Monday, October 31, 2011
REVIEW: Nightmare Alley, by William Lindsay Gresham
Need a good suspenseful creep-out for Halloween? There's nothing truly supernatural in William Lindsay Gresham's neglected classic Nightmare Alley but there's plenty of grit, murder, lust, suspense and bitter black humor. Set in the 1930s in the American backwaters among the swindlers and small-time hustlers of the time, the book opens in a traveling carnival, where young Stan is learning the ropes of the carny life.
Hungry for opportunity, money and women, he takes up with Zeena, a beautiful performer and wife of an alcoholic showman; it doesn't take Stan long to rob them both of their trade secrets and go into business for himself, along with pretty showgirl Molly, a guileless ingenue.
They set up shop as spiritualists, taking advantage of a trend sweeping the country as desperate people grasp at whatever straws they can reach. It's the Depression, and times are hard; folks will listen to anyone who can sell them a morsel of hope. Stan and Molly become very successful, but it's never enough for Stan, who, with some help, sets his sights on a rich industrialist with a secret.
When it goes wrong, it does so quickly and irrevocably. Gresham, a man with his own sad life story (he committed suicide in a fleabag hotel after two failed marriages and a history as an addict and abuser), knew a lot about the world of carnivals and magicians; he coauthored a book about Harry Houdini with James Randi and was a lifelong skeptic of Spiritualism and other similar religious movements. He was also a vigorous and spellbinding writer; Nightmare Alley is a compelling page-turner with a vivid setting and crazy characters. Gresham peppers the story with carny slang, many words like carnival geek appearing here in print for the first time. A gripping, compulsively readable noir, Nightmare Alley will have you in its spell long after its devastating and ironic conclusion.
I read this for Jenn's Bookshelves' Murder, Monsters and Mayhem Challenge.
I'm a Powell's partner and receive a small commission on sales.
FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.