This is my first post for WWEnd’s Month of Horrors, which is welcoming the addition of the horror genre to the site! Conjure Wife is a selection from the Horror Writer’s Reading Association list, and it tells a story that is both creepy and full of suspense. This horror classic has been an inspiration for film multiple times over the decades (Weird Woman in 1944, Night of the Eagle/Burn, Witch, Burn! in 1962, and Witches Brew/Which Witch is Which? in 1988), and I think it well deserves its lasting fame.
Conjure Wife by Fritz Leiber
Published: Berkley Publishing Group, 1952 (originally in “Unknown Worlds”, 1943)
“Life is going pretty well for Norman Saylor, Professor of Ethnology at the small College of Hempnell. His career is on the rise, and he knows that a large part of his success is due to the faithful, loving support of his wife, Tansy. One day, when he innocently pokes his nose into Tansy’s dressing room, he learns that she’s been using much more than her secretarial skills to make his life run more smoothly—she’s been using witchcraft.
Norman believes his studies of cultural superstitions have given rise to her ‘little witchcraft complex’, and he convinces her to stop it completely. However, after burning her protective charms, things begin to go wrong. Old and new enemies crop up, and his daily life begins to be plagued by many trivial—and some serious—difficulties. Is it all coincidence, or are there other magical forces at work, much more malevolent than Tansy’s protective charms? Will Norman continue to cling to his rational world, or will he be able to bring himself to trust in his wife before it is too late?” -- Allie
Some elements of the society of Conjure Wife are firmly set in the 1940s, but the story itself is one that would work well in any era. In fact, with its juxtaposition of magic and mysticism with modern university life, it could be seen as a precursor to modern dark urban fantasy. The manipulation of tension in the story is masterful, and there were times when it was almost impossible to put the book down.
The magical and realistic elements of the story were woven together in a way that was suitably disturbing while rarely moving towards the absurd. Rather than going for Bewitched-style magic, the witchcraft of Conjure Wife seemed to be based more on actual practices, specifically the Hoodoo folk magic of the southern United States. Tansy’s main form of magic is the protective charms, which she calls ‘hands’, various objects ritually wrapped in flannel. The physicality of the magic and the references to (I assume) actual traditional practices lend weight and mystery to scenes featuring witchcraft.
While some of the dated elements of the story, such as the Norman’s references to psychoanalysis, were amusing, I was initially afraid that I would be turned off by the treatment of women and African Americans in the novel. Women’s rights, as well as the rights of African Americans, were not doing quite as well in the 1940s as they are today, and Conjure Wife is a product of its time. African Americans are only mentioned in reference to Hoodoo practices, which, I think, kind of plays into a popular fictional stereotype. The story also often discusses the fact that men are ‘naturally rational’, while women are ‘naturally intuitional’, and thus more likely to fall prey to superstition. However, when taken in the context of the society and the events of the story, these elements did not really come across as offensive. One interesting similarity to modern day is the contemporary attitudes toward universities. Norman notes that many people see large universities as “hotbeds of Communism and free love”. If you update the vocabulary (to left-wing politics and casual sex), then I imagine it would be quite easy to find a lot of people who would still make that claim.
Incidentally, Norman and Tansy Saylor want nothing more than to get back to one of those hotbeds. They are not nearly the respectable, staid couple that their career would seem to imply, though they are putting on a good show of it for the small, conservative college of Hempnell. They’re more accustomed to raucous drinking parties with their theatrical friends, but they’re currently resigned to playing bridge with the other faculty couples. Norman can’t quite give up some of his controversial ideas, such as his thoughts on premarital sex, despite how much it scandalizes the trustees.
For her part, Tansy is an intelligent and capable character, and a very powerful witch. She only practices protective magic, and she is remarkably selfless. Even when she’s in need of rescuing, she never completely loses her agency. The antagonists, on the other hand, are only very lightly developed as characters. Their motivations are clear and reasonable, but none of them have much depth. In general, I didn’t mind the weaker characterization of the antagonists, since I felt that the heart of this story was Norman, Tansy, and their relationship.
My Rating: 4.5/5
I was delighted with how well Conjure Wife still worked as a smoothly entertaining story, despite being written over half a century ago. Some aspects of social attitudes and setting were very clearly out of date, but others were still surprisingly relevant. I think the deciding factors in my enjoyment of the story were the characters of Norman and Tansy and the strength of the portrayal of their relationship. There’s clearly a reason that Conjure Wife has had such lasting fame, and I would fully recommend it to anyone looking for a suspenseful, magic-filled tale this Halloween season!