Dark Ladies: Conjure Wife/Our Lady of Darkness by Fritz Leiber
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Wow. I am glad I finally read this one. I've had it in my pile for a while, and in my classic horror/fantasy reading quest, Fritz Leiber definitely is a must read.
So, let's get down to business:
Review of Conjure Wife
I read this out of the Dark Ladies: Conjure Wife/Our Lady of Darkness duology, but I wanted to jot down my thoughts separately for this one before I finish the volume.
I found the writing clever. I was transplanted into the cutthroat world of college politics. Who knew that the wives could be just as fierce as their faculty husbands? And that they would resort to sorcery and witchcraft to keep their husbands (and themselves by relation) in power? Things get pretty nasty!
I think that there is some very interesting commentary about male and female relationships here. That old Venus Versus Mars argument. I felt at first that Norman was a rampant sexist (in a way that is very common even today). He had a superior attitude towards his wife, while simultaneously being in awe of her at the same time. He seemed to view her as an alien creature, constantly analyzing the way her mind worked, as if it was so different from his. I liked how his feelings of mental superiority over her backfired when he realized that she was in fact the one who was right about what was really going on, and how he had to rely on her knowledge of the situation. I liked how things turned around and it was clear how much he did care for his wife. How he fought for her well-being, willingly putting aside his hard-headed scientific skeptical thought processes to save her.
I feel that there is a heavy tone of satire cleverly mixed in with well-executed psychological horror. Norman's internal dialogue engenders a tone that is analytical and observational (although he doesn't seem to be as observant as one would think for a sociologist), wry and sarcastic at other times and quite laden with a menace that sneaks up on the reader. At first, I found him to be a bit of a pompous twit. I admit I can't stand when men treat women like their brains and mental capacities are limited. But I couldn't stay angry at him. He learned the hard way not to underestimate women, particularly his own wife. I think in this, Leiber is making a point. For all the men did have a tendency to view their spouses through a skewed lens, not realizing just how much power the women truly had in their lives and over them. Leiber seems to throw sexist ideas out with a wink and a nod, as if he expects the readers to reject those thoughts, or perhaps to poke fun at those who believe what he's saying. My take, anyway.
I wonder what the reception was to this book in the 1940s. The ideas of male/female relations are probing and insightful in a way that seems a bit subversive. But what do I know? At any rate, I liked this story very much. It's beautifully subtle in the slow building of menace and fear, and the ideas about society seem to be relevant today in how men and women and spouses relate to and view each other. Also it speaks to the often venomous way that women can sometimes turn against each other, belying what some (including myself) naively believe about the sisterhood of women. On the horror level, the truly heinous and scary nature of witchcraft used as a tool for power and control is enough to send a shiver down my spine. It makes you wonder just how much witchcraft may be going on behind the scenes today.
Overall rating: 4.25/5.0 stars.
Review of Our Lady of Darkness
In this story, Leiber demonstrates an incredible knowledge base about dark and supernatural fiction, going back into the 19th and early 20th century. He writes this story in the style of Lovecraft, or should I say Machen, since he wrote The Great God Pan long before Lovecraft, in which the unknown menace is slowly being revealed to the protagonist. This is a knowledge too terrible to behold. Many have been damaged and have succumbed to it in the past.
I liked the nod and the reference to all those various works of literature, and the inclusion of real life people in the world of the arts and science in this story. That was very cleverly done. This does a lot to create and flesh out the fictional world. As with the other book in the duology of Dark Ladies, "Conjure Wife", Leiber does do a good job of building menace and the tension level, and with using that thematic question ‘Is it real or am I losing my mind?
This story has an air of decadence I didn’t care for. You can see changes in the times, with the shift in values that occurred past the mid-20th Century, both good and bad. For instance, there is an air of anything goes sexuality, the rejection of anything good and decent for the sake of nihilism or the love of chaos/anarchy, and the liberal use of drugs and alcohol. The author doesn’t quite condone this in the story, but he is not shy about showing some of these aspects. Some of it gave me a bad feeling, but then I have never been one for sexual violence, darkness or depravity, in real life, or in my fiction.
Overall, I can’t say I liked this book that much. There were some appealing components, such as the literary nods and the clear evidence of Leiber’s extensive knowledge of classic dark fiction and horror, as well having his bibliophilia show through in his characters. As a huge fan of MR James, it was great to see more than a couple of references to him. Similarly, fans of Lovecraft will appreciate the nods to his pivotal work in 20th Century horror and supernatural fiction. I guess my big issue was the fact that some concepts were just too out there for me (and their explanations somewhat tedious), the overall level of moral decadence (not a big draw for me), and the slow unfolding of the plot. Sure enough, the climax is a good payoff (really quite scary), but not enough to elevate this book to a higher level. Especially after how much I enjoyed its sister story, “Conjure Wife" out of Dark Ladies: Conjure Wife/Our Lady of Darkness. It's never a good idea to compare things, but sometimes the comparison is obligatory and that one thing fails to live up to its companion in the end. Such was the case with "Our Lady of Darkness."
I would still consider this semi-required reading for the 19th-20th Century classic horror scholar or devotee. You might like it more than I did, and that would be an a good thing in the end if you find another book you love.
Overall rating: 2.5/5.0 stars.
Well, there you have it. My thoughts on this volume. Leiber is a good writer. He knows what he is doing and has a way with telling a scary story. I will be reading more of his books!
Although my rating for "Our Lady of Darkness" is low, I can't give this less than four stars overall, because it has an impact and seems very canonical in the development of supernatural fiction and horror from the 20th century overall. That's my opinion, and I'm sticking to it!
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