The Terrified Spiritualist

Nightmare Alley (1946)

By William Lindsay Gresham

There isn’t much that is truly unique, especially within genre fiction, and usually that’s the way readers like it, since they approach these books with certain expectations. William Lindsay Gresham’s Nightmare Alley most assuredly fulfills those expectations by creating a dark world and populating with people who live in the shadows. Then Gresham goes beyond what you expect, deep into carney life, deeper into spiritualism, and deeper still into the scarred human psyche. His novel teems with double crosses, murder, sex (even touching the edges of SM), and the willful and cruelest twisting of people’s beliefs and grief for personal profit.

Stan is a haunted young man when readers first meet him in a traveling Ten-in-One (a sideshow usually with ten acts in a row, some involving “freaks,” for one admission). He has plenty of ghosts in his past, all issuing from psychologically trying childhood. Imagine the worst things a boy can see and you’ll have foresight into Stan’s motivations. He learns much about carney life, including what a geek is, an alcoholic who will do anything for a bottle, even bite the heads off live chickens to amuse the yokels. He also meets Zeena, a mentalist, from whom he learns the tricks of the trade and with whom he carries on an affair. Her husband, while not a geek, is an alcoholic who comes to what most assume an accidental end. Stan steps into the act, and why not, as he’s already been in the man’s bed.

At the Ten-in-One, he meets sweet, young Molly, the electric girl. He carries on with her while perfecting his skills as a mentalist and also delving into the world of spiritualism (basically, the belief that the soul exists after death, with the added feature that the dead wish and try to communicate with the living). Stan harbors and cultivates the vision of hooking a big fish and taking him or her for a bundle. He even goes so far as to gain ordination in the spiritualist church. Stan’s quite the smart fellow, well versed in mentalism, electricity and devices, religion, and most important of all, the human desire to believe. It’s this entire span of the novel, the Act 2, if you will, that really elevates it and sets it apart from the general run of American noir. Tossed into this is psychology, particularly after Stan, haunted even more by his past, visits psychologist Lilith Ritter. If Stan defines blackguard then Lilith is the scoundrel who sets off his petard. It is she who supplies him the mark he’s hungered for. And it nearly all works out for Stan, if only he had been able to surmount his nightmares.

Everything, then, devolves in the last act, wherein Stan finds himself older, sicker, addicted, and sliding into his past, to where he began, only now as the freak. Really, though, will you be able to muster even a dollop of sympathy for him?

Noir writers of the period tended to live hard lives and few were unfamiliar with the bottle. Gresham, who committed suicide at 53, partially blind and suffering with cancer, led a particularly eventful life that included folk singing in Greenwich Village cafes, jobs in journalism and advertising, more than a year as a medic with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Later his first wife, Joy Davidman, and he became enamored of C.S. Lewis and said’s return to and advocacy of christianity. Joy Davidman, after her marriage to Gresham dissolved, married Lewis.  Gresham went on to explore other spiritual interests, among them occultism and L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics. In other words, a most interesting fellow. w/c

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