Beautiful, monstrous, delicious mayhem: Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham

[This is one of the best books I’ve ever read. You have been warned. This post is long and I’m not even content. I want my study, and my love, to be exhaustive. I want to talk about every little detail, hold it up to the light. I’ve encountered such an amazing book, yes, but I might as well resign myself to the fact that there’s really no possibility of “defeating” it and worshipping it through discourse. But, dammit, I will try.]

It was the dark alley, all over again. With a light at the end of it. Ever since he was a kid Stand had had the dream. He was running down a dark alley, the buildings vacant and black and menacing on either side. Far down at the end of it a light burned; but there was something behind him, close behind him, getting closer until he work up trembling and never reached the light. They have it too — a nightmare alley. . . The light will only move further on. And the fear close behind them. White and black, it made no difference. The geek and his bottle, staving of the clutch of the thing that came following after.

First published in 1947 and reissued earlier this year — Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham begins with a chilling scene in a carnival: we see a “geek” — a man, a carnival act, who would bite the heads off snakes and chickens and drink their blood, all for another drink. It’s this inhumanly desperate scene with which Gresham drives home the image of a man sunk so low. It was horrendous, more so when we realize that we are witnessing this scene through the calm, calculating gaze of a young man.

The novel charts the life of Stanton Carlisle, a blond, handsome and charismatic “carny.” Nightmare Alley, Stan’s life, is grim, gritty, and sinister — a book of obsessions set in a seedy underworld of misfits and outcasts, deliberate or otherwise. It’s about Stan’s ambitions, his hunger for a life that is not so much better than what he has now, but more of being better than that of the people around him, be it friends or strangers.

He begins with Zeena, “the Woman Who Knows,” the resident seer act of the carnival. His want for Zeena — and the secrets Zeena keeps — lead him to commit the first of many monstrosities.

The thing is, his first reaction to his deed was panic, and then guilt. It was all an accident, he railed in his head. And so, I, the reader, was lulled into compassion. It was all an accident. I was always on Stan’s side. [Then again, I will remain on Stan’s side. More on that later!]

But Stan takes advantage of the situation. With his seduction of Zeena, he gains access to the secrets and codes behind an act that had once made Zeena and her husband marquee-players and stars — a convoluted mentalist act that hits at the most basic human need:

“Human nature is the same everywhere. All have the same troubles. They are worried. Can control anybody by finding out what he’s afraid of. Works with question-answering act. Think out things most people are afraid of and hit them right where they live. Health, Wealth, Love. And Travel and Success. They’re all afraid of ill health, of poverty, of boredom, of failure. Fear is the key to human nature. They’re afraid. . .”

Stan looked up past the pages to the garish wallpaper and through it into the world. The geek was made by fear. He was afraid of sobering up and getting the horrors. But what made him a drunk? Fear. Find out what they’re afraid of and sell it back to them. That’s the key. The key!

[Again, the geek, the oft-returned-to symbol for man’s lowest state, a man driven by engulfing need — and fear.] Stan has his ticket out of the carny. He’s got power and ammunition to fuel his ambition.

Think about it for a second: What knowledge does a man need to possess to convince you that he can read your mind, that he knows the depths of your soul? It’s simple manipulation. But in the Wrong Hands — hands like Stanton Carlisle’s who really won’t stop at nothing to get what he wants — it’s beautiful, monstrous, delicious mayhem.

The world is mine, God damn it! The world is mine! I’ve got ‘em across the barrel and I can shake them loose from whatever I want. The geek has his whisky. The rest of them drink something else: they drink promises. They drink hope. And I’ve got it to hand them. I’m running over with it. I can get anything I want.

He carries this knowledge with him as he sets out from the carnival to strike it as a rich-and-notorious as a mentalist, and later, a spiritualist. With his assistant, the gorgeous Molly [seduced, too, from her life as Mamzelle Elektra, an act which involves a lot electricity and very little clothes] — he goes from place to place, establishing a reputation as an uncanny reader of minds. Later, of course, he takes advantage of his clients, filching money and houses from old spiritualist biddies who think they’ve been visited by a long-dead relative.

But Stan is not content. Greedy and hungry, he strives for more, eventually snagging Big Money through one of the most impressive [and confounding!] displays of faux-spiritualism. And really creative and admirable cheating.

I loved Stan. A statement, I suppose, that reveals a lot about me, especially considering the fact that I understand him. I may only come so close to knowing what drives him — Gresham makes us work for that — but I am certain that whatever “malevolence” there is inside him, he isn’t evil. Or maybe I just don’t care that he could be evil because I was in awe of him. His tricks, his manipulation of the people around him, even the sacrifice of the few people who care for him. He rapes, he murders, he sells souls, he cheats, he steals. But, dammit, I was always on his side, no matter how slimy he got.

His genius — and Gresham’s really — is at its most apparent with his convoluted mind games, the tricks he uses on unsuspecting believers: apparitions, voices from the other side of the veil, uncanny mind reading. With a combination of cunningly designed gadgets and sheer audacity, Stan sets up trick after trick that had me going, Oh my god! Not to mention that the secrets behind his tricks were shared as unobtrusively as our author could. If ever, the behind-the-scenes of his performances — anchored as they were in shameless deception — only made me like and admire him more. He can be such a toad, but good gawd, he’s one slick sonofabitch.

Gresham, that miserable old goat, was a master. The narrative is paced so well, the revelations pitch-perfect. The story-telling uses every trick in the book — jumping chronologies and points of view, shifts in language and diction, the best-executed moods. Gresham knew his book well. He took a lot of risks to reveal this story inside him, but he always succeeded.

The results are, obviously, earth-shattering. This book is so alive.

Does Stanton get his comeuppance [I hate that word]? Let me sidestep. I’ve mulled this over — the too-inevitable conclusion of Nightmare Alley does not necessarily point to a moralistic worldview. It’s not something that can be distilled in a Sunday school motto about the virtues of goodness, about some cosmic balance that dictates all, no matter ambitious one is or how powerful one gets.

It is, to this reader, a battle of “evil” forces. It boils down to who has the more needful ambition, the more ruthless use of power — the victor is the one who is not “ashamed of shame.”

The pastor of the Church of the Heavenly Message crushed a handful of them in his fist, his eyes traveling along the black lines between the tiles of the floor. He let out an explosive sound like a cough; lifting his fist he beat the crumpled paper against his forehead twice. Then he fired the money into a corner and turned on both faucets of the washbowl. In the roaring water he let himself go; he sank his face in the basin and screamed, the sound bubbling up past his ears through the rush of water. He screamed until his diaphragm was sore and he had to stop and sit down on the floor, stuffing a towel in his mouth and tearing it with his teeth.

At last he hoisted himself up and reached for the brandy, swallowing until he had to stop and gasp for breath. In the mirror’s merciless light he saw himself: hair streaming, eyes bloodshot, mouth twisted. Bleeding wounds of Christ!

Now that’s a scene that will forever stay with me, as will Stanton Carlisle, as will this novel. It’s haunting, finely-edged, all dark and pathetic and glorious and gritty and so so so very real.

Thank you, NYRB Classics, for escuing this wonderful book from obscurity. The literary world is better for it.

9 thoughts on “Beautiful, monstrous, delicious mayhem: Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham

  1. Wow, I love your review and I want this book now! NYRB Week is getting dangerous as I’m adding more books to my wishlist. However, this definitely seems like a must-read. Thanks for participating in NYRB Reading Week and looking forward to mroe from you!

  2. Great review! I don’t judge you for being in awe of a character who may or may not be evil. As long as the character is awesome, I might not care if he’s evil myself. This book is definitely going on my wishlist, too.

    Thanks for your first NYRB Reading Week review. Hope there’s more!:)

  3. I get so happy whenever I read a post such as this. It’s SO exciting to happen upon a book that you totally get, isn’t it? At the moment I’ve got ‘Paris Stories’ by Mavis Gallant which is the only NYRB I own (I won this off our friend Iris aka Iris on Books) but there are so many wonderful and new to me titles in this series. I’m keeping my eyes open for more recs.

  4. I read this earlier this year, and it blew me away! Stan’s so sleazy, but still sympathetic. Love the ending! I think it’s a damn-near PERFECT book. Have you seen the film version? I’m hoping to get my hands on that.

  5. Hi, Sasha! Guess what? You won one of our Favorite Review prizes for NYRB Reading Week! Check out our latest posts. Anyway, could you DM either Mrs. B or me your mailing info via Twitter, so we know where to send you your prize? Thanks and congratulations!

  6. @ Mrs B, @ Sakura — Thank you so much. And I know what you guys mean about ever-lengthening To-Be-Read lists for the NYRB Classics books. This reading week has been bibliophilically wonderful and yet so very detrimental to my budget!

    @ Isabella — I remember commenting on your review, that it was because of your praises, and basically how you talked about this book, that I bumped this up the TBR pile. And here it is. It is a damn-near perfect, really is one of the best books I have ever read. And so, thank you so much for the nudge you gave me. I feel strangely very happy to share this book with you. :]

    @ Honey — Yep, I happen to love evil, and Stan makes it look so suave and cunning and admirable. I’ll try not to dwell how this reflects on my own morality, haha.


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