By Ted Gioia

Few literary figures of the early 20th century led less
predictable lives than Fritz Leiber.  He was a brilliant
chess player, a preacher, a college teacher, a champion
fencer, a Shakespearian actor, and even appeared on
screen with Greta Garbo.  But his biggest pay day came
from a game—when he licensed the fruits of his fertile
imagination to the creators of the role-playing classic
Dungeons & Dragons.  This game
was so popular with my freshman
roommate in college that, when he
got phone calls or visitors while
he was out, we simply responded:
"John’s in the dungeon."

And, oh yes, there is the matter of
Mr. Leiber's writing, which was
hardly more conventional than his
CV.  Leiber drew on his own odd
assortment of influences—H.P.
Lovecraft, Carl Jung, Robert
Graves, Joseph Campbell—in a literary career that

crossed genres almost as frequently as his adventure-
seeking characters crossed swords.  His most famous
fictional creations were Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser,
who for many readers still represent the gold standard
in the sword-and-sorcery genre.  In time, Leiber

established himself as a major author of science fiction,
horror and fantasy, and dabbled in other genres too—
pretty good for a latecomer who didn’t really focus on
writing until he was almost thirty.  

Related Stories
Fritz Leiber at 100
The Big Time by Fritz Leiber
Swords and Deviltry by Fritz Leiber
The Wanderer by Fritz Leiber

Conjure Wife, Leiber's debut novel from 1943, also ranks
among his most resilient works, with a modern day
witchcraft storyline that has been rediscovered in
different formats by several generations of admirers.  
Every couple decades, a new film version comes to the
screen.   Conjure Wife has inspired three films already:  
Weird Woman (1944),  Burn Witch Burn (1961) and
Witches Brew (1980).   United Artists has secured
the rights to a fourth version, which is moving ahead
under the direction of Billy Ray.

The novel opens when John Saylor, a professor at a

small New England college, decides to pry into his wife’s
dressing room.  Here, among the cosmetics, he finds,
vials of graveyard dirt, packets of hair and fingernail
clippings from their acquaintance, incantations scrawled
in the margins of a book, horseshoe nails, unusual herbal
substances . . . and various other items not sold by Mary
Kay.  In short, Tansy Saylor is a witch.

Saylor’s wife interrupts him in the midst of going

through her magical accessories.  After a tense
confrontation, she admits to her obsession with charms
and magic.  The irony here is that her husband, a
committed rationalist and professor of sociology, has
devoted his career to debunking primitive superstitions.  
Now he learns that his wife has taken advantage of his
research and field trips to develop her own arsenal of
magical practices.  Imagine Hermione Granger married
to A.J. Ayer, and you will get some idea of this odd
husband-and-wife team.  

The juxtaposition of different versions of reality is one

of the delights of conceptual fiction, and Leiber makes
the most of the conflicting world views at play here.   
Superimposing the scientific method and rampant
sorcery in the same narrative makes the Darwin-versus-
Creationism debate look like a coffeehouse squabble by
comparison.  Although pulp fiction maestros such as
Leiber are supposed to be obsessed with plot and not
philosophical resonances, this author may surprise
readers by work by achieving both in a compact novel.  

Under pressure from her husband, Tansy accepts that

her behavior has been pathological, and agrees to get rid
of all her “stuff”—the charms, the incantations, the
herbs and other ingredients are consigned to the flames.  
Bad decision!  Almost immediately, terrible things start
happening to Professor Saylor.   False charges are leveled
at him, new adversaries confront him, old secrets are
dredged up from their hiding places.  Even worse, that
most deadly game of all—faculty politics—begins to
turn against him.

Did he make a mistake in getting rid of those protective

charms?  Or has his own pristine, rational mode of
thinking been compromised by her crazy convictions?  
He doesn’t want to raise the issue with his wife.  She
seems happily adjusted to a life without magic, and just
talking about his troubles might send her back into her
unhealthy obsessions.  But still. . . .

Leiber handles this story with skill, balancing the

inherent drama of his plot with his characteristic
touches of humor and irony.  Forty years before

Updike's The Witches of Eastwick—which like Conjure
has been frequently adapted to other genres—
Leiber successfully captured the piquant angles on a
sorcery story translated to modern-day New England.   
The popularity of these tales is hardly surprising.  The
superstitious mind never really went away—a US Court
declared Wiccan was a religion at almost the same time
as Updike's book came out—and certainly makes for a
better story than other New Age movements.  I've read
all of the Harry Potter books, but will pass on the great
Rolfing novel or the Primal Scream movie adaptation.   

The recent reissue of this novel and the forthcoming

movie adaptation are encouraging signs that Fritz
Leiber's work may be slated for a revival. Other stirrings
of interest are evident—note that Michael Chabon's
2007 novel Gentlemen of the Road showed a clear debt to
the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories. What's next?  
Maybe colleges will start teaching megapolisomancy to
the next generation of urban planners.

I've watched with interest—and, let’s be honest, quite a

bit of enthusiasm—as authors such as Philip K. Dick
and H.P. Lovecraft have risen from the dungeon of
pulp fiction hacks to be enshrined as important

contributors to American fiction.  Now that this path
to respectability has been forged, let’s use it to bring Mr.

Leiber along too.  Indeed, his tales seem perfectly suited
for the new millennium, with their potential for
adaptation to interactive media, their theme-ride pacing,
and overriding concerns. Next year will be the centenary
of his birth, and what could be a better time to bring this
fervently creative writer’s stories to the attention of
today’s readers?
Conjure Wife
by Fritz Leiber
Click on image to purchase
The Year
(click here)
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction
Welcome to my year of magical
reading.  Each week during the
course of 2012,  I will explore an
important work of fiction that
incorporates elements of magic,
fantasy or the surreal.  My choices
will cross conventional boundary
lines of genre, style and historical
period—indeed, one of my intentions
in this project is to show how the
conventional labels applied to these
works have become constraining,
deadening and misleading.

In its earliest days, storytelling almost
always partook of the magical. Only
in recent years have we segregated
works arising from this venerable
tradition into publishing industry
categories such as "magical realism"
or "paranormal" or "fantasy" or some
other 'genre' pigeonhole. These
labels are not without their value, but
too often they have blinded us to the
rich and multidimensional heritage
beyond category that these works

This larger heritage is mimicked in
our individual lives: most of us first
experienced the joys of narrative
fiction through stories of myth and
magic, the fanciful and
phantasmagorical; but only a very
few retain into adulthood this sense
of the kind of enchantment possible
only through storytelling.  As such,
revisiting this stream of fiction from a
mature, literate perspective both
broadens our horizons and allows us
to recapture some of that magic in
our imaginative lives.

The Year of Magical Reading:

Week 1:
Midnight's Children by
Salman Rushdie

Week 2:  The House of the Spirits by
Isabel Allende

Week 3:  The Witches of Eastwick
John Updike

Week 4:  Magic for Beginners by
Kelly Link

Week 5:  The Tin Drum by Günter

Week 6:  The Golden Ass by

Week 7:  The Tiger's Wife by Téa

Week 8:  One Hundred Years of
Solitude  by Gabriel García Márquez

Week 9:  The Book of Laughter and
Forgetting by Milan Kundera

Week 10: Gargantua and Pantagruel
François Rabelais

Week 11: The Famished Road by
Ben Okri

Week 12: Like Water for Chocolate
Laura Esquivel

Week 13: Winter's Tale by Mark

Week 14: Dhalgren by Samuel R.

Week 15:  Johnathan Strange & Mr.
Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Week 16:  The Master and
Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Week 17:  Dangerous Laughter by
Steven Millhauser

Week 18:  Conjure Wife by Fritz

Week 19:  1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

Week 20:  The Hobbit by J.R.R.

Week 21:  Aura by Carlos Fuentes

Week 22:  Dr. Faustus by Thomas

Week 23:  Orlando by Virginia Woolf

Week 24:  Little, Big by John Crowley

Week 25:  The White Hotel by D.M.

Week 26:  Neverwhere by Neil

Week 27:  Alice's Adventures in
Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Week 28:  Fifth Business by
Robertson Davies

Week 29:  The Kingdom of This
World by Alejo Carpentier

Week 30:  The Bear Comes Home
by R
afi Zabor

Week 31:  The Color of Magic by
Terry Pratchett

Week 32:  Ficciones by Jorge Luis

Week 33:  Beloved by Toni Morrison

Week 34:  Dona Flor and Her Two
Husbands by Jorge Amado

Week 35:  Hard-Boiled Wonderland
and the End of the World by Haruki

Week 36:  What Dreams May Come
by Richard Matheson

Week 37:  Practical Magic by Alice

Week 38:  Blindess by José

Week 39:  The Fortress of Solitude
by J
onathan Lethem

Week 40:  The Magicians by Lev

Week 41:  Suddenly, A Knock at the
Door by Etgar Keret

Week 42:  Cloudstreet by Tim Winton

Week 43:  The Obscene Bird of
NIght by José Donoso

Week 44:  The Fifty Year Sword by
Mark Z. Danielewski

Week 45:  Gulliver's Travels by
Jonathan Swift

Week 46:  Harry Potter and the
Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling

Week 47:  The End of the Affair by
Graham Greene

Week 48:  The Chronicles of Narnia
by C
.S. Lewis

Week 49:  Hieroglyphic Tales by
Horace Walpole

Week 50:  The View from the
Seventh Layer by Kevin Brockmeier

Week 51:  Gods Without Men by
Hari Kunzru

Week 52:  At Swim-Two-Birds by
Flann O'Brien
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Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

Links to related sites
The New Canon
Great Books Guide
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's web site
Ted Gioia on Twitter

SF Site
Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Los Angeles Review of Books
The Millions
Big Dumb Object
SF Novelists
More Words, Deeper Hole
The Misread City
Reviews and Responses
SF Signal
True Science Fiction
Tor blog

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