Book Review: Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham

About the Book:

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

Stanton Carlisle, employed as a carny at a travelling circus watches their freak-show geek – an abject alcoholic, the object of the voyeuristic crowd’s gleeful disgust and derision – and wonders how a man could fall so low. There’s no way in hell, he vows, that anything like that will ever happen to him.

Unlike the tragic figure he sees before him, Stan is young, clever, and ambitious and quick to learn from the other carnival acts. Initially teaming up with a beautiful but vulnerable woman as part of a double act in which he mesmerises her, Stan soon leaves his circus days behind him, becoming a successful spiritualist who exploits the weak and the wealthy.

But even the very best con-men can meet their match….

With a new introduction from James Smythe, Nightmare Alley is a forgotten classic of Depression-era America: a brilliant, horrifying, compulsive journey into the true darkness of the human mind.

Published by Bloomsbury Publishing – Raven Books

Released 30th November 2021

(First published 1946 in the United States by Rinehart & Company)

My Thoughts:

As harsh as it might sound, I can see why this book became a forgotten classic, emphasis on the forgotten. The new introduction by James Smythe was far more compelling than the novel itself. I can however see it playing out as film. At times, the narrative was confusing and chaotic, better suited to hearing than reading; likewise with the visualisation of scenes, messy descriptions that had me skimming over rather than attempting to visualise what was even happening – perhaps a film will articulate this better. The intent of the novel was clear though: picture a snake eating its own tail and you’ll know what this story was about.

Stan Carlisle is about as cliché as they come: white, middle-classed upbringing, suffering a case of abandoned by his mother syndrome. He grows up to be an over entitled man who thinks he can get rich quick by swindling and deceiving, blames women for his troubles, and hates all men who resemble his father. I kept reading the book out of curiosity, it did well in its day, but the author was never able to match the success with subsequent books. I’d say there were clearly slimmer pickings back in 1946 for this to have been a tremendous success!

I am familiar with the author, William Lindsay Gresham, as American poet, and writer Joy Davidman’s first husband – this novel was originally dedicated to her. She divorced Gresham and then married C.S. Lewis, but they only had a few short years together before she passed away from cancer. Gresham was not a particularly good husband, constantly having affairs, once with Joy’s own cousin in their own home whilst she was recovering from childbirth. He spent his adult life continually battling alcoholism and struggling with psychological issues – a struggle he eventually lost. Needless to say, I am more of a Davidman fan than a Gresham one.

To me, there were too many parallels between Stan and Gresham himself – I began to have difficulty as the novel progressed, separating the two and this affected my enjoyment of the novel because Stan was a despicable human being and that’s kind of the way I regard Gresham. The depiction of depression-era America was quite closely realised though, along with the rise of the Church of Spiritualism and the way in which its practitioners preyed on the lonely and the desperate – provided they were rich. Poor lonely and desperate people were of no interest to these charlatans. Ultimately, Nightmare Alley is a depressing novel. Not even a little bit horrifying or scary – clearly, I skimmed that part – and definitely not brilliant.


Thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s