Longtime readers will know that I am a big fan of Fritz Leiber, a criminally unsung author whose influence is as pervasive as it is unacknowledged. Such stories as 1941's The Smoke Ghost and 1949's The Girl with the Hungry Eyes are foundational documents in the 'dark urban fantasy' genre which is so popular these days.
One of the lacunae in my Leiber reading was the 1943 novel Conjure Wife, a tale of witchcraft set in a small university. The protagonist of the novel is John Saylor, a sociologist who has recently completed a survey of folk-magic practices with the assistance of his wife Tansy, culminating in an upcoming monograph, The Social Background of the Modern Voodoo Cult. Saylor and his wife are nonconformists stuck in a conservative institution, yet are thriving despite not being quite as staid as the administration would wish them to be.
One day, on a whim which he acknowledges as being childish and perhaps illicit, Saylor decides to go through his wife's dressing room and discovers that she has drawers full of the trappings of witchcraft- graveyard dirt, hair-and-nail clippings, horseshoe nails, and flannel mojo hands. A social scientist, he is appalled by this evidence of superstition on the part of his wife. On her return home, he confronts her with his discovery and makes her promise not to engage in these practices, and combs through the house finding flannel mojo bags and other talismans everywhere.
After he destroys the items, bad things start to happen- he is accused of sexual harassment by a student-employee, he starts lecturing about controversial topics, he puts his path to a department chairmanship in jeopardy. Being a rational person, which is never a plus in a dark fantasy, he chalks these things up to coincidence. The reader, of course, susses out what's going on pretty quickly.
The threats that accumulate against Saylor culminate in a supernatural attack on his house by an architectural grotesque that adorns one of the campus buildings, and hints of a fatal curse placed on him by an unknown antagonist. Tansy, unknown to her husband, takes the curse upon herself in order to save him, and receives a compulsion to flee the university. In one particularly creepy scene, John tracks down Tansy and, finally realizing that his rational worldview is not up to the task of saving his wife, decides to use supernatural means to save her... too late. Having largely failed to save his wife from a soul-stealing enchantment, he has to find a means to return her trapped soul to her and discover the source of the supernatural attacks on them.
The weird thing about this novel is that it portrays every woman on the planet as being a witch. Tansy, the other university wives, a young hotel maid... all of them use magic to one extent or other. The rudiments of the practice are handed down mother-to-daughter (uh, no explanation for how orphans learn it), but each individual woman continues to the extent of her abilities, using trial-and-error to achieve more mastery of the craft.
The novel then shifts into a spiritual battle between Saylor, who uses his analytical skills to approach the supernatural arts, and the witches who have tormented him and his wife. His struggle is reminiscent of a video game, in which he has to face a succession of increasingly powerful 'level bosses', until he finally finds the authoress of the couple's misfortunes.
The book was a fun read, if dated. There is the typical mid-century sexism, of the 'women being conscious of the moon-pulls and earth-tides' variety, and African-American conjure-men working their mojo, but it's not as toxic as a lot of other mid-century pulp fiction. The book also had me looking up the folk-practices that it describes, and I found a great Lightnin' Hopkins song about a mojo hand as a result:
One mark of my enjoyment of a book, movie, or television series is the series of internet searches that the work inspires... I love works which set off a cascade of queries.