Crom Your Enthusiasm (21)

By: Lynn Peril
August 23, 2015

fritz leiber conjure wife

One of 25 installments in a series of posts analyzing and celebrating a few of our favorite fantasy novels from the Thirties (1934–43). Enjoy!

CONJURE WIFE | FRITZ LEIBER | 1943

Everything’s coming up roses for Norman Saylor. The chairmanship of the sociology department at Hempnell College should soon be his. He’s got a loyal and loving wife, Tansy, who helps him navigate faculty politics, both in and out of the classroom. But then Norman goes snooping in Tansy’s dressing room, where he finds neatly labeled vials of graveyard dirt, rusty horseshoe nails, hair clippings and other evidence that she’s been practicing conjure magic. He confronts her — she must stop this nonsense immediately. Tansy submits, and destroys the charms.

At this point you may find yourself thinking that you’ve seen this plotline before: Mortal man married to witch freaks out over his wife’s abnormal abilities and demands that she stop it, right now! Tansy is indeed a spiritual godmother to both Gillian Holroyd, the beatnik witch at the center of the 1958 film Bell, Book, and Candle and the play upon which it was based, and Samantha Stevens of ’60s television’s Bewitched. Gillian must decide between her power and a hunky neighbor because she can’t have both; a witch loses power when she falls in love. The last scene shows Gillian giving up her barefoot bohemianism for high-heeled, powerless conformity. In Bewitched, Darrin Stevens is so threatened by his wife’s power that he forbids her to use it. Samantha pays lip service to his edict, and the tension between the two of them and between square Darrin and Sam’s hip, magical family is the source of the show’s comedy.

But this is no rom-com/sit-com romp. The destruction of Tansy’s “hands” at Norman’s request has real and terrifying consequences, for himself and especially for her. To save Tansy, Norman must put aside science and accept the magical world at face value, at least for the moment. (It should be noted that the precept that all women are witches, working magic to protect their men, may cause a certain amount of eye-rolling. Ditto Tansy’s appropriation of a traditionally “Negro” form of magic.)

Having witnessed a mighty display of female power, at book’s end Norman remains unable to state with certainty whether or not witchcraft actually exists. One nevertheless suspects that he has indeed accepted its value, and that Tansy will soon return to making charms in her dressing room.

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CROM YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2015): Erik Davis on Jack Williamson’s DARKER THAN YOU THINK | Sara Ryan on T.H. White’s THE SWORD IN THE STONE | Mark Kingwell on C.S. Lewis’s OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET | David Smay on Fritz Leiber’s THIEVES’ HOUSE | Natalie Zutter on Robert E. Howard’s QUEEN OF THE BLACK COAST | James Parker on J.R.R. Tolkien’s THE HOBBIT | Adrienne Crew on Dion Fortune’s THE SEA PRIESTESS | Gabriel Boyer on Clark Ashton Smith’s ZOTHIQUE stories | John Hilgart on H.P. Lovecraft’s THE CASE OF CHARLES DEXTER WARD | Barbara Bogaev on William Sloane’s TO WALK THE NIGHT | Rob Wringham on Flann O’Brien’s THE THIRD POLICEMAN | Dan Fox on Hergé’s THE SEVEN CRYSTAL BALLS | Flourish Klink on C.S. Lewis’s PERELANDRA | Tor Aarestad on L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt’s THE ROARING TRUMPET | Anthony Miller on H.P. Lovecraft’s THE SHADOW OVER INNSMOUTH | Suzanne Fischer on E.R. Eddison’s MISTRESS OF MISTRESSES | Molly Sauter on Herbert Read’s THE GREEN CHILD | Diana Leto on Edgar Rice Burroughs’s TARZAN AND THE LION MAN | Joshua Glenn on Robert E. Howard’s THE HOUR OF THE DRAGON | Andrew Hultkrans on H.P. Lovecraft’s AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS | Lynn Peril on Fritz Leiber’s CONJURE WIFE | Gordon Dahlquist on H.P. Lovecraft’s THE SHADOW OUT OF TIME | Adam McGovern on C.L. Moore’s JIREL OF JOIRY stories | Tom Nealon on Fritz Leiber’s TWO SOUGHT ADVENTURE | John Holbo on Robert E. Howard’s CONAN MYTHOS.

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KERN YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2014): ALDINE ITALIC | DATA 70 | TORONTO SUBWAY | JOHNSTON’S “HAMLET” | TODD KLONE | GILL SANS | AKZIDENZ-GROTESK | CALIFORNIA BRAILLE | SHE’S NOT THERE | FAUX DEVANAGARI | FUTURA | JENSON’S ROMAN | SAVANNAH SIGN | TRADE GOTHIC BOLD CONDENSED NO. 20 | KUMON WORKSHEET | ELECTRONIC DISPLAY | DIPLOMA REGULAR | SCREAM QUEEN | CHICAGO | CHINESE SHIPPING BOX | SHATTER | COMIC SANS | WILKINS’S REAL CHARACTER | HERMÈS vs. HOTDOG | GOTHAM.

HERC YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2013): “Spoonin’ Rap” | “Rapper’s Delight” | “Rappin’ Blow” | “The Incredible Fulk” | “The Adventures of Super Rhyme” | “That’s the Joint” | “Freedom” | “Rapture” | “The New Rap Language” | “Jazzy Sensation (Bronx Version)” | “Can I Get a Soul Clap” | “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” | “Making Cash Money” | “The Message” | “Pak Jam” | “Buffalo Gals” | “Ya Mama” | “No Sell Out” | “Death Mix Live, Pt. 2” | “White Lines (Don’t Do It)” | “Here We Go (Live at the Funhouse)” | “Rockit” | “The Coldest Rap” | “The Dream Team is in the House” | The Lockers.

KIRK YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2012): Justice or vengeance? | Kirk teaches his drill thrall to kiss | “KHAAAAAN!” | “No kill I” | Kirk browbeats NOMAD | Kirk’s eulogy for Spock| The joke is on Kirk | Kirk vs. Decker | Good Kirk vs. Evil Kirk | Captain Camelot | Koon-ut-kal-if-fee | Federation exceptionalism | Wizard fight | A million things you can’t have | Debating in a vacuum | Klingon diplomacy | “We… the PEOPLE” | Brinksmanship on the brink | Captain Smirk | Sisko meets Kirk | Noninterference policy | Kirk’s countdown | Kirk’s ghost | Watching Kirk vs. Gorn | How Spock wins

KIRB YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2011): THE ETERNALS | BLACK MAGIC | DEMON | OMAC | CAPTAIN AMERICA | KAMANDI | MACHINE MAN | SANDMAN | THE X-MEN | THE FANTASTIC FOUR | TALES TO ASTONISH | YOUNG LOVE | STRANGE TALES | MISTER MIRACLE | BLACK PANTHER | THOR | JIMMY OLSEN | DEVIL DINOSAUR | THE AVENGERS | TALES OF SUSPENSE | THE NEW GODS | REAL CLUE | THE FOREVER PEOPLE | JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY | 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY

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What do you think?

  1. Lynn Peril, my favorite cultural historian. Love the connection you draw between this book and later entertainments played for laughs.

  2. PS: Here’s a shot from the 1962 movie adaptation of Leiber’s novel, “Burn Witch Burn” (aka “Night of the Eagle”).

    burn witch burn

  3. There’s of course another precedent in the Domesticated Witch sub-genre, with I Married A Witch, the Veronica Lake vehicle based on the Thorne Smith novel.

    But it’s a cool and fascinating lineage and a kind of cultural litmus test for how female agency is perceived as a threat.

  4. Ah yes, male authority and female power returned to their “rightful” spheres just like in Shakespeare. And you’ve made me realize what I liked so much about Bewitched (well, other than that I identified with Samantha’s persistent spell-casting like I did with my creative sister and rebellious Jewish mom) — the magic in-laws were like a one-fam counterculture, snuck onto primetime TV!

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