Friday, November 13, 2009

The Book You Have to Read:
“Nightmare Alley,” by William Lindsay Gresham

(Editor’s note: This is the 71st installment of our ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s pick has been made by Kelli Stanley, a San Francisco author, film noir fan, and comic book buff. Her debut novel and first Roman Noir, Nox Dormienda [A Long Night for Sleeping], won the Bruce Alexander Memorial Mystery Award. Her second book, City of Dragons, is a private-eye tale set in 1940 San Francisco. It’s due out from Thomas Dunne/Minotaur Books in February 2010. When not penning novels or listening to old-time radio shows, Stanley composes a blog called Writing in the Dark.)

If noir is the stuff of nightmares--you know what I mean, the kind in which (according to the popular conference definition of the genre) you’re fucked from page one--then a one-off, nearly forgotten classic called Nightmare Alley is surely the biggest freak show of them all.

And I mean that literally. Nightmare Alley, written by William Lindsay Gresham, concerns itself with the twilight world of the carnival, the huckster, the super-slick salesman of the three shell con, all grifting a living--and sometimes better than a living--off the hopes, dreams, fears, and delusions of middle-class, corn-fed America.

Now, I’ve got this thing for carnivals. The black magic way they just appear on the edges--parking lots, small towns, aging strip malls--always, it seems, at twilight. The heady mixture of the barked come-on, the pitch, the rigged games, and the smells of hot dogs and popcorn and stale cotton candy. And the thrill rides ... screaming teens, no inhibitions. Secret assignations, stolen moments. Everything gone with the dawn.

My fascination with carnivals and their ephemeral, disturbing, chaotic, and ultimately transfiguring effect on mainstream society was one reason why I wanted to set a novel at San Francisco’s 1939/1940 world’s fair, the Golden Gate International Exposition. World’s fairs sport a midway--the one mounted on manmade Treasure Island, in San Francisco Bay, was called the Gayway, long before that tag would become an obvious pun. My short story “Children’s Day,” which will be published in the next International Thriller Writers’ anthology, First Thrills (due out in June 2010 from Tor), is a prequel to my forthcoming novel, City of Dragons, and is set on Treasure Island. And while the action in City of Dragons itself takes place during the off-season of that exposition, the Rice Bowl Party at the heart of that story is a three-day-and-night street carnival, complete with games of chance, the odors of sweat and peanuts, and a mind-reader named Madame Pengo--a small homage to Nightmare Alley.

Gresham’s book is sumptuous, rich, redolent, and literary. Fused with a classically tragic structure, the plot and characters roil and roll in your head, guests who will never leave. In some ways, it’s a bitter, cynical take on the Horatio Alger myth, a commentary on the Americans America left behind.

Stan Carlisle is a bright boy. He hooks up with a traveling carnival, and learns the tricks of the trade as a sideshow “mentalist”--how to read faces, how to memorize code, how to exploit his natural bent for theatricality. He uses whomever he has to in order to better his position. Stan possesses intelligence, ambition, good looks, and something more--a true talent for communicating with people, for persuading them. To know what the little lady would like and the ability to give it to her ... the power to charm the marshal into not closing down the fleabag flea circus he’s made his home:
“How’d you know I got a daughter?”

Stan rolled the silks into a ball and they vanished. His face was serious, the blue eyes grave. “I know many things, Marshal. I don’t know exactly how I know them, but there’s nothing supernatural about it, I am sure. My family was Scotch, and the Scotch are often gifted with powers that the old folks used to call ‘second sight.’”

The white head, with its coarse, red face, nodded involuntarily.
But Stan’s not satisfied with playing the sticks. He steps on a few people, causes trouble, exploits a woman named Zeena, and is torn between fascination and disgust at the spectacle of the alcoholic geek, the lowest of the low, the man who--for a bottle of cheap whiskey--will bite the heads off squirming live chickens and degrade himself to a subhuman status.

Eventually, Stan makes the big time, becoming a slick and successful spiritual advisor to the gullible, emotionally vulnerable and--of course--wealthy patrons who can make him the real bucks.

For a while, of course.

It would spoil the book to reveal any more. Gresham’s style sometimes veers from third-person to inner monologue, a feverishly close point of view that propels the drama:
Groping in the dark he found it, lying on its side there was still a drink in it oh Jesus I got to get out of here before they see this room ...
And “cards,” not chapters, divide the novel’s text, each section named for a tarot card and provided with a pertinent quote. Card I, for example, is The Fool: “who walks in motley, with his eyes closed, over a precipice at the end of the world.”

What makes Nightmare Alley even more of a nightmare is the temptation to see the author in these lines. Gresham was born in Baltimore in 1909, moved to New York, graduated from high school, and volunteered as a medic for the Loyalist forces in the Spanish Civil War in 1937. He came back in ’39 a damaged man and ravaged soul. Yet another personal point of interest for me, as Miranda Corbie--the protagonist of City of Dragons--volunteered as a nurse in that conflict in the same year, and later finds work as an escort.

For Gresham, the world was a downward spiral. He contracted tuberculosis and tried to commit suicide. He eventually married poet, radical communist, and former child prodigy Joy Davidman, and found work writing for the pulps. Gresham became an alcoholic and an abusive husband and father, which led Joy into a relationship to and marriage with English writer C.S. Lewis--a relationship later dramatized in the play and subsequent films, Shadowlands.

Nightmare Alley was published in 1946; Limbo Tower, Gresham’s only other novel--another noir, set in a TB ward--in ’49. He eventually penned a book about magician and escapologist Harry Houdini as well as a non-fiction look at the lives of carnies (Monster Midway, 1954), but years of hard living took their toll. He started to lose his sight, then developed cancer of the tongue. And finally, in 1952, he returned to the Dixie Hotel in Manhattan, where he’d written his first and greatest novel, Nightmare Alley ... and took an overdose of sleeping pills. He was 52.

In 1947, Nightmare Alley was fortunate enough to be made into one of the greatest of all film noirs. Starring a terrific Tyrone Power (if you don’t think he could act, you’re in for a surprise) and a strong supporting cast which included the lovely ingénue Colleen Gray, Joan Blondell, and noir stalwarts Mike Mazurki and Helen Walker, the movie is available on DVD. Rent it soon and often, or better yet buy a copy. With a crackling good script by Jules Furthman (The Shanghai Gesture, The Big Sleep), and atmospherically directed by Edmund Goulding (Grand Hotel, The Old Maid--we can only wish he’d been given more crime films), Nightmare Alley is a rare example of a movie almost as good as its source material.

Both the film and novel have been dark inspirations for my own work, and I appreciate The Rap Sheet for giving me the opportunity to share them with you! And I promise you this: You’ll never use the word “geek” without William Lindsay Gresham’s novel brushing through your mind ...

So step right up, ladies and gents, for only one thin dime, right this way--don’t crowd the ladies, children, make some room, make some room!--only one thin dime, and Zeena will tell your past--your present--your future ... in Nightmare Alley!

READ MORE:100 Years Down Nightmare Alley: A Carnival Noir,” by Craig McDonald; “Paperback Writers: Nightmare Noir,” by Richard Rayner (Los Angeles Times); “The Carny Novel Calls. Lucky Thing It Also E-mails,” by Charles Ardai (Criminal Element).


Dick Adler (aka Ivan Davis) said...

Have you read any of Fredric Brown's great carny books, beginning with THE FABULOUS CLIP JOINT? I think you'll love them.

I once met Gresham in his home in New Rochelle, N.Y., which he said was "45 Minutes From Broadway," echoing the old song. He was a sad figure by this time, and had a closet full of paperback copies of NIGHTMARE ALLEY. Wish I still had the one he signed to me, but it was lost in a move...

Kelli Stanley said...

I'm immediately adding THE FABULOUS CLIP JOINT to my "must have" list--thanks, Dick!

And wow--a close encounter with poor Gresham. So tragic when an author lives the noir he wrote ...


Evan Lewis said...

Saw the flick recently for the first time, and while I didn't love it as much as you, Kelli, it had some powerful scenes. You're right, it was good to see Tyrone Power in something other than a Biblical epic. But not having read the book, I didn't know where the story was supposed to end, and thought it had reached an appropriate ending at least twice before it finally geeked out. And there was no alley. Still, I'll now have to hunt down the book.

Kelli Stanley said...

You'll enjoy the book, Evan, I promise! :) I was lucky enough to see the film for the first time on the big screen (one of Eddie Muller's Noir City festivals a few years ago), and also had a chance to meet Colleen Grey, who was the guest of honor. I'm sure it made a difference in my initial impression ... plus, I'm highly susceptible to carnival themes.
I know what you mean about the ending, though ... and Helen Walker, whew, what a character she played!

BTW--I love the fedora! :)

Mike Dennis said...

"Nightmare Alley" shows one of the darkest sides of the human condition. It is a well-constructed film, with high-powered acting and world-class lighting.

I heard Tyrone Power fought for this role,since the studio was reluctant to let him have it.

And it gives new meaning to the word "Geek", in the same way as Michael Madsen transformed the way I listen to "Stuck In The Middle With You".

Evan Lewis said...

It would be interesting to meet Colleen Grey now. She was sure a stunner then, and my favorite part of the movie.

Kelli Stanley said...

You know, I often wonder if Tom Cruise would be able to handle the role, should the film be remade. Tyrone Power was known more for his boyishly handsome leading man looks, but really tried to stretch himself as an actor with this ... and succeeded, too.

Would be interesting, at the very least. :) Thanks, Mike!


Kelli Stanley said...

Ms. Grey was as energetic, bubbly and effervescent as she was on screen ... one of those ageless and lovely people who truly enjoys life! She spent personal time with everyone who came up to meet her, and was genuinely touched to be so fondly remembered.

I remember she said one of her favorites of her own films is Kansas City Confidential--another fine noir, as is The Killing, in which she also co-starred. And she also appears in Red River .... so there are a number of her performances available on DVD, luckily for us. :)

If you're ever in San Francisco in January, Noir City is the festival to see ... last year, Arlene Dahl was the guest (another very lovely lady).


SteveHL said...

Kelli, I also loved both the book and the movie. I think the film is incredibly dark and cynical for the time it was made. I didn't know anything about Gresham's (too short) life

As Dick Adler said, Fredric Brown wrote a lot about carnivals. Dead Ringer is a sequel to The Fabulous Clipjoint. It's not as good, but a larger part of it is set in a carnival. Madball is, in my opinion, one of Brown's best books; it takes place almost entirely in a carnival.

I also remember really liking a book called Step Right Up by Daniel P. Mannix. It's about his time working in a carnival. I haven't read it for, I'd guess, forty-five years, so I have no idea how it holds up.

Kelli Stanley said...

Thanks so much for the recommendations, Steve! I will add all of these titles to my list!

And I think it's about time I re-read Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes--another great work with a carnival theme.


Penh said...

I finally tracked this one down after reading a fervent recommendation in the old "Murder Can Be Fun" 'zine (in the dark days before the Web made finding books so much easier). It definitely packs a major punch. I thought the movie lightened the tone a little, but I may have been biased by my admiration for the novel.

Max Allan Collins said...

Great book, great movie.

Helen Walker should have been a much bigger star. She is particularly good in the hillbilly noir comedy, MURDER SHE SAYS, with Fred MacMurray.

I don't know if NIGHTMARE ALLEY is forgoten exactly -- a lot of people consider it one of the classic hardboiled novels, and it spawned one of the most memorable film adapations -- but I'm glad to see it given this attention. Underground cartoonist Spain did a graphic novel version a couple of years ago, worth looking at.

Kelli Stanley said...

Thanks, Max--I'm adding MURDER HE SAYS to a TCM search right now, and hopefully will be able to catch it there. I love strange noir hybrids--like JUKE GIRL, with Ann Sheridan and Ronald Reagan as a unionizing farmer (!).

And I agree, Helen was very much short-changed in the star lottery. For those who don't know the story, she was on the brink of major stardom, but her career was cut short by a serious car accident in '46, when she picked up three hitchhiking veterans on New Year's Eve. She suffered major injuries, and one of the hitchhikers was killed. The public blamed her for the death--one of the survivors claimed she was drunk--and the bad press was more than she could overcome. She smartly switched to cold, hard roles in noirs like IMPACT, but her career gradually petered out as she aged. Tragically, she died at 47 of cancer.

Unknown said...

Hi Stanley and everybody.
I'm an italian writer, keened on Gresham's works and life. I’m actually working on the essay about by this author, that will be joined to the Italian translation of “Nigthmare Alley”. According to me Gresham’s literary production is worthy to be read more than it is. Do you agree with me? Unfortunately he is quite unknown in Italy and it’s very difficult for me to find out significant informations, indispensable materials for someone who is intentioned to spread the name and the work of Gresham, like I am. So, I'm wondering wether you could help me finding out useful documents for my work. Of course, it'll be a pleasure form me to send you a copy of my book, when published, with special thanks to you for your contribution to my research.
Best regards.

Unknown said...

I'm sorry Kelli, I'm just realizing that in my previous post your first name has been left out (or perhaps it has been canceled by mistake) leaving only your surname. I don't know how it would be possible. I bag your pardon!
Waiting for an answer from you, and from everyone has some considerable informations for me about Gresham,
thanks in advance!