Unknown Worlds in April, 1943. It won this year's Retro Hugo for Best Novel. The paperback copy I have is from 1991, which combines it with 1977's Our Lady of Darkness (which I've read and liked a lot more). The copyright page shows 1991 for Conjure Wife, so it's possible it had been revised and/or expanded from the original. Being a relatively obscure pulp magazine, Unknown perhaps allowed some slightly risqué material in its stories, but I suspect a few scenes were updated later. Also, there is a comment about a particular thing that probably was not common knowledge in '43, so that may have been added too.
Norman Saylor is a professor of sociology at Hempnell, a small Northeastern college. He is also an ethnologist, specializing in primitive cultures and religions. Unbeknownst to him, his wife Tansy has incorporated some of his research into her own practice of witchcraft, mainly for protection spells for him and his career. Norman is on track to become the new head of his department, up until he discovers Tansy's activities and forces her to destroy the artifacts she has been using for spells. Almost immediately his fortunes change. A former student whom Norman had flunked out of his class calls him up out of the blue to declare a vendetta against him. A female student brings sexual harassment complaints to the trustees' attention. Norman experiences a series of accidents and injuries, some self-inflicted. Throughout the story Norman continues to deny any merit to Tansy's magical claims, even when it becomes apparent several other faculty wives have been indulging in darker magic for their own purposes. One of them has a particular agenda in regard to Tansy.
It's written in third person, but from Norman's perspective. Leiber did a good job developing Norman and Tansy's characters, not as well for the supporting players. In the beginning the narrative style is dated, stiff and formal, perhaps modeled on the staid social life at Hempnell. As the peril mounts for the young couple the action and exposition becomes more polished, more intense, reading quite a bit like a screenplay. This has been adapted for film at least three times, and TV once, but I'm pretty sure I've never seen any of them. The most recent, 1980's "Witches' Brew," didn't credit him as the story source, but it's also the lowest rated on IMDb. The middle film, 1962's "Burn, Witch, Burn," is the highest rated, and is currently available on Amazon Prime. I've just added it to my queue, so maybe I'll watch it soon. Even if it's not something I could recommend, I might like it as much as the book. It was a quick read, not a waste of time, but also not as good as I had hoped. I did like the sociological comments made by Norman, both in his lectures and conversations, that equated modern man with more "primitive" cultures. There's a quote from Damon Knight on the back of the paperback: "Easily the most frightening (and necessarily) the most thoroughly convincing of all modern horror stories...Leiber has never written better." It's not, and he has. The way it's placed makes it seem he's talking about Conjure Wife, but based on my memory it more accurately describes Our Lady of Darkness. I need to re-read that one soon.
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