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Conceptual Fiction: Conjure Wife by Fritz Leiber

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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.

Saylor’s wife interrupts him in the midst of going through her magical accessories. After a tense confrontation, she admits to her obsession with charms and magic. The irony here is that her husband, a committed rationalist and professor of sociology, has devoted his career to debunking primitive superstitions. Now he learns that his wife has taken advantage of his research and field trips to develop her own arsenal of magical practices. Imagine Hermione Granger married to A.J. Ayer, and you will get some idea of this odd husband-and-wife team.

The juxtaposition of different versions of reality is one of the delights of conceptual fiction, and Leiber makes the most of the conflicting world views at play here. Superimposing the scientific method and rampant sorcery in the same narrative makes the Darwin-versus-Creationism debate look like a coffeehouse squabble by comparison. Although pulp fiction maestros such as Leiber are supposed to be obsessed with plot and not philosophical resonances, this author may surprise readers by work by achieving both in a compact novel.

Under pressure from her husband, Tansy accepts that her behavior has been pathological, and agrees to get rid of all her “stuff”—the charms, the incantations, the herbs and other ingredients are consigned to the flames. Bad decision! Almost immediately, terrible things start happening to Professor Saylor. False charges are leveled at him, new adversaries confront him, old secrets are dredged up from their hiding places. Even worse, that most deadly game of all—faculty politics—begins to turn against him.

Did he make a mistake in getting rid of those protective charms? Or has his own pristine, rational mode of thinking been compromised by her crazy convictions? He doesn’t want to raise the issue with his wife. She seems happily adjusted to a life without magic, and just talking about his troubles might send her back into her unhealthy obsessions. But still. . . .

Leiber handles this story with skill, balancing the inherent drama of his plot with his characteristic touches of humor and irony. Forty years before Updike’s The Witches of Eastwick—which like Conjure Wife has been frequently adapted to other genres—Leiber successfully captured the piquant angles on a sorcery story translated to modern-day New England. The popularity of these tales is hardly surprising. The superstitious mind never really went away—a US Court declared Wiccan was a religion at almost the same time as Updike’s book came out—and certainly makes for a better story than other New Age movements. I’ve read all of the Harry Potter books, but will pass on the great Rolfing novel or the Primal Scream movie adaptation.

The recent reissue of this novel and the forthcoming movie adaptation are encouraging signs that Fritz Leiber’s work may be slated for a revival. Other stirrings of interest are evident—note that Michael Chabon’s 2007 novel Gentlemen of the Road showed a clear debt to the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories. What’s next? Maybe colleges will start teaching megapolisomancy to the next generation of urban planners.

I’ve watched with interest—and, let’s be honest, quite a bit of enthusiasm—as authors such as Philip K. Dick and H.P. Lovecraft have risen from the dungeon of pulp fiction hacks to be enshrined as important contributors to American fiction. Now that this path to respectability has been forged, let’s use it to bring Mr. Leiber along too. Indeed, his tales seem perfectly suited for the new millennium, with their potential for adaptation to interactive media, their theme-ride pacing, and overriding concerns. Next year will be the centenary of his birth, and what could be a better time to bring this fervently creative writer’s stories to the attention of today’s readers?

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About Ted Gioia

  • I like the idea of a comparative latecomer achieving success.

    I’m a mere 60 and just had my first science fiction book published earlier this year.