Few literary figures of the early 20th century led less predictable lives than Fritz Leiber. He was a brilliant chess player, a preacher, a college teacher, a champion fencer, a Shakespearian actor, and even appeared on screen with Greta Garbo. But his biggest pay day came from a game—when he licensed the fruits of his fertile imagination to the creators of the role-playing classic Dungeons & Dragons. This game was so popular with my freshman roommate in college that, when he got phone calls or visitors while he was out, we simply responded: “John’s in the dungeon.”
And, oh yes, there is the matter of Mr. Leiber’s writing, which was hardly more conventional than his CV. Leiber drew on his own odd assortment of influences—H.P. Lovecraft, Carl Jung, Robert Graves, Joseph Campbell—in a literary career that crossed genres almost as frequently as his adventure-seeking characters crossed swords. His most famous fictional creations were Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, who for many readers still represent the gold standard in the sword-and-sorcery genre. In time, Leiber established himself as a major author of science fiction, horror and fantasy, and dabbled in other genres too—pretty good for a latecomer who didn’t really focus on writing until he was almost thirty.
Conjure Wife, Leiber’s debut novel from 1943, also ranks among his most resilient works, with a modern day witchcraft storyline that has been rediscovered in different formats by several generations of admirers. Every couple decades, a new film version comes to the screen. Conjure Wife has inspired three films already: Weird Woman (1944), Burn Witch Burn (1961) and Witches Brew (1980). United Artists has secured the rights to a fourth version, which is moving ahead under the direction of Billy Ray.
The novel opens when John Saylor, a professor at a small New England college, decides to pry into his wife’s dressing room. Here, among the cosmetics, he finds, vials of graveyard dirt, packets of hair and fingernail clippings from their acquaintance, incantations scrawled in the margins of a book, horseshoe nails, unusual herbal substances . . . and various other items not sold by Mary Kay. In short, Tansy Saylor is a witch.