Books & Literature

Book Review: Nightmare Alley, by William Lindsay Gresham

NOIR: A cool, cruel, rediscovered classic of American noir, soon to be a major motion picture directed by Guillermo del Toro.

A noir classic.

Originally published in 1946, William Lindsay Gresham’s Nightmare Alley became a bestseller and was adapted into a film in 1947. Considered a classic of the noir genre, it has recently been remade by Guillermo del Toro, and in conjunction with the film, the novel has been re-released.

Although largely forgotten until now, it is regarded as one of the great works of Depression-era fiction, where it sits alongside Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road, and Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust.

Stanton Carlisle is a young man trying to make a living by working at the carny of a travelling circus—the carny being the sideshow where so-called “freaks”, magicians, and quasi-erotic acts are played out. Smart and ambitious, he leaves the carny with young Molly and moves into more “respectable” forms of entertainment. His ambition and greed spur him on to more elaborate schemes in which to make money. He eventually becomes a spiritualist “Preacher”, exploiting people’s grief and weakness. But his own grief travels with him; he cannot escape the demons of his past.

Nightmare Alley explores the darkness of the human soul, and the depths to which people will go simply in order to survive. Gresham’s writing is rich, sharp, and pacey. Like writers such as James Ellroy, his dialogue is often in the vernacular, some of which occasionally needs a dictionary, but which adds enormously to the rhythm and tone of the work.

Spiritualism was a huge phenomenon in the first part of the 20th century, made respectable by such luminaries as Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini. Gresham seeks to interrogate the movement, both in terms of how it was promulgated, and also from the point of view of those who believed. The entire novel is structured around the tarot, being divided into “cards “rather than chapters. The narrative moves inexorably from The Fool to The Hanged Man.

Gresham peels away the layers of human desire in all its guises, as well as presenting us with Depression-era America, a way in which it de-humanised and humiliated people. And above-all, he writes a gripping story.

This re-release is an opportunity for a new generation to discover this lost classic.

Guillermo del Toro’s film of Nightmare Alley opens on January 20th.

Reviewed by Tracey Korsten
Twitter: @TraceyKorsten

Distributed by: Bloomsbury
Released: November 2021
RRP: $19.99

This review is the opinion of the reviewer and not Glam Adelaide.

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