It was Friedrich Nietzsche who said something to the effect “nothing offends a woman’s vanity like a woman’s vanity.” Though probably not the least politically correct statement of the era, such thoughts nevertheless did little to complexify opinion of women. Scheming, jealous shrews who think only in terms of their own conceit the resulting image, adding the supernatural only darkens lines and casts longer shadows. Women’s magic near automatically represented by ugly witches or aged, plotting spinsters, it’s as if we’ve come to accept the combination of spells and femininity as being nothing short of a malicious search for renewed beauty and youth, and revenge on those who have it. Capitalizing on the idea in what is certainly dated fashion is Fritz Leiber’s Conjure Wife (1943). Penned in fine prose and plotted to a perfect T, the novel is a horror of both the literary and gendered variety.
Raymond Saylor is an ambitious sociology professor working at prestigious Hempnell University. Life in an easy groove, his academic papers are accepted to positive criticism, his domestic life is at ease, his peers and students respect him, and he is in a leading position for the faculty chair that will soon be vacated. But at the outset of Conjure Wife, Saylor discovers something when snooping through his wife Tansy’s dresser that changes everything: she has been practicing voodoo for years without his knowledge. Tufts of feather tucked away here, magic charms hidden there, vials of graveyard dirt pushed to the backs of drawers, shiny buttons attached to clothes—all around their home she unearths the evidence as Saylor confronts her. Despite Tansy’s protests that her magic has been protecting him from the feints and jabs of others at the university all along, the implements are burned, leaving Saylor ill at ease. But a phone call jerks him from his reflection. The professor’s heart set ticking, a student on the other end of the line is raving and crazed with the idea he has been wrongfully failed. But the infuriated young man is only the beginning. Issues with the dean’s wife revealed during a game of bridge, a love-smitten student harassing him, a seemingly mobile piece of building ornamentation, strange noises in the wind—Saylor’s world begins to crumble, professionally, academically, and domestically, around him. But Saylor has not discovered all of Tansy’s secrets.
Conjure Wife is written in Leiber’s dexterous yet precise hand. The reading experience poured forth in smooth, lithe prose one rarely finds these days in popular genre fiction, it renders Saylor’s travails at the hands of the supernatural an eerie, chilling experience. Leiber wonderfully interleaving the elements of story, the suspense rises subtly as each mundane aspect of the professor’s life takes on additional hues of the paranormal—even the most calloused reader hard-pressed not to have a tingle on their skin as Saylor’s story plows ever deeper into the dark depths of the university’s underworld.
But there are the gendered aspects (and with such a title, it’s almost impossible to avoid). Conjure Wife pays no direct disrespect to women, but it does utilize the social mores and gender views of mid-20th century America to their fullest. Middle class women occupying Betty Crocker domestic roles in support of their families and spouses, Leiber never breaks the mold to make any statements about the position of women in society. As such, Tansy and the other wives quibble and fight with magic, bicker and whinge like old hens, and ultimately are only intent on maneuvering their husbands into better positions at the university. Conniving, pernicious, and homebound, it is not a flattering portrayal, to say the least.*
That being said, Leiber never intended to break any molds or make any new ones with Conjure Wife. Storytelling and commercial success not politics the intent of the novel, it possesses little to no sub-text. The portrayal of women, as jaded as it is, is simply a plot device, a way to motivate the Gothic side of the horror. Of course once can always call Leiber out for wasting opportunities, but I think the lack of thematic ambition is enough to at least take the portrayal of women with a grain of salt. The gods know there are enough men portrayed as greedy, power hungry assholes in fiction without complaint…
In the end, Conjure Wife is an exquisitely crafted novel of suspense and dark fantasy. One man’s seemingly ordinary life turned upside down by the discovery of his wife’s secret practice of magic and a seedy underworld of charms and spells slowly reveals itself to have been underfoot at his university the whole time. Linguistically supple and precise, the underlying sentiment regarding women is, to put it politely, less than flattering in its indirect confirmation women’s magic is evil magic. As pure story, however, it is wonderfully penned and plotted, and as a result truly able to set something creeping along the spine.
*Women’s magic. It’s an idea that only in the past couple of decades has been confronted with any relevancy beyond the traditional idea of women as wicked witches. Naturally, it has been speculative fiction at the helm. Ursula Le Guin and Terry Pratchett perhaps the writers tackling the idea the hardest, most of Le Guin’s later Earthsea stories and the Witches and Tiffany Aching sub-series of Pratchett’s Discworld have revisioned the perspective of women practicing magic. In particular, they have sought to overturn the evil classically associated with the elderly spinster or spiteful housewife. Tenar, Granny Weatherwax, Tehanu, Miss Tick, Ivy, Miss Level, Medra, Nanny Ogg, and Irian are all differing representations of the practice of women’s magic and independent of strange knots that put a hex on someone or twists of herb that leave vile spells in the air. It should be noted that Daniel Abraham’s Long Price Quartet, particularly the final volume, The Price of Spring, also looks at women practicing magic, namely the idea that ‘real magic’ can also be a man’s game. These writers’ bounce points? One would certainly be Fritz Leiber’s Conjure Wife…