Nightmare Alley (1946) – William Lindsay Gresham

Before I see del Toro’s new film, which is an adaptation of this novel, I wanted to visit the source material, because I do love me a good noir story, and this one is a classic. And perhaps because the beats and the tropes of the noir genre are so familiar it’s easy to suss out what is going to happen through the course of the story to the main character, Stanton Carlisle, but the journey is fascinating, and it didn’t make the last few pages of the novel any less horrifying.

Stan is working a carny, is learning his craft, and while he’s completely heartless and ruthless, he’s a good looking fella and seems to have a natural talent for the mentalist act… even if it takes a murder to get involved in one.

He’s determined to prove he’s better than anyone else in the show, and has his eyes set on the lovely Molly, who he manipulates and uses like he does everything, and everyone else. He’s sure if he can find that one big trick, he’ll be ready for easy street.

And he finds his venue, adapting his mentalist act to a spiritualist one. And if you didn’t like him before, then you really don’t like him now, because he moves from a realm where people are paying him money for an entertainment purpose to him preying on the needs and emotions of people for money by making them think he can provide a way to contact their deceased loved ones.

He has one big fish lined up, and with his involvement with the lovely, but cold, psychologist, Lilith Ritter, might just make the score of his career.

Gresham’s tale takes us behind the scenes of the carnival, and inside the thoughts and lives of its performers, the opening chapter is particularly fascinating in that regard, and sets up the style for the rest of the novel as we slide through character perspectives to see how they deal with what they are encountering.

But it is Stan’s story, and everything comes back round to him, even as his life begins to fall apart. I had never heard of Gresham or this novel before I learned about del Toro’s film being in production, but it’s a fantastic read, and I think will only enhance my viewing of the film.

This is one of those gems, blunt in its language, and its depiction of humanity, that you don’t know how you couldn’t have known about it before this. Gresham doesn’t fool around with his presentation of people, their activities, or the behaviors, and as Stan wanders his own nightmare alley, shaped as it is by the cards of the tarot, which serve as a recurring motif, as well as the chapter titles, he finds he might not be able to escape it, ever…

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