Thursday, October 6, 2016

*Conjure Wife, by Fritz Lieber -- hb#2

Orb Books, 2009
originally published 1943
224 pp


I'm trying to maintain calm and do normal things right now, so before Matthew knocks on our door and while we still have power I figured I'd post about this book.  I did a flip-flop on this one, and watched the movie prior to reading the novel, but I can tell you that the movie follows the book pretty closely.

Norman Saylor is a professor of sociology who finds himself caught up in supernatural forces that he's built a career denying. Norman teaches sociology at a small university, more specifically, his work centers on the "parallelisms of primitive superstition and modern neurosis," even coming up with a book about it. He believes that magic is just a product of superstition -- in short he doesn't believe in it.  However, his wife Tansy does, and has been, unknown to Norman,  putting up protective magical shields to keep Norman safe from a trio of women who see him as a threat to their own interests. When Norman discovers that Tansy's been doing this, he makes her get rid of everything, and that's when all of the trouble begins.  Suddenly things start taking a turn for the worse, but level-headed Norman tries to rationalize every weird occurrence -- until he can no longer afford to do so.

As author Robert Dunbar writes in his very informative book Vortex, Conjure Wife "remains a masterpiece of understated horror," which I must say is an accurate assessment.  There are moments in this tale that had me on the edge of my chair, and the last part of the book is just downright frightening, pages being flipped at a frantic rate.    But aside from the horror aspect, there's so much happening here.  I'm back to Vortex to summarize, since I can't say it any better than this:
"Leiber had instincts enough to realize that the atmosphere at a small college, removed from what most would deem reality and claustrophobically rife with faculty jealousy, provided a perfect setting for the practice of the dark arts..." (160). 
I'd also add that all of the seemingly benign bridge parties and get-togethers with the same group of people time and again are perfect environments for hiding backbiting and resentment, and that comes out in this novel as well.

However, here, the major focus is on the women, and with good reason. First, no matter how much he denies it, Norman gradually comes face to face with the notion that witchcraft exists, and more importantly, that it's a force that all women possess.  Most use it for protection, but there are those women who, longing for power and social status, use it for their own ends, turning to a darker side of the craft.  Second, the men in this book are absolutely oblivious to the fact that it's the women who actually (but secretly) run the world, all the while hiding behind men's views of them as the weaker sex.  There's much more, but that should be enough to whet anyone's appetite. Considering when this novel was written, it's still surprisingly relevant right now.

Peter Wyngarde as Norman Saylor
The movie (1962), which due to not doing my homework I thought was based on Merritt's book of the same name (only to find out while watching that it was not), is also very well done, a true nail-biter  and manages to capture the same creeping horror of  the novel without having to resort to crappy gimmicks or effects. Reviews of this movie abound online so I won't go into it, but it's well worth finding a copy to watch after reading the book.

Again, superlatives all around for both book and film.  Very highly recommended.


  1. This book reminded me a bit of "Harvest Home" by Thomas Tryon, where again the women were in charge. If you haven't read it, it's definitely a horror classic. New England, isolated village with it's cult, and all the goodies that go with any good New England horror.

    1. Thanks, Pete. I have read Harvest Home, actually -- it's been a while, but you're right about the dominance of the women in that one.


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