A few months ago, while my wife and I prepared for a signing in our local bookstore of my latest novel, we saw on a nearby rack Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham. To most, the book would have little meaning. To my wife, it was a part of family lore. Bill Gresham was married to my wife’s Aunt Joy Davidman, who later divorced Bill and married C. S. Lewis. But that is another story. My wife’s mother was a good friend of Bill’s and I’ve heard the tales. Knowing the author’s background from those tales, I understand why Nightmare Alley is all about mind-reading acts, psychiatrists, and a life on the edge.
Nightmare Alley was first published in 1946 and a movie made of it in the following year starring Tyrone Power. Family legend has it those movie rights made it possible for Bill and Joy to buy a house in upstate New York. The reason for the re-release of the novel is the 2021 remake of the movie, this time starring Bradley Cooper and Cate Blanchett.
Grisham set the story in the 1940s when the book was originally written and it’s an excellent portrayal of the common vernacular of the day. Guys are swell and girls are dames. What must have been striking when first published was the visceral language and the dark corners of carney life. The book may be a slap in the face in the beginning, but either it evens out, or this reader became accustomed to the scenes and language.
It is the story of Stan, born into a well-to-do family, but damaged by an unfaithful mother and a distant father. He finds his way into a traveling sideshow as a silver-tongued assistant to a mind reader. He hooks up with lovely, virginal Molly and promises her a better life, which, to Stan, means a more profitable scam. True to his word, Stan plies his craft well. But his demons are not satisfied, and he seeks help from a woman, but this one being a psychiatrist. The story is interesting as Stan’s stature rises, but hits overdrive through the manipulation of the psychiatrist.
Gresham wrote well, and great prose enhances the story. My only quibble with the book is that Gresham had me through Stan’s rise, but his fall was stretched out more than I liked.
Nevertheless, I recommend the book. Some call it dark. I call it noir.