Conjure Wife by Fritz Leiber

Rating: 3.5 of 5

Everyone knows the saying, “Behind every great man, there’s a great woman.” Well, in Conjure Wife, the great woman is a witch, and her great man doesn’t know that. And it’s worldwide: all women are witches, and they either know of or practice witchcraft.

Here’s the gist:

One day, feeling good and taking a moment to reflect on his life, Norman Saylor, a professor of sociology at Hempnell College, begins to ponder his successes, one of which he considers his wife, Tansy. How did I get so lucky? Norman wonders. How did Tansy fare so well as a professor’s wife? Those questions prompt Norman to snoop through his wife’s closet and drawers. And what should he discover? The tell-tale signs of someone dabbling in “conjure magic.” He’s shocked!

If he had ever wondered about Tansy and superstitions at all, it had only been to decide, with a touch of self-congratulation, that for a woman she was almost oddly free from irrationality (p. 22).

A confrontation with Tansy ensues, turns into a nearly four-hour long discussion, at the end of which Norman demands Tansy stop her “neurotic” behavior at once. Tansy reluctantly agrees; after all, she was only ever doing magic to protect Norman.

That’s when the unlucky “coincidences” begin piling up on Norman: threats from an expelled student; charges of a sexual relationship with a female student; scrutiny of his personal life and friends by the college’s trustees, and on and on. The “coincidences” culminate with the disappearance of his wife.

But to rescue Tansy, Norman will have to practice a little conjure magic himself. The problem is, of course, he finds the whole idea ridiculous. Will Norman save Tansy? If he does, what will be the implications? The consequences?

Here are my two cents:

The sexism, oh the sexism. Because Conjure Wife is told in a limited third-person narrative, Norman Saylor could make or break the story. After reading a couple chapters of his thoughts, I feared I may not be able to finish. In fact, I forced myself to remember the setting – 40s/50s – and cut Norman some slack for his stereotypical, insensitive, often laughable assessments of people, especially women. (For example, see the above quote from page 22 in addition to the below.)

…(in a similar situation would he have dared try reasoned argument on any other woman?)(p. 31).

Once I decided to ignore that part of Norman’s personality, I realized he still wasn’t very likeable. But it was interesting to see the world through Norman’s eyes, especially when he filtered everything through the rules of science. Although, I’ll admit, it did get a tad annoying to have him go back and forth, back and forth. And even to go so far as to see if there was a mathematical formula for spells.

I liked Tansy, though, and the premise was an interesting one.

But it’s not really new, is it? Men throughout history have feared “woman.” Suspected her of being connected to some secret force, nature, even the Devil. Possibly in a conspiratorial capacity with other women. Wondered about her intuition. Faulted her for being more emotional than man. It’s inherent for most, fearing what we do not understand.

However, I don’t think fear of witchcraft or even a secret alliance among women was Norman’s deepest fear. I think what he most feared was not really knowing his wife. That he could live with someone for so many years – I believe it was 15 years they’d been together – trust her, think he had her all figured out, only to discover she wasn’t exactly who he imagined. Hell, that’s scary for anyone in a relationship.

He looked at her, trying to comprehend it. It was almost impossible to take at one gulp the realization that in the mind of this trim modern creature he had known in completest intimacy, there was a whole great area he had never dreamed of…

Once I saw that Norman did, in fact, love his wife and respect her, it was easier for me to sit back and enjoy the story. He used science the way many people use religion: a way to make sense of (or cope with) all the craziness, all the chaos, that is life. A constant in the ever shifting variables. And, for most, it’s an unshakeable, unchangeable belief system.

Here’s what you might not like about Conjure Wife:

  • Sexism
  • Racism
  • The protagonist (Norman)
  • Norman’s always-on scientific filter
  • Not “urban fantasy” as boasted on this edition’s cover
  • Falls under psychological or literary horror; there’s nothing overtly scary or gory

Final thoughts

While its horror elements are mild and slow-building, Conjure Wife is most frightening for what’s going on below the surface rather than its stated premise. I recommend it to fans of the slow burn style of supernatural horror, who are willing to overlook the (hopefully) outdated viewpoints and plan to take the time to think about the story once they close the book.

2 Replies to “Conjure Wife by Fritz Leiber

  1. Ever since you first posted this, Leah, I’ve been trying to figure out what to say. It wasn’t something I could dash off a quick comment about.

    Absolutely, it’s a well-written review. You truly get to the heart of your subject matter. In fact, after reading so many of your reviews, I’m in awe. I only wish mine were so thorough. Not that I’ve done any lately, though.

    But I have to say this novel sounds deeply unpleasant. I probably would have thrown it across the room after a couple chapters if I even picked it up in the first place. Kudos for sticking it out.

    1. Eileen, I know what you mean! That’s often why it takes me a minimum of three days to even start thinking about what I want to write in the review.

      As to Conjure Wife, like I wrote in the review, after I managed to see past Norman’s offensive assessments of everyone around him, there was an interesting, well-written story. Nothing that blew my mind, though. But I imagine for most people (modern women especially) it would be difficult to get through the first few chapters with all the sexist *and* racist remarks. When I think about it, which I still do, I wonder what the women of that day – when the book was first published – thought about it.

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