I cannot exaggerate how much I enjoyed reading "Conjure Wife", my first encounter with Fritz Leiber. From the not-so-subtle foreshadowing of doom:
"Oh, it was a wonderful day all right, one of those days when reality becomes a succession of such bright and sharp images that you are afraid that any moment you will poke a hole in the gorgeous screen and glimpse the illimitable, unknown blackness it films; when everything seems so friendly and right that you tremble lest a sudden searing flash of insight reveal to you the massed horror and hate and brutality and ignorance on which life rests."
Through the ongoing parallel between the nuclear arms race and magical standoffs:
"Is it to be wondered if people grasp at superstition in this rotten, hate-filled, half-doomed world of today? Lord knows, I’d welcome the blackest of black magic, if it could do anything to stave off the atom bomb.”
And throughout the slow building of tension that leads to a near-breathless twist ending, I was hooked. Science versus Magic; quantifiable versus unquantifiable. Norman Saylor's comfortably ordered and scientific mind is under assault from the get go. Watch his almost-painful-to-witness struggle to retain some semblance of rational order:
"With the singlemindedness of inebriation, his scholar’s mind began to assemble world-wide evidence of witchcraft. For instance, was it not likely that all self-destructive impulses were the result of witchcraft? Those universal impulses that were a direct contradiction to the laws of self-preservation and survival. To account for them, Poe had fancifully conceived an 'Imp of the Perverse,' and psychoanalysts had laboriously hypothesized a 'death wish.' How much simpler to attribute them to malign forces outside the individual, working by means as yet unanalyzed and therefore classified as supernatural."
The supernatural appears to gain the upper hand for Norman:
"Then, in one instant of diabolic, paralyzing insight, he knew that this was sorcery. No mere puttering about with ridiculous medieval implements, no effortless sleight of hand, but a straining, back-breaking struggle to keep control of forces summoned, of which the objects he manipulated were only the symbols. Outside the walls of the room, outside the walls of his skull, outside the impalpable energy-walls of his mind, he felt those forces gathering, swelling up, dreadfully expectant, waiting for him to make a false move so that they could crush him."
But in the final lines of the novel, reason and academic training prove tenacious:
“'[D]o you honestly believe all this, or are you once more just pretending to believe for my (Tansy's) sake?' ... 'I don’t know,' said Norman softly and as seriously as before. 'I don’t really know.'"
Interestingly, though Saylor claims witches and superstitious people are deluding themselves to avoid dealing with a grim reality, it's Saylor's compulsive clinging to a fragile sense of order that represents deep delusion. It's his scientific world that produced the atom bomb, an irrational, suicidal invention if there ever was one. Saylor fears this product of reason as much as he fears black magic, putting him in an uncomfortable limbo state between the academic world of Hempnell College and Tansy's world of unseen magical forces. Saylor's extreme discomfort explains his attempts to find formulaic explanations for magic, and his stubborn yet humble final words - "I don't really know." Though no longer certain of magic's nonexistence, Norman still cannot follow his advice to Tansy and give up his own reason-inspired "charms." The book's done, but the struggles for Norman and Tansy are far from over.
Written in 1943, "Conjure Wife" includes some outdated, even offensive language (repeated use of the term "Negro"). But Leiber's smart, vivid storytelling ability cannot be denied. For me, reading "Conjure Wife" was like having a high-quality, creepy noir film playing in my head, complete with bursts of scary music accompanying lightning flashes. In the end, Leiber's novel deserves every bit of my five-star rating.