Conjure Wifeis a 1943 horror novel by master fantasist Fritz Leiber, who is best known for his excellent FAFHRD AND THE GRAY MOUSER stories. While Conjure Wife is usually labeled as horror, the recently released trade paperback edition from Orb is marketed as “the classic of urban fantasy” — maybe to latch on to the recent surge in popularity of that sub-genre? Regardless of which genre it’s placed in, Conjure Wife is an excellent novel that definitely deserved a re-release.
Norman Saylor is a sociology professor at the small — and as far as I can tell, entirely fictional — college of Hempnell. Early on in the novel, Saylor discovers that his wife Tansy has been attempting to practice magic. Saylor, a very rational and cerebral man, attempts to convince Tansy that magic isn’t real, but after she destroys all the protective magical artifacts hidden around their house, Saylor’s life suddenly takes a turn for the worse: old and new enemies appear, small accidents start to happen, his tenure at the college suddenly is in danger…
As this subtly terrifying story progresses, Conjure Wife does an excellent job at contrasting the different personalities of the characters. Saylor is supremely rational and always tries to find a logical explanation for even the most bizarre situations and actions. His wife Tansy is a more intuitive and passionate soul. Saylor’s colleagues, and their wives, are all fully realized characters. Throughout private meetings, bridge games, lectures, and the inevitable conflicts, Fritz Leiber does an amazing job making these people feel realistic and real. This novel, barely 220 pages long, has a very high signal-to-noise ratio — an extremely enjoyable and fast read that will reveal more details upon re-reading.
For a novel written more than 60 years ago, Conjure Wife isn’t nearly as dated as it could be. Aside from the distinct fact that the entire teaching staff is male, and a few other societal values that have changed, this novel could be set in any small college today. More proof of the timeless adaptability of this story: the three movies that were based on this novel were made in 1944, 1962 and 1980 — and I could easily see a 4th movie, set in the present day.
For newcomers to Fritz Leiber, I would still recommend FAFHRD AND THE GRAY MOUSER first, but Conjure Wife is an excellent standalone novel — and a great book to curl up with on Halloween!