William Lindsay Gresham’s “Nightmare Alley”

Nightmare Alley combines the creepy world of Tod Browning’s movie ‘Freaks’ with the relentless cynicism of a Jim Thompson novel.” —Time

Born in Baltimore and raised in Brooklyn, William Lindsay Gresham was fascinated by the Coney Island sideshows. Developing an unerring eye for the scene’s details, he deserves to be remembered as one of America’s best chroniclers of the underground. Now available from NYRB Classics, at a limited time 30% discount, his Nightmare Alley is an indelible noir classic on the varieties of deception and the dream of redemption.

Nightmare Alley

By William Lindsay Gresham
Introduction by Nick Tosches

Stan Carlisle could read people, standing along the sidelines of the main carny attractions where he worked, watching the washed up geek eaten by alcoholism. The clairvoyant with her frightening pack of cards, the strong man with the muscles of a Greek god, the twisted leg acrobat who walked on his arms, and the charming ‘lectric bulb girl whose blazing body defied lightning: they all performed beneath the gaze of the crowd at the Ten-in-One show. The audience oooohed in awe and astonishment, averted their eyes in horrified embarrassment, forever applauding the appalling, falling for the oldest gag in the book, yet always coming back, like ghosts called up from the past, wondering what the future would hold. Stan understood them, saw through them, and knew he could go further. He was a convincer, not a pretender. He was a master with words and could pawn off more than palmistry. He would prophesize, proselytize, see his profits rise. The Great Stanton. If he played his cards right he could leave for much bigger and better things. All he needed was a jumping off point, and from there, a chance to climb.

With a little magic—or was it murder?—a mentalist was born and transformed into a full-blown Spiritualist, greedy for glamour and a wallet full of rich and gullible worshippers. Soon, with hefty donations piling in from a growing congregation—all inspired by fraudulent transmogrifications—the ordained Reverend Stanton Carlisle was at the top of his game. But remember the tarot card of the hanged man, whose downward headed fate is strung up for all to see: fame is known to falter, and a low life is never far from reach.

Mr. Gresham yanked the reviewer into the midst of his macabre and compelling novel, and kept him a breathless captive until the tour was over. It’s a truly rewarding whirl through his nightmare alley….All of it adds up to Grade-A guignol with a touch of black magic about it…If you enjoy hundred-proof evil-and a cogent analysis of same with your nightcap-then, in the words of the Ten-in-One barker, hurry, hurry, hurry!” —The New York Times

Nightmare Alley inspired a film in 1947 starring Tyrone Power and Joan Blondell, a graphic novel by the legendary underground cartoonist Spain Rodriguez, and a new musical adaptation now playing at the Geffen Theater in Los Angeles.

NYRB Classics has many reading group guides now available. You can download the PDF for Nightmare Alley here.
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