01/03/2011. Contributed by Pauline Morgan
pub: TOR/Forge. 224 page enlarged paperback. Price: $14.99 (US), $18.99 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-7653-2406-1.
check out website: www.tor-forge.com
This book is published under the banner ‘The Classic Of Urban Fantasy’. The question is what makes a book or anything a classic? With music we tend to apply the label to older, usually dead, composers who wrote longer pieces of music to a particular form. They do not have to be played regularly today to be regarded as classical. ‘Conjure Wife’ was originally published in 1943 by Friz Leiber, an author who is now dead. It is a novel, a symphony of prose with a number of themes to which Leiber returns at intervals throughout his life. To be a classic novel, the book must have stood the time test and still have relevance to the current reading audience, a reason why some classical composers are either still played or forgotten. Unlike music, forgotten classics in prose are a myth. If they do not resonate, they are not classics.
‘Conjure Wife’ was written at a time when there was far less of a distinction between genres. There were pulps, pot-boilers and novels, some of which were supernatural fiction. The label urban fantasy is a relatively new one.
The setting is a provincial American college, equivalent of one of Britain’s newer universities. What seems quiet to the outsider is rife with rivalries amongst academics and students alike. At the time of writing, the late 1930s backdrop would have been regarded as contemporary, now it has the flavour of an authentic historical piece.
Norman Saylor appears to lead a very contented life. He has a beautiful wife with whom he is still in love. His career is flourishing and is in line for the chair of the sociology department and has just completed the manuscript for his latest paper on the voodoo cult. Then in a moment of mental aberration, he looks inside his wife’s drawers and finds things he didn’t expect, such as little bottles of graveyard dirt. Since his specialism is collecting and comparing the superstitions of various cultures he rapidly concludes that Tansy has been experimenting with witchcraft. As he believes that superstition has no place in modern society, he thinks that Tansy is teetering towards an unhealthy obsession. He confronts and persuades her to give up what he regards as nonsense. Together, they collect and burn all the charms that Tansy has hidden around the house. The fact that almost simultaneously with the disposal of the last one, he receives a wild phone call from a student that he has flunked and puts down to coincidence as well as the call from a temporary admin assistant to declare her undying love for him. This, however, is just the start of a sequence of events which threatens not just Norman’s career but his reputation and possibly his wife. He has to put aside his scepticism and accept that there may be something in witchcraft.
Perhaps one reason why ghost or supernatural stories still resonate is the idea that the phenomena are still unexplained and although the settings are no longer contemporary, the reactions and prejudices of the characters are. ‘Conjure Wife’ may be a little philosophical in places for the modern reader in search of vicarious thrills as this is a gentlemanly, quiet novel reflecting the period and style in which it was written. This detracts nothing from the skill of Leiber’s writing in portraying, place, character and the way in which human minds work. Above all, this stands out as possessing all the qualities that make a book a classic.
Maybe the best definition of a classic book should be one which everyone should read because everyone will take something away from it, whenever it was written.
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