Freaks and Con-Artists – William Lindsay Gresham’s Nightmare Alley

Nightmare Alley – William Lindsay Gresham
Rinehart and Company – 1946

Most of the books I’ve read over the past few years have been horror novels. I generally read 1 non-horror book every month, but I don’t discuss those here. When I started reading Nightmare Alley, I didn’t intend on reviewing it, but after finishing it, I needed to set some thoughts down. This is now one of my favourite novels

In most horror novels, there is good and evil. Sometimes the evil is triumphant, but the books are about vampires or slime creatures, and the reader knows that these don’t exist, so it’s easy to put the books down and not let them interfere with how you see the real world.

Nightmare Alley doesn’t feature vampires or slime creatures, but every page of it screams that human beings are deeply flawed creatures. Everyone is out for themselves. There are no bonds between people that are sacred or permanent. Existence is a competitive, futile nightmare.

This is a novel about Stanton Carlisle. He’s a magician in a carnival freak show. Throughout the novel, he manipulates whoever he can to get ahead. After a while, he becomes a succesful spiritualist and runs his own Church. The freaks and the occulty stuff Stanton peddles are probably enough to warrant this book’s inclusion on this site, but the bleak outlook guaranteed it.

“In a patch of silver the Rev. Carlisle stopped and raised his face to the full moon, where it hung desolately, agonizingly bright – a dead thing watching the dying earth.”

The opening chapter is a conversation between the protagonist and the leader of the freak show about where to find a geek. (A geek, for those who don’t know, is a man who bites the head off chickens.) The boss explains that geeks aren’t found. They’re made. The explanation he provides is brutal and poignant.

I’m sure that countless edgy writers of bizarro and horror fiction have set stories in freakshows. (Remember that classic X-Files episode?) A freakshow presents so many opportunities for weirdness, but Gresham never cashes in on this. The freaks here are real people, and they’re just as willing to walk all over others as anyone else in the novel, maybe even moreso due to their experiences. There wasn’t a single moment in the book that wasn’t entirely believable.

This was a great one. Most of the stuff I review on this blog is shit compared to this book. There’s a new movie version coming out later this year, but don’t wait for that. Read this book now.

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