Monday, October 25, 2010

Magically Horrifying

It's almost Halloween, so the annual round of slasher movies has been released and bookstores are prominently displaying the latest in vampire fiction.  My favorite horror novel, though, does not feature bloodsuckers, chainsaws, zombies, psychopaths or a post-apocalyptic civilization inhabited by human wolves.  Set on a peaceful small-town college campus, Conjure Wife by Fritz Leiber relies on suggestion and suspicion to build an almost unbearable atmosphere of suspense before some of the traditional trappings of horror fiction finally kick in at the end of Chapter 14.

Norman Saylor is a young sociology professor who earned his doctorate with a brilliant dissertation on folk magic.  His stay-at-home wife, Tansy, enthusiastically helped him with the research.  In the first chapter of the book, Norman is appalled to discover that Tansy really believes in the magic they have been studying and has been trying to use it to protect him and advance his career.  He pressures her to stop and she reluctantly agrees.

Almost immediately things go wrong for Norman, personally and professionally.  Against his will, he begins to believe that Tansy was right in her assertion that the other faculty wives are also practicing witches who will stop at nothing to protect their husbands against the perceived threats posed by Norman's youth and brains.  Norman's and Tansy's lives and souls are both at risk, and the suspense is excruciating.

Conjure Wife was written in 1953 so some of it reads now like a historical novel, but the details of campus politics could have been lifted from last week, and the author's background research makes the folk magic sections totally believable.  Despite its age, it's still in print, so I'm obviously not the only one to consider this a classic.  Tired of zombie hordes and in-your-face violence?  Let Fritz Leiber show you the subtle side of horror.

"Disbelief in magic can force a poor soul into believing in government and business. " ~Tom Robbins

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