Review: Nightmare Alley

…Was she an animal? Was all the mystery nothing more than that? Was she merely a sleek, golden kitten that unsheathed its claws when it had played enough and wanted solitude? But that brain was always at work, clicking away behind the eyes–no animal had such an organ; or was it the mark of a superanimal, a new species, something to be seen on earth in a few more centuries? Had nature sent out a feeling tentacle from the past, groping blindly into the present with a single specimen of what mankind was to be a thousand years hence? The brain held him; it dosed him with grains of wild joy, measured out in milligrams of words, the turn of her mouth corner, one single lustful flash from the gray eyes before the scales of secrecy came over them again.

The brain seemed always present, always hooked to his own by an invisible gold wire, thinner than spider’s silk. It sent its charges into his mind and punished him with a chilling wave of cold reproof. It would let him writhe in helpless misery and then, just before the breaking point, would send the warm current through to jerk him back to life and drag him, tumbling over and over through space, to the height of a snow mountain where he could see all the plains of the earth spread out before him, and all the power of the cities and the ways of men. All were his, could be his, would be his unless the golden thread broke and sent him roaring into the dark chasm of fear again.

Nightmare Alley, William Lindsay Gresham

Nightmare Alley, the book by William Lindsay Gresham, and recently adapted into a movie by Guillermo del Toro, is a more than satisfying read, especially if you are the type of person who is captivated by midway buskers, the tinkling of syncopated piano crackling in the background of a Tom Waits tune, or the psychological turn which infiltrated American literature during the early-middle of the last century.

Tom Waits — The piano has been drinking (not me) from turuncusizo on Vimeo.

The book itself really takes place in three distinct phases – though followed by a significant coda – which work together to slowly reveal that backstory for our main character and lifelong grifter, Stenton Carlisle. Each phase of the book follows Carlisle as he scams his way out of obscurity and into fame and fortune, stone stepping his way as he climbs upwards on the backs of his female companions, be they mentors, lovers, or conspirators as the case might be.

Swamp Creature Banner via

The first act is set in the depression era carnival sideshow, where we find Stenton, a young carny in training, learning the ropes on how to dupe the rubes. We don’t hear much about his backstory yet, we only see carnival life as it unfolds before him, slowly pulling him, and us, along into the orbit of the fortune teller & mentalist Zeena, and her longtime, rum-soaked partner Pete. Zeena soon takes a maternal/sexual interest in the virginal Stan, who then seeks to replace Pete, not only in Zeena’s bed but also in her mentalist act. This is a not-so-subconscious wish soon accomplished by a seemingly accidental mixup between the wood alcohol used in the show and the whisky which Zeena has hidden from Pete’s insatiable thirst, a confusion that murders the hapless Pete while Zeena and her young protégée get frantically naked in the nearby woods. 

The High Priestess

If this all sounds a bit Oedipal, it should; this is one of the major themes Greshom is developing in this early psychological novel. Our author is clearly steeped in Freudian analysis ,as well as being knowledgeable about the occult, spiritualism, and probably Theosophy as well. These ‘superstitious’ world-views have been replaced by the newer ‘scientific’ approach of psychology in our author’s mental universe as a grand unified theory of human behavior. Because of this decidedly Freudian focus I can’t help but wonder what Gresham’s approach might have looked like if his therapy had been oriented towards the works of Jung or other depth-psychology traditions instead. Perhaps his outlook on humanity might have been more optimistic. Unfortunately, we are given the literature as it exists, not as we might wish for it. 

In the second phase, we see Stanton’s meteoric rise to fame, first as a nightclub mentalist and then as a founder and reverend of his own spiritualist church – which he acquires after running a ‘spook act’ on loaded old ladies. This he does with the assistance of his second anima, Molly – a young refugee from the carnival, who he has seduced into following him into the con. Molly is presented throughout as a childish figure, orphaned prematurely by her father (yes she has Daddy issues), scorned and dominated by Stan, easily manipulated and unable to escape the influence of the older man. We are thus bordering again on a classic archetype of the feminine, with an older sexualized maternal woman followed by the naïef youngster. The whole set up mirrors a classical mother/daughter dualism, the whore and virgin, animating force behind  a great number of mythic tales, especially that of Demeter and Persephone.

“The Rape of Proserpina” by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1621-22)

The final stage of course is – as if by design – the tragic fall, now overshadowed by a third and final feminine type,  the inscrutable Dr. Lilith Ritter. She appears as the ultimate sorceress and temptress, allowing Stan to project his fevered feminine fantasies upon her. This Medea is played as an evil psychologist, encouraging Stan’s overwrought psyche to indulge in transference, the fatal embrace of the suggestive. Not good ethical practice, to be sure, but great fodder for the wicked psyche unleashed. 

She uses Stan’s ever expanding dependence on her presence to drive him into his greatest and final heist which he must perpetrate with the coerced collusion and eventual prostituting  of his meek mistress Molly, a vicious betrayal of her childish trust. The process is infantilizing towards the character of Molly, and falls a bit short of the psychological impact it might have had if she were a better rounded character. Nonetheless, we are given over to the suspicion that Stan is a lost cause; his psychological needs to dominate are becoming pathological. 

 The mark is a dangerous man, a wealthy industrialist with a dark secret Stan hopes to exploit with the aid of inside information provided by his dominating therapist. The consequences are predictably grim for all involved, but especially for Stanton, who is eventually double-crossed by his own Medea and forced to flee the evil forces of retribution which he now fears are pursuing him even in his newly won poverty, as he bums his way in flight across the depression era landscape. 

Now, with Stan in his final throes, and consumed by the dame demon-liquor that once haunted his original rival Pete, the story enters into its fatalistic coda. We see Stan falling from a great height, like the figures falling from the Tower of Babel in the tarot card of the same name. Did I mention that each chapter is associated with one of the Major Arcana cards of the traditional tarot deck? Despite this push into the spectral, however, the story is firmly rooted in the Freudian world view. We come to see the whole narrative as a dramatic reenactment of Stan’s infantile desire to bed his mother and kill his father. It is a metaphor that, with the hindsight of the current psychological vogue, seems a bit too precise and literal. But, in truth, this is a relatively small complaint against a work which otherwise seems to mark and define the feminine archetypal complex, as it appears to the male psyche anyway, with some clarity. If that three faced anima image is obscured by the Freudian reading of Stan’s intentions, it is all the more impressive in the way in which it can be seen moving behind the screen of what appears to be a simpler motive, key lit in the foreground. 

Stan is forced into extremis, and eventually he must kill in order to preserve what remains of his own life. But this killing is also an act of killing the self he has built up over his journey, and he is forced into disguise, subterfuge, and anonymity. It is his final encore.

The Tower

Stan comes full circle in desperation and is reunited with Zeena, who, after a warranted denunciation, helps Stan back on his feet, setting him up with a new act disguised as an Indian mind reader, and providing some cash to help him find his way back into the carnival life. This seems, actually, to be a fully formed ending to the book, one which displays forgiveness, resilience, and the potential of recovery, even after a long bout of self delusion and denial. This is not the ending the author decided to settle on, however. 

The final denouement is both brilliant and contrived, in the tradition of the works of O’Henry, if I remember my Freshman Lit class well enough. The novel is carefully crafted into a perfect circuit–even though there are parts (like the penultimate chapter) when it seems to want to break free of the form and end on an upbeat note. Instead we return to the first chapter, where we saw Stan learning the meaning of the word ‘geek’ as new blood at the carnival. On his way back to reenter the life he learns that his former therapist has married his nemesis, the industrialist who Stan still fears is stalking him across the countryside with the aid of invisible road agents and informants. In his paranoia, Stan returns immediately to the bottle with the extra cash he pilfered from his benefactor Zeena. Now in his throes, he finally returns to carnival in a state of disaster. 

The truth is, his addiction was never really cured by Zeena’s well intentioned intervention. His obsession with Lillith has brought him back to the nipple of  booze, which is dissolving the last fragments of his nervous system. We want the novelist to reveal to us a better case, a better potential outcome, but this is not to be. The redemption promised by the return to home base, in the person of Zeena, the matriarch of the carnival, the High Priestess, fails to pan out. 

It really does seem to me as if the author started out with his dark ending already in mind, and worked his way towards this pre-drawn conclusion upon which the story was based: how to make a carnival geek. The chance of Stan’s escape through the nurture and compassion of Zeena was a mere stumble and diversion on the way towards a greater freefall. That it was included at all is some indication that even the author has not yet been able to abandon the notion of a beneficent humanity. 

Yet, we still see the seeds of destruction in Stan’s encounter with Zeena. She asks him, at long last, if he had anything to do with Pete’s demise, but even then, in the moment of reckoning, the moment of decision and possible confession, Stan deflects the penetrating gaze of truth with accomplished misdirection, preferring, instead of admission to guilt, to startle Zeena with knowledge of Pete’s heretofore unknown last name. This move shocks her, and the subject is changed, too quickly to my taste. In so doing Stan seals his fate, by refusing to admit to his original sin to the only person capable of providing absolution. In this way, it seems to me that this book has two endings, one unrealized, and one which was inevitable by design, but also pushed onto us by the desire to encapsulate the story in a fully fixed and round figure.

In all, this book is a great deep dive into the psychology of the con-artist as well as an unflinching look at how people can be led along by their own wishful and magical thinking. There is a strong sense of disappointment implicit in Stan’s character in his failure to find a larger spiritual answer to his disease that we seem, by nature, to thirst and even strive for. This is one reason why I wish the author had encountered some Junginan thinking, not only because it offers a synthesis between psychological thinking and the mytho-poetic tradition, unduly underrated in significance by Freud, but also I think, because it permits the promise or at least the potential of self-fulfillment as a goal of the personality, an aspect that is shrouded in the darkness of the nightmare alley which runs through this author’s haunted world.