Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham

Reviewed by Rod McLary

The title of this fine example of American noir is evocative to say the least.  Its meaning is brought to life by the protagonist Stanton Carlisle when he says: ‘this [the alley] was all there was any time, anywhere, just an alley and a light and the footsteps spanging on the cobbles but they never catch you, they never catch you, they never catch – ‘[350].  But they do – as the reader will discover as s/he follows the trajectory of Stanton’s life.

Stanton is a young man working as a ‘carny’ in a travelling circus but he has no intention of remaining one.  He is young, good-looking, clever and ambitious – and has an eye for an opportunity to advance himself even if it is at the expense of others.  The show in which he is working is a Ten-in-One where there is one tent and ten separate platforms each featuring such acts as ‘the tiniest human on record’, the Half-man Acrobat, Mamzelle Electra ‘the girl who defies the lightning’, and Zeena the clairvoyant.  Mamzelle Electra – better known as Molly when off-stage – and Zeena are key players in the drama as it unfolds.  But at the centre of the drama is Stanton targetting Zeena as someone with whom he can lose his virginity and Molly as being sufficiently vulnerable and naïve to fall for his boyish looks and charm.

There is though a darkness in Stanton caused in part by an abusive father and an adulterous mother which manifests itself when needs must.  At twenty-one, he has already precipitated the death of the freak-show geek – ‘the stinking old rum-pot’ [57] – who had given up hope and couldn’t run far enough from his demons.  While initially Stanton is consumed with fear that he will be hanged as a consequence, soon after, it is ‘as if an abscess has broken’ – he could breathe again and begin to think.  What he thinks about is how best to curate his future – ‘big dough and plenty of class’ [156].

The author has crafted a chilling and frightening story where cruel manipulation of the weak and vulnerable is an essential skill fully utilised by Stanton in order to survive.  Not only is the book one which remains in the mind long after it’s read, it is also psychologically sound and almost a handbook for the effects of childhood experiences on one’s later life and how those experiences shape one’s perception and understanding of the world.

In two separate vignettes from Stanton’s childhood, the author confronts the reader with the kind of life Stanton had.  The first is when he stumbles across his mother and her lover naked in the woods – at age eleven, he is only just able to comprehend what he has seen.  The second is when he is cruelly and shamefully punished by his father for a minor misdemeanour.   It is an indication of the extent to which Stanton is damaged by both incidents – and no doubt others of the same ilk – that his mind reverts to both events whenever he is under stress.

While the reader may have some sympathy for Stanton in the early stages of the book, his hubris and callous disregard for others erode that sympathy and his ultimate fate echoes the story of the freak-show geek set out in the early part of the novel.

But noir literature does not centre on sympathetic and likeable characters.  It is instead centred on protagonists who are either victims, suspects or perpetrators and who are seriously flawed and morally questionable.  Stanton is in turn a victim, a suspect and ultimately a perpetrator.  To this extent, William Lindsay Gresham has created a classic novel in the noir style; and, he has created a novel which will stand the test of time and will be enjoyed by aficionados of novels which explore the psychology of the human condition.

Nightmare Alley was first published in 1946 and was a bestseller.  It was made into a film in 1947.  Sadly, the author was not able to replicate the success of this book although he did later write three works of non-fiction.  For those readers to whom his surname ‘Gresham’ sounds familiar, his second wife Joy Davidman Gresham – herself a writer and poet – married C.S. Lewis [the English writer and committed Anglican] in 1956.

Nightmare Alley


by William Lindsay Gresham

Raven Books

ISBN 978 15266 4086 4

$19.99; 372pp


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