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Linda Hilton

Reader, Writer, Merciless Reviewer and Incurable Romantic

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Now do you believe?

Conjure Wife - Fritz Leiber

I'm not absolutely positive how or when or where I acquired this paperback edition of Fritz Leiber's 1953 novel, but I did.  I read it once in the early 1990s, but I don't think I've read it since then.  I started this reread Sunday afternoon, just finished now, Tuesday afternoon.  No break for updates; I wanted to do it in the largest uninterrupted segments as possible., as close to in-one-sitting-couldn't-put-it-down as I could manage.


There was a great deal I had forgotten from the earlier reading, so that in many ways this was somewhat like a first read.  The basic premise is that anthropology professor Norman Saylor disbelieves all superstition.  When he discovers his adored wife Tansy is practicing what she thinks is witchcraft, he forces her to destroy all her little charms and give up the nonsense.  Their lives immediately begin to go to hell, until Norman has no choice but to resort to witchcraft himself.


On the surface, it's a pretty creepy story.  Maybe because I knew how it ended, I didn't have any trouble reading it at night this time, but I'm not sure I'd have done so on a first read.


My first encounter with the story, however, creeped me out so bad I was literally paralyzed with terror.


A sultry summer night in the mid-1960s.  My friend Mary and I, home from college for the summer, had gone into Chicago to visit her brother.  She brought me home around 11:00; my dad was working late, and my mother had already gone to bed.  I turn on the TV and sat down to watch. . . . whatever came on.


I missed the first few minutes of the movie so I didn't even know the title.  But what began to unfold on the black and white screen was something so eerie, so dark, so horrible that I couldn't get off the couch to turn it off.  There was no remote control in those days, of course, and so I was stuck there, curled up and unable to move to stop it.



Only when it was over and the eerie voice-over said "Now do you believe in witches?" did my muscles relax enough to allow me to walk the four or five steps to the set and turn it off.


Was it a voice-over?  Or was it just a graphic at the end before the credits?  I don't know.  I only know the story scared the crap out of me.  And I knew the title:  Burn, Witch, Burn.


Ten years or so later, I had the chance to see it again; it wasn't creepy at all.  Go figure.


I might not have looked up my copy of the book for a Halloween Bingo reread if it hasn't been for the buddy read of Ammie, Come Home.  I'm one of those people who remembers most books I've read fairly clearly, and there were things about the Barbara Michaels book -- which I had read after seeing Burn, Witch, Burn but before the first reading of Conjure Wife -- that brought the older book to mind.  So it made sense to read them together, especially since I'm doing some witchcraft research anyway.


The original Conjure Wife was published as a short story (novelette? maybe) in 1943, then expanded for the 1953 novel-length version.  The differences between the novel and the 1962 movie -- scripted by, among others, Richard Matheson -- are striking, and I wish now I could slip a DVD in and watch the film to compare.  (Okay, okay, I just checked and it's on YouTube, probably illegally. . . . )  But this isn't a film review.


Bottom line, this is a wonderfully written little book, with maybe some sexism (given the time it was written) but maybe not.  (It's certainly apparent in the covers, few of which accurately reflect the content!)  It's not that all women are witches, though that possibility is hinted at (p. 81).  Nor is it that men cannot be witches (p. 176).  There's an underlying message -- though it's possible I just read that into the tale -- that women are forced into witchcraft because men have taken all the rational, traditional power and witchcraft was all they had left.  This sentiment plays out well against the background of the politics and personalities and power plays of a small college, but there are reflections of the wider world, too.  Even the one that exists now, 70 and more years later!


In fact, I had to chuckle at the references to Norman and Tansy's rather non-traditional social beliefs; goodness gracious, they were 21st Century liberals!


I looked for holes in the story and didn't find any, and certainly not the kind of inconsistencies that marred Ammie, Come Home, though this was Fritz Leiber's first novel and Michaels had already published several.  This is a much stronger story and far better written, as well as I think a bit more relevant in terms of the implications beyond mere (!) entertainment.


For that reason I decided not to use this book for the "Witches" square but put it in "Magical Realism" instead. 


Highly recommended.