Damon Knight claimed that conjure Wife was “[e]asily the most frightening (and necessarily) the most thoroughly convincing of all modern horror stories,” and while I’m not sure the praise sits quite so steady nowadays, I do have to give Conjure Wife a big thumbs-up as far as diabolical imagination goes.
This is my second reading of the novel: I read this book back in undergrad, the very same edition, actually, which I bore back to Korea from a box in my folks’ garage. When (back in 1997 or 1998) I mentioned the basic concept of the story to an RPGing friend, he grinned and noted that it was a rather gynephobic notion — he was in graduate school in those days, and used words like “gynephobic”. Well, at a remove of just under a decade, I’m less inclined to see it simply as a gynephobic fantasy/horror novel; while there is a conspiracy involved, and it is based in misconceptions of the female sex, I think there’s more than that going on in this novel.
I can see why he would have called it thus, at first blush, though. Be warned, there are spoilers ahead; I don’t think they’re particularly powerful spoilers, since a lot of the power of the book is the way it’s told, but if you’d rather come at it clear of expectations, take my word for it and pick it up in the used bins: you won’t regret it. However, my discussion and analysis of the text will also be contained in the “hidden” section of this post, so be sure to return and give it a look and let me know what you think.
The main idea of the thing is that a sociology professor whose speciality is the study of superstition among the poor — and its parallels with neurosis — one day discovers his wife is actually practicing all kinds of witchcraft and magic in secret, and that she’s deadly serious about it. She explains that she did it all for him — to protect him, to aid him in his career and fend off the forces vying against him. Of course, a rationalist, he decides she’s gone into a neurotic state and weans her off magic cold turkey. Which is when their lives take sudden, sharp, and powerful turn for the worse… and it begins to seem that his wife was, all this time, in the right. There’s all kinds of plotty acceleration after that, but basically, you get a battle between good magic and evil magic. Yes, really.
For one thing, there’s the very clever playing-around with all of the “scientific” business that the men in the narrative keep appealing to when they dismiss magic as nonsense. Just because science “works” as well as it does, doesn’t mean that magic doesn’t work, too — or that “scientific method” couldn’t be applied to the refinement of magical practice. But in Professor Saylor’s dismissal of the practices and beliefs of people throughout the developing world — including poor “Negroes” in rural America — one detects a tinge of arrogance that, really, honestly, is associated with the professorial/academic attitude. You get a sense of the professor’s voice as a kind of all-powerful dismisser of possibilities. And in his narrative, which imagines that the suspicions and practices of those poor, “ignorant” people are in fact more sensible and more real than “educated” white American men can imagine, enacts a kind of enfranchisement.
But more than that, the locus of the conspiracy is in the minds of women — not just poor black women, not just old women, but women of all kinds, ages, and backgrounds. A withered-souled conservative like Mrs. Carr or Mrs. Gunnison is no more “into” magic than a young, vibrant liberal like Tansy Saylor. The conspiracy includes not just certain women, but all women; it escapes the notice and comprehension of not just some men, but all men. And while there is some room to say, “Ah, this is just Leiber playing upon — and by that action, reinforcing — the old notion that men are more “rational” than women, something that even some female characters gesture towards in their comments, there is also the fact that, in terms of the story, the men are dead wrong — and most of them never even get an inkling of that fact.
There’s the disconnect between academic study and real life; the disconnect between mens’ and womens’ standard patterns of thinking; the disconnect between outward conventional appearance and the riot of difference that can exist beneath the surface of a person. All of this comes into play, and not a little bit of the exposition comes down on the side of the conventional. Sure, one might say, it’s one thing to suggest this as part of fantasy, and another to assert it as real. And that’s so: then again, concerning the act of confronting modernist (and premodernist) monoliths in fantasy and the act of confronting them in obtuse, horribly-written theoretical texts, well, both both of these kinds of acts rather removed from mainstream social criticism, though I think it takes very little thought to see which one is farther thus removed.
But there is the point that enacting one’s worst modernist, rationalist fears in a kind of fantasy also serves to capture and purge these fears: one does not expect Leiber’s readers to feel as if they are returning to the “real” world after finishing the novel, to see it through wholly different eyes. Still, the exercise of the imagination, to me, seems a major step, and a powerful one, though perhaps less so in a fantasy work of this kind than in an SF work. I’ll touch upon why in another post.