Fritz Leiber’s Conjure Wife

Conjure Wife – Fritz Leiber

Penguin – 1969 (Originally published 1949)

I really enjoyed Our Lady of Darkness (both times I read it), and I felt like it was time to revisit Fritz Leiber. Conjure Wife was first published in 1949. It’s the story of a college professor who discovers that his wife has been practicing witchcraft behind his back. He thinks this is a shameful load of nonsense, so he tells her to stop. Shortly after this, he realises that her magic has been protecting him from the spells of the other witches. It turns out that his wife isn’t the only witch on campus. Actually, most women are really witches.

Now, the title ‘witch’ don’t apply to all women,

but all women have a little witch in ’em

Fritz Leiber

It’s a pretty simple premise, but Leiber makes it work really well. The conflict is mainly psychological, occurring in the protagonist’s head. I read somebody comment that the novel’s description of women isn’t “generous”, but I don’t agree. The tension in the book, and there’s loads of it, is largely created by the unwillingness of the male protagonist to believe what is happening to him. He’s an idiot. The women are running the show here. This book is only demeaning to women if you think of witchcraft as a bad thing.

While some of the magic in here is rather fantastic, a lot of it is the kind of stuff that I don’t entirely disbelieve in. It seems to me that Leiber had a very clear understanding of the nature of magic.

Fritz Leiber was a cool guy. I read somebody describe him as the link between Lovecraft and Philip K. Dick, and apparently he corresponded with both. That itself is enough to impress me, but the books I’ve read by him are awesome too. I’ve heard that his short stories are some of his best work, so I’ll probably look at them next. I don’t know if there’s a specific collection that I should go for. Part of me wants to just read the horror ones, but I’m sure that’s dumb. Let me know if you have any recommendations.

The Pale Brown Thing – Fritz Leiber

Fritz Leiber – The Pale Brown Thing
The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction January/February 1977

Late last year, I read Fritz Leiber’s Our Lady of Darkness. While writing about that book, I discovered that an earlier version of the story had been published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Leiber later claimed that this version, titled The Pale Brown Thing, could be read as an alternative telling of the same story rather than just a draft version of Our Lady of Darkness. I was intrigued. A few days after I published my post on Our Lady of Darkness, a kind soul emailed me scans of the two editions of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction that featured Leiber. I had really enjoyed Our Lady of Darkness, but I didn’t feel the need to read another version of it straight away.

I waited 6 months. I felt like that would be enough time to put myself in the frame of mind that would allow me to both enjoy the story for a second time without it being too repetitive and to be able to remember enough of one version to compare it to the other. It was certainly long enough to allow me to enjoy the story again. I remembered enough to stay a few pages ahead of the plot, but I had forgotten enough to stay interested. Unfortunately, I had forgotten far too much to make any kind of interesting comparison between the two versions of this story. I can’t remember a single thing from Our Lady of Darkness, the longer of the two versions, that does not take place in The Pale Brown Thing. In fact, I am quite unsure as to how the second version is longer. How is it different? What did Leiber add? Is the longer version better?

I guess this is a pretty pathetic post. I’ve ended up just repeating the questions I set out to answer. Maybe I’ll reread Our Lady of Darkness in another 4 months and try again. I can conclude that reading both versions of this story is probably unnecessary if you’re not a huge Leiber fan.

I know I haven’t said much about the actual story here, but I will remind you that I wrote a post on that less than a year ago. Check that one out if you’re curious. In sincerity, I don’t plan on another reread any time soon, but I am still intrigued by Thibault De Castries and his science of megapolisomancy. Wouldn’t it be so cool if a copy of that mysterious book actually turned up?

Our Lady of Darkness – Fritz Leiber

fritz leiber our lady darknessOur Lady of Darkness – Fritz Leiber
Berkley Publishing – 1977

A recovering alcoholic reads a weird book about evil architecture and a notebook belonging to Clark Ashton Smith and then begins to see weird stuff through his binoculars. That’s the premise of Our Lady of Darkness by Fritz Leiber. The protagonist is also an author of weird fiction, and repeatedly references Lovecraft, M.R. James and Bierce. I really enjoyed this book, and reading it has made me want to check out more stuff by Leiber.

I didn’t know anything about the author when I started reading Our Lady of Darkness, but I only got a few chapters into this book before I realised that the main character is supposed to be him. Leiber’s name was Fritz, and the character’s name is Franz. They  have the same job, and I can’t put my finger on it exactly, but there was something about the sections on the protagonist’s wife and her death that had me convinced that Leiber was writing from experience. Sure enough, he lapsed into alcoholism after the death of his own wife, and this is obviously a largely autobiographical work. Although this novel contains some fantastic elements, this autobiographical stuff keeps it grounded and makes the weirdness all the more discomforting.

And the weirdness here is quite weird. The antagonist of the book is Thibaut de Castries, the author of Megapolisomancy: A New Science of Cities, a book about the supernatural power of large cities and their buildings. I found this idea quite Ballardian, not in the sense that Ballard was also fascinated with architecture but in the pairing of two seemingly disparate concepts. (De Castries links occult forces with architecture in a similar way to how Ballard links sex and car crashes.) It was cool to come across an idea as strange as this in a fantasy/horror novel.

I don’t have a huge amount else to say about this book. It’s a classic of weird fiction, and you should read it if you haven’t already.  An earlier version of the story was published as The Pale Brown Thing in Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and I read yesterday that Leiber considered this an alternative telling of the same tale rather than just an earlier draft. Swan River Press published an edition of this version in 2016, but it’s long sold out. It would be cool if somebody could upload scans of the original printing to the internet. I’d be delighted to read another version of this story.