Mon 17 Jan 2011
FRITZ LEIBER – Conjure Wife. Twayne, US, hardcover, 1953. Penguin, UK, paperback, 1969. First published in Unknown Worlds, April 1943. Reprinted several times, in both hardcover and soft, including: Lion 179, pb, 1953, cover art by Robert Maguire; Award A341X, 1968, and AN1143, 1974 (cover art by Jeff Jones on the latter).
● Filmed as Weird Woman Universal Pictures, 1944. Lon Chaney Jr., Anne Gwynne, Evelyn Ankers, Ralph Morgan. Director: Reginald Le Borg
● Filmed as Night of the Eagle (aka Burn, Witch, Burn!. Independent Artists, American International, 1962. Peter Wyngarde, Janet Blair, Margaret Johnston, Anthony Nicholls. Screenplay by Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson & George Baxt. Director: Sidney Hayers.
● Filmed as Witches’ Brew. Embassy/United Artists, 1980. Teri Garr, Richard Benjamin, Lana Turner, James Winkler. Conjure Wife uncredited as the source. Directors: Richard Shorr & Herbert L. Strock.
Last October I was also in the right mood for Conjure Wife (1943) Fritz Leiber’s classic tale of Black Magic and Campus Politics. It starts off rather predictably, as Professor Norman Saylor, successful sociologist and author of a popular book on primitive superstitions and modern behavior, discovers a trove of charms, voodoo tokens and sundry magic-spell components in his wife’s drawers (a rather fetishistic scene in itself) and learns that while he’s been relegating such things to unimportance, his wife has taken them seriously.
Naturally, he convinces her to destroy them, and naturally, all hell (literally!) proceeds to break loose.
I saw it all coming, but Leiber manages to invest the early scenes with atmosphere and a certain prosaic realism that kept me reading. Then he proceeds to give things a neat twist that generates considerable suspense and leads to one line that absolutely chilled me. I won’t reveal anything further, but I will say that Conjure Wife is a classic worth visiting.
The book was filmed three times: once very respectably in England as Night of the Eagle in 1962, and previously as a dotty “Inner Sanctum” movie from Universal, Weird Woman (1944.) Written and directed by studio hacks (including Brenda Weisberg, one of the few women in the creative end of horror films, whose career, alas, is notable only for being unremarkable) Weird Woman is mostly beneath contempt, but it does offer a kind of silly charm if you can get past the notion of Lon Chaney Jr. as a scholarly academic irresistible to women.
His solemn voice-over soliloquies add another layer of risibility, which fits in perfectly with the over-playing of over-heated dialogue from the rest of the cast. Looking back, Weird Woman is largely devoid of any artistic merit, but I have to say it’s done with an aesthetic consistency that held my unbelieving attention.