Friday, 25 November 2011

Review: Conjure Wife

Conjure Wife by Fritz Leiber (1943)

Behind every great man there is a woman–except that it often turns out that the woman is a witch.  At least, that's the premise of Fritz Leiber's 1943 supernatural thriller, Conjure Wife.  

Professor Norman Saylor has a happy life.  He has a secure position at the university where he teaches sociology, he's the favoured candidate as the new department head, he's popular with the students and he has a loving wife Tansy.  One day, in a fit of idle revelry,  he rummages through a drawer where Tansy keeps things and discovers that his rational, educated spouse has been collecting graveyard dirt and making magical charms, which she's been hiding all over the house.  Confronting Tansy, she tells him that she's been practising witchcraft for some time in order to protect him against those who meant him harm.  Wanting to prove to Tansy that this is all superstition, Norman makes her destroy all of her charms in the fireplace.  As the last charm burns, Tansy feels as if a great burden has been lifted from her, but Norman inexplicably experiences a chill.  Then the phone rings and Norman is confronted by an ex-student accusing him leading a conspiracy against him.  Within hours, Norman is facing charges of sexual misconduct, he has a gun pulled on him, and his life in general seems to be going to pot.   Worse, Norman senses that something is stalking him.  Is this coincidence and imagination or are there witches on the campus really working against him and sensing his vulnerability now that Tansy's protections have been withdrawn.

Today, Conjure Wife would be classified as "urban fantasy", but that is distinctly unfair and restrictive because it was Leiber who invented the genre before it even existed.  More to the point, he did it far better than his imitators with their katana-wielding babes in leather trousers have even come close to pulling off.  Though flawed by a few clumsy exposition scenes, Leiber's novel is a truly hair raising story.  Norman's mixture of paranoia and scepticism that grows more pronounced as the menace grows closer has rarely been equalled and  the way in which Leiber poises science (of, at least symbolic logic) against witchcraft remains fresh even to this day. But what makes it truly work is the characters.  There is a real logic to the plot that derives from them.  Norman has his entire world view at stake and Tansy is willing to literally risk her soul to protect him.  Even the villains of the piece are driven by their individual motives and suffer because of them.

As much a psychological thriller as a horror story, conjure wife shows what the genre can do if given half the chance.

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