“Nothing matters in this goddamned lunatic asylum of a world but dough.”
William Lindsay Gresham’s powerful, bleak, fate-laden, noir novel Nightmare Alley follows the rise and fall of Stanton Carlisle, a man whose talents take him to the top of his game, but whose character leads him to destruction. When the novel opens, Stanton is a young carny worker. He works as an assistant to the “seeress” Madame Zeena, and while his questions may seem to reveal naivete, in reality Stanton is absorbing his environment, learning the tricks of the trade, grasping the complexities of human nature. At the carnival, there are some talented performers, others that fill a spot, but perhaps the most perplexing ‘act’ is ‘the Geek,’ in a ten-cent “attraction.” The Geek is touted as a man/beast, and to demo this, he crawls around in a pit and bites the heads off of live chickens. Stanley can’t imagine anyone wanting to be a geek, and wonders how the act is created. The owner, who also is ‘the talker’ (announcing the acts to the gullible marks) explains how geeks are ‘made.’
“You pick up a guy and he ain’t a geek-he’s a drunk. A bottle-a-day booze fool. You tell him like this: ‘I got a little job for you. It’s a temporary job. We got to get a new geek. So until we do you’ll put on the geek outfit and fake it.‘ You tell him, ‘You don’t have to do nothing. You’ll have a razor blade in your hand and when you pick up the chicken you give it a nick with the blade and then make like you’re drinking the blood. Same with rats. The marks don’t know no different.‘”
Hoately ran his eye up and down the midway, sizing up the crowd. He turned back to Stan. “Well, he does this for a week and you see to it that he gets his bottle regular and a place to sleep it off in. He likes this fine. This is what he thinks is heaven. So after a week you say to him like this, you say, ‘Well, I got to get me a real geek. You’re through.’ He scares up at this because nothing scares a real rummy like the chance of a dry spell and getting the horrors. He says, ‘What’s the matter? Ain’t I doing okay?’ So you say, ‘Like crap you’re doing okay. You can’t draw no crowd faking a geek. Turn in your outfit. You’re through.’ Then you walk away. He comes following you, begging for another chance and you say, ‘Okay. But after tonight out you go.’ But you give him his bottle.
That night you drag out the lecture and lay it on thick. All the while you’re talking he’s thinking about sobering up and getting the crawling shakes. You give him time to think it over, while you’re talking. Then throw in the chicken. He’ll geek.“
This early powerful scene is emblematic of the entire plot: degradation is a process in a world in which nothing is what it seems; discover a person’s weakness and you have power over them.
“Human nature is the same everywhere. All have the same troubles. They are worried. Can control anybody by finding out what he’s afraid of. Works with question-answering act. Think out things most people are afraid of and hit them right where they live. Health, Wealth, Love. And Travel and Success. They’re all afraid of ill health, of poverty, of boredom, of failure. Fear is the key to human nature. They’re afraid. …”
Stan looked up past the pages to the garish wallpaper and through it into the world. The geek was made by fear. He was afraid of sobering up and getting the horrors. But what made him a drunk? Fear. Find out what they’re afraid of and sell it back to them. That’s the key. The key!
Madam Zeena, is a good-hearted married woman, who sticks by her drunken sot of a husband, but she’s happy to have young Stanton on the side. The problem is that Stanton, true to his nature, isn’t happy with these occasional trysts. He wants Zeena all the time, and so a maneuver by Stanton leaves Zeena a widow. This is the first awful act that Stanton commits, and while he’s afraid his actions will be discovered, he justifies himself. Yet now that Stanton has Zeena full-time, he casts his eyes on younger prey, and moves on young, malleable Molly, a sort of orphaned carny mascot whose freak show act as Electric Girl involves her, barely dressed, receiving electric shocks.
Stanton’s character, horribly flawed and twisted, is revealed throughout the novel in his subsequent actions and decisions. He steals, he manipulates, he defrauds, and he murders. He’s a terrible person, but yet not wholly unsympathetic. (I counted the decent things he did.) He’s damaged and haunted by his childhood and plagued by nightmares. Life is a Nightmare Alley, we are all pursued by our demons. Ever since he was a kid Stan had a recurring nightmare:
He was running down a dark alley, the buildings vacant and menacing on either side. Far down at the end of it a light burned, but there was something behind him, getting closer until he woke up trembling and never reached the light.
The novel follows Stanton on his path to success. From the carnival’s sideshows, he moves onto mentalism, and then he morphs into the Reverend Carlisle–seeped in spiritualism, he’s ready to conjure up the dead for the grieving wealthy. But Stanton, never satisfied, is restless for more. Stan’s demons both drive him and haunt him throughout the book, yet when he confronts them, he’s so traumatized by the experience, he, in his weakness, seeks out the professional help of succubus Dr. Lilith Ritter.
The 1930s world of Nightmare Alley is a ugly place: as the title implies, it’s a nightmarish place–beginning with the carnival that exploits its employees and its audience, but the real nightmare here is life and human nature. With most of the characters in the book, human flaws gnaw from within. Stanton brings on his own downfall, and it’s inevitable.
The novel, structured in chapters which are represented by Tarot cards, was slow to start. This novel was banned and its sexual frankness and ugly view of the world is shocking for its times. Unforgettable.
“The rest of them drink something else: they drink promises. They drink hope. And I’ve got it to hand them.”
After reading this, I listened to the audiobook version which is marvelously read by Peter Berkrot
Own a copy/review copy