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Nightmare Alley

Nightmare Alley. William Lindsay Gresham. NYRB Classics, 2010. 288 pp. $14.95 (hardcover). ISBN 978-1590173480.

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Reviewed by Ryder W. Miller


[This review originally appeared in Mythprint 48:5 (#346) in May 2011.]

Reissued last year with an introduction by Gresham scholar Nick Tosches was Nightmare Alley, the book that made William Lindsay Gresham famous (and $60,000), and which was adapted quickly for the big screen. This noirish crime tale from 1946 does have an indirect bearing on Inklings studies.

Joy Davidman Gresham, who was later married to C.S. Lewis, was first married to and had two children with William Lindsay Gresham. They both had eclectic political and religious interests, and were later Christian converts because of C.S. Lewis’s writings. William Lindsay did not remain a Christian and appeared never to have conquered his demons, the seeds having fallen on barren rock, as it were. Inklings scholars will easily see how Nightmare Alley relates not just to Joy Davidman (to whom it is dedicated) and to C.S. Lewis, but it also resembles somewhat the dark supernatural thrillers of Charles Williams. It should be remembered that Gresham wrote an introduction to The Greater Trumps. Nightmare Alley differs markedly in style from the works of the Inklings, which generally lack sex and petty criminals. It is more of a crime novel than the supernatural thrillers of Charles Williams, but though it follows a different course, it is generally of the same milieu.

The novel uses the cards of Tarot as chapter titles providing both symbolism and metaphor. The story centers on the carnival with also its advertisements of encounters with the supernatural. [Gresham is not the only novelist to turn to the Tarot for inspiration. Another notable example, Italo Calvino’s The Castle of Crossed Destinies (1973), constructs a narrative entirely out of Tarot cards. —Editor.]

Nightmare Alley tells the story of Stan Carlson, a carnival hustler who later becomes a religious charlatan. It is a bleak picture that Gresham paints of a man seeking escape from the strange world of sideshows and geeks. The novel was collected by The Library of America as one of the most notable crime novels of the 1930s and 1940s, but it is not so hard bitten as many others of its like. Sometimes sympathetic Stan has religious yearnings and caters to others with the same yearnings, even if he does so disingenuously, looking only for enough money to get away from the whole mess.

As Tosche notes: “As piercing as the psychological probings of Nightmare Alley are, eerily the tarot alone is bestowed at times with a hint of ominous gravity and credence amid all the other spiritualist cons of the novel that are to Gresham and his characters nothing more that suckers’ rackets.” Nightmare Alley gives one a sense of what the Greshams were trying to leave behind. Here is the claustrophobic world of society’s disconnects and strays. Creatures still human but some so geekish, so odd, that people would pay money just to see them. They may also see parts of themselves in them.

William Lindsay Gresham “was” Stan, whose despair is tempered by a dream of paradise — something which he had in common with the Inklings. In his story one finds also a desire for life to have meaning, for there to be something to strive for. Gresham writes of Stan: “Ever since he was a kid Stan had had the dream. He was running down a dark alley, the buildings vacant 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 woke up trembling and never reached the light.” Down there at the other end of the dark tunnel of life there was also possibly light, as the Inklings believed. There, one could hope for a happy ending or salvation. But only Joy Davidman Gresham was able to escape, crossing the Atlantic with their children. William Lindsay Gresham was left behind. It is beside the point of this review to consider why she left, but Gresham was an alcoholic, insolvent, a womanizer, and sometimes violent. Surely, these would have been reasons enough.

She may also have found more fresh air in epic fantasies rather than the strange world of the carnival. William Lindsay Gresham wrote other works about the “carny” life, and even one about Houdini, not being able to escape himself. He committed suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills in September, 1962. Like Charles Williams, William Lindsay Gresham never lost his interest in the supernatural, and he never found the light at the end of the tunnel. But Nightmare Alley succeeds as a great study of the individual trying to cope with a difficult and bizarre world. The book may be a bit risqué for young Inklings readers; it contains expletives and adult themes. It has, in fact, been banned for such reasons in the past. The Inklings in their heroic fiction tends to focus more on clean-cut folks with worthier aspirations. This book is more an exploration of the desperate places of the soul — but not without its merits for all that, or perhaps even because of that.


Nightmare Alley. William Lindsay Gresham. NYRB Classics, 2010. 288 pp. $14.95 (hardcover). ISBN 978-1590173480.

Buy Online