Sunday, July 18, 2010
Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham
Nightmare Alley was published in 1946, and a film adaptation, starring Tyrone Power and Joan Blondell, followed in 1947. It is an atmospheric noir thriller which, ultimately, begins to stretch beyond the perceived limitations of the genre and ask questions about the nature of the modern world. William Lindsay Gresham builds on the sub-cultures at the fringes of our societies, peopling them with characters displaying a range of human foibles, and creates a creepy, nightmarish world of greed and ambition and failure, of redemption and loss. And what makes the novel most frightening is that the nightmare alley Gresham conjures is, in all respects, a mirror of our own strained existence. We are all running down our own nightmare alleys, with the light forever ahead, just out of reach, and fear snarling at our heels. The novel’s opening image, of the geek who has fallen as low as it is possible to fall, thus becomes not so much a warning as a presage, something reflected and amplified by the novel’s grotesque and shocking conclusion.
Nightmare Alley begins with a superb evocation of life in the carny, the travelling shows that traversed the US in the early years of the twentieth century with their array of freaks and fortune tellers, jugglers and jokers, contortionists and acrobats. Amongst the tortured and fractured souls that make up this group is Stanton Carlisle, a young man of high ambition, clever and calculating, and Molly Cahill, an innocent abroad still infatuated with her recently deceased father. Stan develops his magic skills and seduces fortune teller Zeena. When he accidentally kills Zeena’s husband, Pete, he takes advantage of the situation by gaining access to and memorising his mind-reading system. With Molly, he forms a mentalist act and Stan realises he has a gift for hustling. People are all the same, he discovers, and reading minds isn’t so difficult when everyone wants pretty much the same things. This early section of the novel depicts the sleazy world of the carny in vivid detail, from the grisly opening set-piece with the geek biting the heads off live chickens to the moment when Stan and Molly realise they have outgrown it and depart for New York to make better use of Stan’s skills.
The mentalist act continues to prove productive, and Stan acquires a mail-order ordination, styling himself the Reverend Stanton Carlisle, Spiritualist minister. After all, as Zeena told him when he was starting out, they're 'not much different, being a fortuneteller and a preacher’. He preys on gullible and susceptible souls who are trying to contact lost family members, while waiting all the time for a perfect victim – wealthy and vulnerable - into whose life he intends to ingratiate himself with the intention of robbing them of everything. Meanwhile he becomes embroiled in a sado-masochistic affair with a corrupt psychologist, Dr Lilith Ritter, and it is she who is responsible for introducing him to his perfect ‘mark’, the wealthy industrialist Ezra Grindle. The novel sweeps inevitably to a terrible climax.
Carlisle is a superbly drawn character, deeply scarred by childhood traumas and relentless in his pursuit of money, callous in relationships and deeply cynical. He is a supreme hustler and, while the reader sees him for what he is, he is brilliantly successful at duping everyone who falls within his ambit. Everyone, that is, except Lilith, and it is she who proves to be his nemesis. She, too, is a remarkable character, a bloodless and terrifyingly predatory individual who could have acted as an inspiration for Serena Pemberton in Ron Rash’s Serena, which I reviewed recently. She is without scruple and effortlessly manages to con the conman extraordinaire, Stan Carlisle.
Nightmare Alley is a superb blend of noir thriller, tragedy, character study and social comment. It deals with the ambitions and fears that affect us all, revealing the individual terrors and global nightmares that comprise life on this ‘dying planet’.