13 March 2010

Book review: Conjure Wife

Conjure Wife
Fritz Leiber (Lion Books, 1953)
Oh, it was a wonderful day all right, one of those days when reality becomes a succession of such bright and sharp images that you are afraid that any moment you will poke a hole in the gorgeous screen and glimpse the illimitable, unknown blackness it films; when everything seems so friendly and right that you tremble lest a sudden searing flash of insight reveal to you the massed horror and hate and brutality and ignorance of which life rests.
Here comes that flash of light. . . . (I mean, you wouldn’t be reading the book if it didn’t happen.)

Although it isn’t as well known as Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, or Carrie, Fritz Leiber’s short novel Conjure Wife is a fundamental part of the evolution of the modern horror novel. As Ira Levin, William Peter Blatty, and Stephen King would visit supernatural horrors into contemporary and naturalistic environments, so does Fritz Leiber take witchcraft and magic and place it among the mundane world, where it exists aside psychology and science, between bridge games and faculty meetings, living under the surface membrane of the almost absurdly bland little world of a small college town with the slightly awkward name of Hempnell. Leiber’s sardonic sword-and-sorcery stories of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are his most read works today, but Conjure Wife is his most influential opus. It does suffer from its age because it dwells in a world of gender relations that is now antiquated, but the theme of seeing your world suddenly reversed remains potent, regardless of what that world is.

Conjure Wife also the quintessential story for Unknown, the fantasy magazine that John W. Campbell started as competition for Weird Tales, and where the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories debuted. As per the dictates of editor Campbell that his authors deliver fantasy and horror with a contemporary feel, Conjure Wife unveils its fantasy elements from a logical and scientific slant, an approach sometimes called “science fantasy,” but “nuts-n-bolts fantasy” is probably the better term in this case. Conjure Wife first appeared in the April issue of the magazine, which at that point had undergone a slight title change to Unknown Worlds. In 1953 Leiber expanded the shorter work to novel length for its book publication. It has often been paired with his 1978 short novel Our Lady of Darkness. The edition I own is a Tor Double with both novels. A later Tor edition would gather the two under the collective title of Dark Ladies.

The backdrop for this tale of witchcraft is the most mundane imaginable: politics at a small college. Norman Saylor is an ethnologist and professor of sociology at Hempnell College, and he and his wife Tansy have had greater success in the conservative environment of the town and school than they would have imagined. Both of them are free-spirited and modern, although tame by any standards of 2010. One morning, Norman casually violates Tansy’s private space, and the normality of his cozy academic life gets briefly disrupted. He finds in Tansy’s dressing room the accoutrements of magic: talismans, coffin earth, strange herbs. He confronts her about it, and Tansy admits that while helping him with his ethnologies studies, she became fascinated with magic. She doesn’t use the word “witchcraft,” but the term is clearly in the mind of both Norman Saylor and the readers. Tansy claims she uses the charms to “protect” her husband in his job and their life in the exclusive world of Hempnell. Norman is a staunch rationalist and believes he knows what’s best for his wife, so he insists that she throw out all the charm. Tansy resists at first, but then agrees. Norman congratulates himself for solving this irrational bump in his life, and is certain everything will now return to normal.

But almost from the moment the last charm burns up in the fireplace, Norman’s world starts to go up in smoke with it. A female student accuses him of making sexual advances. A male student threatens him for giving him bad grades. The Sociology Chair that Norman thought he had locked up tight turns wobbly when his competitor digs up an old paper with startling similarities to Norman’s thesis papers. He and Tansy’s (relatively) wild New York social life is suddenly a topic of talk and concern. And . . . is that dragon statue on the roof of the building outside Norman’s office moving?

Norman struggles to keep his rational viewpoint even as the appearance of some kind of supernatural attack against him mounts. Conjure Wife, however, begins to build up a larger and more astonishing thesis: could all women actually be witches, the powers behind their husbands’ careers? Leiber never offers a full answer to this, but within the novel it would seem that at least all “college wives” are witches, and petty college politicking is actually a battlefield for magical war waged beneath the knowledge of the men, who think their careers are entirely due to their abilities.

Sexism is inherent in the story; it’s about the overturning of the masculine myth of dominance, and for that reversal to make sense, the reader has to view the novel in its time period, when only men were professors, and they all possessed meek little wives who gossiped and held tea and biscuit receptions. Leiber takes the old saying about “behind every man . . .” and gives it the supernatural twist.

The middle of the novel is actually quite scary. Norman’s grip on his rationality anchor slips as the attacks get stronger and his existence seems to warp. He’s on a collision course with something horrific. Tansy’s charms weren’t merely protecting him from chance—another force with dark sorcery at its call wants to destroy him. A novel that had begun with light comedy and a smug smirk veers toward a nightmare in these pages. After a major turning point in the middle, the book loses some of its tension (and two chapters containing the obligatory Unknown pseudo-science explanation for magic don’t help) but it never falls apart. There are hints of the epic behind Tansy’s fight against the three college wives who want to bring down her husband. The book never quite achieves that full epic, and the ending dissolves fast after a strong twist, but it leaves behind an interesting social subtext. Leiber also never fails as a stylist, so even if Conjure Wife no longer has the surprise impact it once did, and social norms have changed, it’s always a strong read.

The problem—and it’s only a minor one—is that Conjure Wife’s magic war isn’t as fascinating when it becomes more overt. The queasiness of a dull modern life that has supernatural power bubbling beneath it is much more powerful. Ira Levin would perfect this with Rosemary’s Baby, which feels like a natural extension of Conjure Wife, but with the viewpoint switched to the wife.

To date, Conjure Wife has been filmed three times, making it overwhelmingly the most adapted of all Leiber’s work. The novella was the basis for the Universal horror movie Weird Woman in 1944, which was part of its “Inner Sanctum” series of thrillers and featured the studio’s horror stalwarts Lon Chaney Jr., Anne Gwynne, and Evelyn Ankers. Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson of Twilight Zone fame co-wrote the 1962 British adaptation, Burn, Witch, Burn! (titled Night of the Eagle in the U.K.). The 1980 movie Witches’ Brew starring Teri Garr and Richard Benjamin is more comedy than horror, as the lame alternate title, Which Witch Is Which?, might warn you. There is also a TV version, done for the anthology show Moment of Fear in 1960. IMDb has a new adaptation in development, but there are absolutely no details about it. I’m interested in seeing how someone would adapt the story for the twenty-first century—although the safest way to play it would be to make it a period movie.