Thursday, October 7, 2010

Conjure Wife/Our Lady of Darkness

The Fritz Leiber marathon continues!

It's not really important how I got onto this jag of reading Leiber; what's important is how much more I am seeing in his writing than I have before. This "double," a book consisting of two short novels or novellas, has been sitting on my shelf for who knows how long. I clearly read it at some point, but when it came up in conversation, I had no memory of reading it at all, such that I hunted for another copy of it (not to mention that when I looked for the book on my shelf I didn't see it, even though it was in the front row at just about eye height…). But upon rereading, I discovered a world of provocative and thoughtful storytelling, strong stories that evoke a chilling reaction from the reader—it's no wonder they have been recognized as seminal in the fields of horror and suspense.

At its core, Conjure Wife is a reiteration of the timeless conflict of reason versus belief. Norman Saylor is a successful professor of anthropology at a small liberal arts college in the northeast. He is quick to attribute his success to his even-keeled and charming wife Tansy, noting that their relationship is really a partnership and that he can rely on her to support him as he advances in the academic world—which is described in the book as a seamless mix of both the political and the interpersonal. Much of Saylor's position at the school depends on how he and his wife are perceived socially, and Tansy's wit and charm as both a host and guest at social functions amongst his peers buoys up his own reputation. But when Saylor uncovers evidence that Tansy practices witchcraft, even on his behalf, he is unable to cope with the implications. One might think that, like Darren on Bewitched, he feels inadequate and wants to prove he is capable on his own merits; however, what really sets him off is his wife practicing what is so obviously irrational, especially when his whole life's work is based on the exposure and eradication of superstition in modern man. Saylor even convinces himself and Tansy that her practice is a sickness, a neurosis that has to be eradicated in order that she can deal with the world as it really works, not via a construct that ignorant people use as a coping mechanism.

Tansy is adamant in her belief and warns Saylor that he doesn't know what he is messing with, but finally she relents. They burn all of the charms that Tansy has set up to protect them and Tansy goes to bed. In rapid succession, Saylor receives two phone calls—one from a student threatening Saylor for failing him and the second an unknown woman pleading with him to come to her, as she has been waiting for his embrace impatiently. Thus begins Saylor's personal descent into madness as event after event pile up to indicate the validity of what Tansy had been practicing and which he refuses to believe. Eventually it becomes clear to the reader, if not the narrator, that not only is witchcraft in this setting real, but that there are dark forces aligning themselves against both him and his wife. And as things grow progressively worse, moving into the macabre, Saylor doggedly holds on to his unbelief in witchcraft, despite applying modern science and mathematics to it to help combat it on something like his own terms.

In fact, if there is a weakness to the story, it lies in Saylor's inability to change his mind. Applying even the most stringent principles of the scientific method to the question would reveal to most unbiased experimenters at least the existence of something not within the world theory that Saylor holds. Unfortunately for Saylor, his determination in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary nearly costs him the things he holds most dear—his academic position and reputation…and Tansy herself. There are moments in Conjure Wife that are terrifying and harken back to even Lovecraft and Poe (the gargoyle that seems capable of independent but unwitnessed movement is especially creepy to me, making me think of Poe's "The Gold Bug" or much slower Weeping Angels from Dr. Who), but Leiber effortlessly places these moments in a decidedly contemporary framework. The final few chapters are a rush to an ending—there is no escape from the need for resolution, but the reader has no way to predict if the outcome is positive or negative. And even at the end of the story, as Saylor briefly reminisces, he remains unsure of his position in world that no longer makes sense to him, basically saying to his wife and the audience "I don't know."

The other novel in the book, Our Lady of Darkness, has as similar theme, about how the supernatural acts in the modern world (astute readers will note that this comes up often in the works of Leiber that I have read in this run of late). Unlike Norman Saylor, Franz Westen appears to just be getting by, having recently recovered from a three-year drunk following the death of his beloved wife. When he is not novelizing screenplays for a popular occult show, he is carefully feeling his way into relationships with a crazy cast of San Franciscans, working out what it means to be a functional member of society. But his interest in the supernatural because of his job and his passing acquaintance with dark things due to his loss flicker around the edges of his perception, informing the way he thinks and perceives. Westen is also driven by curiosity, attempting to dig into the core of ideas and root out forgotten connections. All of these personality traits come together in a strange book that Westen purchased in his drunk phase, a description of the occult beliefs of Thibaud de Castries and a journal of a man who becomes acquainted with de Castries before he died.

de Castries felt that large cities throughout time—such as Babylon, Rome, and the modern San Francisco—had their own "paramental" magics which he termed "megapolisomancy." His writing is packed with allusion and oblique reference, but his belief is quite clear, that big cities cause evil "spirits" to be created and haunt them. Most inhabitants of the city are only ever aware of strange events that go unexplained or bizarre coincidence, but de Castries believed that anyone who can perceive megapolisomancy could use it as a sorcerer would any other kind of magic. The journal that Westen found accompanying this volume names where de Castries apparently lived in San Francisco, so Westen goes off to figure out where that might be while simultaneously exploring some of the interesting geography of San Francisco. And then things get really weird, as the two investigations really become one.

Our Lady has parallels to two stories of Leiber's that I have mentioned earlier, "Smoke Ghost" and "Horrible Imaginings" in Selected Stories ( On the one hand, like in "Smoke Ghost," the city itself seems to house malignant forces, even perhaps causing those forces to exist, and Westen becomes an unhappy witness to their existence. The apartment house which acts as the setting for most of Our Lady seems identical to the setting of "Horrible Imaginings" down to the details of its location. But as a longer form story, Our Lady is incremental in how it ratchets up the suspense, sometimes feeling as if it moves at a glacial pace. What comes through more clearly is Leiber's ease with dialog and scenes in which people interact; the side characters in Our Lady are delightful despite their little roles in the story, and when they all get together, they really do feel like they have known each other for a long time. Our Lady also feels more personal, somehow relaxed as someone reflects on a personal story, rather than the completely diffident third-person narrator in Conjure Wife.

But when Leiber decides to be scary, he especially excels. The moments when terror makes itself known are heartstopping in their effectiveness, idiotically forcing the reader to NOT put down the book in order to find out what happens next, like all good thrillers. And the terror itself is personal to the narrator though feeling somehow directly descended from the horror of Lovecraft's imagination, simultaneously pulling the reader in while keeping a little distance away.

The end result is two very strong stories of a similar nature written in differing styles and at different times in Lieber's life and career. Supplemental reading elsewhere has shown me that critics and other authors often point to these stories as milestones not only in Leiber's career but in the growth of the horror genre. But that they are horror should not put off the reader who just wants a good story; Leiber demonstrates that his skill transcends genre consideration to be enjoyed by any reader who just wants good provocative writing. While they have some flaws, these two stories are well worth the time to hunt down and enjoy, and fans of modern literature should be proud to have this book on their library shelf.

(Two quick notes: these stories are also combined in a later book entitled Dark Ladies. Also, Conjure Wife has been made into a number of movies, most notably Night of the Eagle in England, or Burn, Witch, Burn as it was known in the US.)


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  2. Isn't it funny how "Our Lady of Darkness" has a similar theme to the movie "Ghostbusters", paraelementals formed in large cities?

  3. I had a long conversation with a friend about the possibility of ever seeing "Our Lady of Darkness" as a film. We didn't think a modern mainstream audience could sit through what appears to be a lot of nothing until it suddenly isn't....