Thursday, 4 June 2015

WILLIAM LINDSAY GRESHAM Nightmare Alley (1946)

Rinehart and Company, first US edition, 1946

Ever since he was a kid Stan had had the dream.  He was running down a dark alley, the buildings vacant and black and menacing on either side.  Far down at the end of it a light burned, but there was something behind him, close behind him, getting closer until he woke up trembling and reached the light.  They have it too –– a nightmare alley.  The North isn't the end.  The light will only move further on.  And the fear close behind them.  White and black, it made no difference.  The geek and his bottle, staving off the clutch of the thing that came following after.
  In the hot sun of noon the cold breath could strike your neck.  In having a woman her arms were a barrier.  But after she had fallen asleep the walls of the alley closed in on your own sleep and the footsteps followed.

The Novel:  The world of the old time carnival –– or 'carny' as it was more popularly known –– is a world as dead to us in the twenty-first century as those of vaudeville, ragtime and the silent cinema.  But in the Depression-ravaged United States of the 1930s carnivals and the 'carnies' who ran and performed in them offered curious, entertainment starved audiences an affordable mixture of cheap thrills, magic and the occult with a generous sprinkling of humor, hokum and good old-fashioned voyeurism tossed in for good measure.  The object was to lure the rubes in with acts like your fortune teller or your geek –– a man, usually an alcoholic or a drug addict, who would sit in his own excrement, bite the heads of live chickens or do pretty much anything else required of him so long as he was regularly supplied with liquor or drugs –– and then screw them out of every nickel they had via your concession stands and pre-rigged games of chance.  By the time anybody realized they'd been swindled the show would be on its way to the next hick town, opening its alley, or midway, up to a new audience of suckers who couldn't wait to spend their hard-earned cash to see Sailor Martin, the Living Picture Gallery or Mamzelle Electra, the Girl Who Defies The Lightning come out and strut their stuff.

This is the world inhabited by Stanton 'Stan' Carlisle –– a young would-be magician who specializes in card tricks –– and his fellow performers in an enterprise known as the 'Ackerman-Zorbaugh Monster Shows.'  Unlike the thousands of lonely and unhappy children who dream of running away to join a circus or a carnival, Stan has actually defied his widowed father's expectations and done it, determined to learn as much as he can about human greed and gullibility in preparation for the day when he'll finally be ready to try his luck on the more prestigious vaudeville stage.

Stan is a fast learner.  Born with the intelligence to match his youth, ambition and blonde good looks, he realizes the real money is to be made not by dazzling the rubes with card tricks but by telling them what they want to hear as a 'mentalist' or mind-reader.  He helps Madam Zeena, the carnival's featured mentalist, with her act, secretly passing along the coded messages which allow her to magically 'see' their innermost secrets and later sell them the horoscopes that provide a steady source of additional income for herself and Pete, her once famous but now burned out and alcoholic husband.  Determined to master all of Zeena's tricks –– and certain that he stands no chance of getting Molly Cahill, the beautiful but naïve girl otherwise known as Mamzelle Electra, into bed with him any time soon –– Stan decides to make a play for the older woman, delighted to find that Zeena, who's as lonely as she is kindhearted, is only too willing to educate him both in and out of the bedroom.  

Although their relationship quickly blossoms into an affair, Zeena insists on keeping it a secret from their fellow performers and the inebriated husband she pities but retains a genuine fondness for despite his lack of prospects and his altogether miserable condition.  This arrangement doesn't suit Stan, who believes the best thing for everyone would be for Pete to simply roll over and die, allowing him and Zeena to become a permanent double act.  Angry and jealous because Zeena has refused to spend the night with him, Stan gives Pete wood alcohol to drink, hoping it will knock his rival unconscious and keep him that way for as long as it takes Zeena to give him what he wants.  But the raw spirit does more than knock Pete unconscious.  It kills him, confronting Stan with the prospect of being arrested for his murder even though it was never his conscious intention to take the older man's life.  

Signet Books, 1949
Luckily for Stan, everyone accepts the verdict that Pete's death was an unlikely if not exactly surprising accident.  In time Stan and Zeena are able to resume their affair, with Zeena continuing to teach her ambitious young lover how to read minds by studying people's body language and learning to find the subtexts in the questions she has them write on slips of paper before offering them what are supposed to be 'cold readings' of their problems and their futures.  Stan masters these tricks just in the nick of time, using them to save the carnival when the local Sheriff attempts to shut it down after receiving an anonymous (and false) tip-off that Molly is doing a striptease act.  Stan talks fast and well, pretending to read the Sheriff's mind and assuring him that the 'dilemma' he's currently facing will ultimately resolve itself in his favor.  The law departs and Molly, grateful to Stan for saving her from jail and no longer able to deny her attraction to him, allows him to make love to her in the back of Zeena's van.  Far from feeling angered or hurt by this betrayal, Zeena welcomes the new arrangement, confessing that she always expected the 'young people' to get together some day.  With Zeena's approval gained, Stan makes plans to marry Molly and swap the dog-eat-dog world of the carnival for the more glamorous, high stakes world of vaudeville.

Time passes and Stan, with Molly now working in his act as his eye-catching assistant (but not yet legally his wife), begins to make quite a name for himself as 'The Great Stanton' on the national theater circuit.  While Stan knows he should be happy with his success and the substantial amounts of money his carefully rehearsed mind-reading act rakes in each night, he feels restless and dissatisfied, increasingly distracted by the memory, suppressed since boyhood, of watching his mother have sex with her lover in the woods near their family home.  Nor does it help matters that vaudeville is on the way out, obliging him to take his act into the homes of wealthy and gullible 'believers' who are happy to pay him to provide suitably 'spooky' entertainment during cocktail parties and other high-faluting social occasions.  But why settle for being just another entertainer when, with a little refining of his technique and a bit more flim-flam, he can set himself up as a spiritualist, able to communicate with the long-departed loved ones these rich fools are stupid enough to believe are 'trapped in the realm beyond the grave'?  

Molly is against the idea, certain it can only lead to trouble, but Stan insists on them developing a new spiritualist act where his innate skills as a smooth-talking con-artist can be put to better use for both their sakes.  Understanding that a touch of religion will make him more respectable and therefore more legitimate in the eyes of his 'followers,' he reinvents himself as 'Reverend Carlisle,' acquiring a house in upstate New York from one of them which he transforms into the US headquarters of the Church of the Heavenly Message –– his own private religion with its own weekly radio program to help him reel in even larger numbers of dupes, rubes and dime-donating suckers.

Successful though he is, Stan now finds himself plagued by nightmares triggered by the memory of his mother's betrayal and her subsequent abandonment of him when he was a boy.  Seeking to purge himself of these sometimes terrifying dreams, he returns to his hometown to visit his sick and dying father, hoping that his new status as a 'man of God' will prove once and for all that he's permanently outgrown the wounds inflicted on him by his strict upbringing and years of social and sexual repression.  But, instead of easing his mind, his trip home causes more bad memories to rise to the surface, leading him to conclude that it was his father who killed his dog Gyp –– the only creature he ever truly loved –– in a fit of jealous rage after learning that his mother had run off with her lover.  After confronting the old man with this revelation and nearly killing him in long suppressed rage, Stan leaves town again, this time vowing never to return.

His nightmares, however, keep recurring, becoming so frequent that he's forced to seek help from Dr Lilith Ritter, a professional psychotherapist.  Expecting Dr Ritter to be a withered old crone, Stan is delighted to find that the therapist is young and attractive and, even more appealingly, that she shares his cynical attitudes regarding the easily targeted greed and gullibility of their fellow human beings.  After they become lovers, Lilith confesses that she has information about a millionaire industrialist named Ezra Grindle stored in her files that, if used correctly, has the potential to make them both rich beyond their wildest dreams.  Stan, who has found both his soulmate and his perfect sexual partner in the sadistic therapist (who proves to be a superior type of con-artist in her own right), is only too glad to help her defraud the industrialist of $150,000 by granting the old man his fondest wish –– to be forgiven by and 'physically reunited' with his long-lost sweetheart, who died at the age of nineteen after undergoing the abortion he insisted she must have to dispose of his unborn child.  The success of this plan hinges on Molly and her willingness, or not, to cooperate with Stan's request that she play the role of the dead girl and allow Grindle to have sex with her.  Molly refuses, telling Stan it will change the way he looks at her forever if she cooperates with his plan, never guessing, in her usual naïve and trusting way, that he intends to desert her the minute he and Lilith get their hands on the horny old bastard's money.  But Stan's persistence soon wears Molly down, his promise to marry her and give her the child she's always wanted making the sacrifice of sleeping with a reprehensible old sleazebag an acceptable if not in any sense desirable one as far as she's concerned.

The night of the 'final séance' arrives, only to see a terrified Molly blow the whole deal when an over-excited Grindle tries to have his wicked way with her a second time, forcing Stan to step in and beat him unconscious.  Certain he'll be exposed as a fraud and sent to jail for what he's done, Stan leaves the frightened girl to fend for herself and flees to Lilith's office where he expects to find her and the money Grindle has already handed over waiting to be collected as they had previously arranged.  Afraid that Lilith might also be implicated in his crime, Stan insists she run away with him, only to have her admit that Grindle has no inkling she knows the truth about him and the catalytic role he played in the abortion related death of his long-dead sweetheart.  Lilith gives Stan a bag filled with the $150,000 and the $5000 she was keeping in reserve as traveling money and tells him to go to another city, where she'll contact him after things simmer down.  Stan leaves for the railway station, resisting the temptation to open the bag until he's safely locked inside a toilet stall where, to his horror, he learns that Lilith has pulled what carnies call 'the gypsy switch' on him, replacing all but the outlying $50 bills with $1 bills, leaving him just $383 with which to make his getaway.  

In the ensuing nightmare sequence, Stan imagines himself back in Lilith's office, being told that his attempt to destroy his father on his visit home was, like his unwitting destruction of Zeena's husband Pete, an attempt to permanently eradicate the 'father figure' whose presence prevented him from living out his repressed Oedipal fantasy of having sex with his mother.  This revelation, which in another sense also applies to the way he's treated Grindle, proves too much for him to bear, shattering what's left of his composure and sending him to the brandy bottle to find whatever solace he can find there.

The failure of his scheme to defraud the industrialist and the loss of his true soulmate also means that the frequently drunk Stan is forced to lie low and start all over again.  He goes back to mind-reading, working in a bar called the Pelican Club for drinks and whatever he can wheedle out of the customers by providing the same kind of 'cold readings' Zeena taught him to provide back in his carny days.  But Stan can't stick with the job or, in fact, with any job for long.  Obliged to keep moving to stay one step ahead of the law, he finds himself becoming a hobo, riding freight cars and falling, more and more, under the numbing if welcome spell of alcohol.  Then one night a Sheriff who's already warned him to leave town once picks him up again, dragging him into a nearby alley where he intends to beat him senseless before throwing him back in jail.  Frantic with fear and close to insanity, Stan retaliates, using a Japanese wrestling hold learned from another carnival performer to choke and kill his soon helpless attacker.  

New York Review Books USA, 2010
Sick and alone, Stan sneaks out of town and finds his way to the country home of Zeena –– whose home address he spotted by chance in a magazine advertisement –– where she now earns a good living selling mail order horoscopes.  His sorry condition induces Zeena to forgive him for the great wrong he did to Molly, who, she informs him, fled to her for protection just as he's done but has since married a gambler and given birth to an adorable baby boy.  Under Zeena's guidance, Stan pulls himself together and makes plans to return to the carnival circuit, where he hopes to find work as 'The Hindu Magician, Allah Rahged.'  But he abandons this plan when he learns that Lilith has married Ezra Grindle –– news that sends him running back to the bottle and this time for good. 

Drunk and half-deranged, he approaches a carnival boss one day, only to have his slurred offer to appear as an 'added 'traction' tersely rejected.  'I got one job you might take a crack at,' the boss eventually tells him after being pestered for several more minutes.  'It ain't much, and I ain't begging you to take it; but it's a job Of course, it's only temporary –– just until we get a real geek.'

Nightmare Alley was a bestseller when it was first published in 1946 and it's not hard to understand its popularity, given its lurid combination of aberrant sex, carnival-related weirdness, hard-boiled crime and what, in the 1940s, was still considered to be the fashionably 'exotic' cult of Freudian psychiatry.  In the haunted, eternally frustrated, ruthlessly ambitious figure of Stan Carlisle Gresham created a character who both mirrors and embodies the most shameful aspects of American society and its unhealthy obsessions with power, wealth and its gleeful exploitation of the greedy, weak and ignorant.  As Stan bitterly confesses to Lilith at one point:  'I'm a hustler, God damn itI'm on the make.  Nothing matters in this goddamned lunatic asylum of a world but dough.  When you get that you're the boss.  If you don't have it you're the end man on the daisy chainThey're all Johns.  They're asking for it.  Well, I'm here to give it out.'  Give it out he does, living out his dreams of success and acceptance only to see them transformed into living nightmares of impotent rage and savage self-loathing right before his eyes.  Stan may hate the rubes, the Johns and the suckers but the person he reserves his most passionate, most eviscerating hatred for is himself.  Try as he might to escape the damning memories of his past –– in the arms of Zeena and Molly and in his blind masochistic devotion to the coldly calculating Lilith –– these prove to be the one thing he can never escape, the one dark alley from which he can never hope to emerge safely into the light.

The Writer:  In many respects William Lindsay Gresham lived a life as tortured and bizarre as that of Stanton Carlisle, his greatest and most enduring literary creation.  It was a life marred by violence and alcohol and, like Carlisle's, it ended in a tragic if not totally surprising fashion in a dingy Times Square hotel room on 14 September 1962. 

Gresham was born in Baltimore, the largest city in the eastern US state of Maryland, on 20 August 1909.  His family subsequently moved to Massachusetts but by 1917 were living in New York City, in the borough of Brooklyn, where he graduated from Erasmus Hall High School in 1926.  Some believe that as a boy Gresham may have had a part-time job at Brooklyn's Coney Island Amusement Park but it's almost certain that, employed there or not, he would have spent a lot of time visiting its freak shows and carnival attractions, gaining his first taste of the atmosphere he would later recreate so vividly in his debut novel.

New York was to remain Gresham's home for the next seven years –– a period which saw him work at a succession of odd jobs, including stenographer and freelance journalist, before trying his luck as a folksinger under the name 'William Rafferty' in the decidedly Leftist coffee houses of 1930s Greenwich Village.  Unable to make a steady living from music, he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933 –– the CCC was a New Deal program which provided young single men who were members of 'relief families' with steady low paid work designed to improve and maintain America's parklands and other natural resources –– remaining with the organization for an undetermined time (possibly six months, possibly twelve), before returning to New York where he found work as an advertising copywriter and a part-time reviewer for the city's Evening Post newspaper.  He also married and began publishing his first stories in the pulp magazines whose circulation, in some cases, quadrupled as Depression-affected Americans sought relief in what, for increasing numbers of them, was the only form of escapist entertainment they could realistically afford.

Gresham joined the US Communist Party in 1936, a decision that inspired him to travel to Spain the following year to serve the Republican cause as a member of The Abraham Lincoln Brigade in that country's bloody Civil War.  It was in Spain, while working as a medic, that he met a fellow American volunteer named Joseph Daniel 'Doc' Halliday.  It was Halliday, a former sailor and psychiatric nurse who had also spent many years working in carnivals, who taught him about the world of freaks, geeks and con-artists and introduced him to its colorful and highly specialized lingo.  Even before his return to New York in January 1939, Gresham was planning to write a novel set in a carnival –– a world he saw as being the perfect reflection, in miniature, of the grimmest realities of life in modern-day America.

The failure of his marriage, which collapsed shortly after his return from Spain, led the heartbroken and now heavily drinking Gresham to attempt suicide.  Fortunately, the hook he'd tried to hang himself from pulled out of the wall, sparing his life and encouraging him to seek the aid of a psychiatrist.  Psychoanalysis seemed to give him a new lease on life, as did the job he found editing a 'true crime' magazine and the small amount of money he made from selling his stories to other pulp publications.  This was how he was earning his living when he met Joy Davidman, a poet and fellow Communist who, in 1938, had won the prestigious Yale Younger Poets Award for her collection titled Letter to a Comrade.  Davidman was far more famous than her future husband, a Jew of Ukrainian descent who had taught herself to read at the age of three and entered Hunter College at fourteen before going on to earn a Master's Degree in English Literature from New York's Columbia University.

Gresham and Davidman married on 24 August 1942 and by 1945 the marriage had produced two sons, David and Douglas.  By then the family was living in upstate New York, with Gresham continuing to drink heavily and indulge in numerous extra-marital affairs while he planned what would eventually be published in 1946 by Rinehart and Company as Nightmare Alley.  (The book, according to one source, took two years to conceive and only four months to write.)  Davidman herself had published a novel in 1940 and would publish a second, Weeping Bay, a decade later, the intervening years being a time of great personal hardship for her as she struggled to deal not only with her husband's many infidelities and worsening alcoholism but also with his abusive temperament and the rages it gave rise to.  Following one of Gresham's breakdowns, during which he'd telephoned her to say he had no idea if or when he'd be returning home, Davidman underwent a religious conversion (they had both long since abandoned Communism as being the solution to life's problems) that, in 1950, saw her begin a correspondence with the English fantasy writer and Christian apologist Clive Staples Lewis.  In time, she and Gresham became deeply influenced by Lewis's work, converting to Presbyterianism and regularly attending church in their hometown of Staatsburg.  

While his wife's conversion proved to be a sincere and lasting one, Gresham's did not.  He soon abandoned Christianity to explore Zen Buddhism, the I-Ching, Tarot cards and Dianetics, the early version of what's now called Scientology.  He continued to drink and spent extended periods drying out in New York's Bellevue Hospital, his experiences inspiring the setting for his second, even grimmer and largely ignored 1949 novel Limbo Tower.  He and Davidman separated in 1952, when she left for England to meet and eventually fall in love with CS Lewis, returning briefly to the US in January 1953 in what proved to be a futile attempt to save her doomed marriage.  She returned to England, and the author of The Narnia Chronicles (1950-1956) in November, granting Gresham a divorce the following year which enabled him to marry her cousin.  Davidman herself married Lewis in 1956 before succumbing to cancer in 1960 –– events dramatized by William Nicholson in his 1985 television play Shadowlands and again in the 1993 feature film of the same name starring Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger.

Gresham and his new wife moved to Florida, where he joined Alcoholics Anonymous and seemed to find some small sense of contentment for a time.  In 1960, following the death of Joy Davidman, he traveled to England to visit his sons, neither of whom he'd seen or spoken to since 1953.  Finding them happy and in good health, and very much little English gentleman rather than rough 'n ready American boys, he abandoned his plan to take them home and left them in the care of Lewis, who subsequently made them his heirs.  

The last two years of Gresham's life were neither happy nor healthy ones.  Shortly after moving to the New York town of New Rochelle, he was diagnosed first with tuberculosis and then with cancer of the tongue, a condition which required that a section of this organ be amputated.  He also began experiencing problems with his eyesight which resulted in a diagnosis of steadily encroaching blindness, possibly triggered by his years of unrelenting alcohol abuse.  With nothing to lose and his children far away, he booked himself a room in the Dixie Hotel on Times Square, using the name 'Asa Kimball of Baltimore,' and took an overdose of sleeping pills.  By then he was an almost completely obscure writer, better remembered, if at all, for non-fiction works like Monster Midway: An Uninhibited Look at the Glittering World of the Carny (1953) and Houdini: The Man Who Walked Through Walls (1959) than for his novels.  His last work, written while he fought his unsuccessful battle with cancer, was a book about bodybuilding titled The Book of Strength.  Strength –– of purpose, if not of will –– was something he apparently never lacked.  'I sometimes think,' he once told a friend, 'that if I have any real talent it is not literary but is a sheer talent for survival.  I have survived three busted marriages, losing my boys, war, tuberculosis, Marxism, alcoholism, neurosis and years of freelance writing.  Just too mean and ornery to kill, I guess.'     

 New York Review Books was the last company to reprint Nightmare Alley (1946), with its 2010 version of the novel featuring a specially-commissioned introduction written by novelist, poet and WILLIAM LINDSAY GRESHAM biographer-in-the-making NICK TOSCHES.  Sadly, the book now appears to be out of print although second-hand copies should still be available via used book websites like the Amazon-owned ABE Books.

A 400 page collection of GRESHAM's otherwise unavailable pulp pieces –– including stories, essays and articles which have not been reprinted since their original publication –– titled Grindshow: The Selected Writings of William Lindsay Gresham, was published by the Centipede Press in April 2014 and should be obtainable via your local library, bookstore or preferred online retailer.

The 1947 film version of Nightmare Alley –– directed by EDMUND GOULDING and starring TYRONE POWER as Stan Carlisle, JOAN BLONDELL as Zeena, COLEEN GRAY as Molly and HELEN WALKER as Lilith Ritter –– is now considered a classic of American film-noir and remains widely available as a Region 1 US DVD, as does Shadowlands (1993), the film based on the short, happy but ultimately doomed romance of JOY DAVIDMAN and CS LEWIS.

Fantagraphics Books USA, 2003

Nightmare Alley was also adapted by artist SPAIN RODRIGUEZ and published in graphic novel form by acclaimed US publisher Fantagraphics Books in March 2003.  Unfortunately, the only currently available copies are second-hand copies which vary greatly in price depending on their condition.  The publisher has never reprinted it despite it havng been described by one online reviewer as 'one of the greatest comics adaptations of a pre-existent work of twentieth century American fiction ever produced.'

You might also enjoy:
ELIZABETH TAYLOR A Wreath of Roses (1947)
MALCOLM KNOX A Private Man (2004)

No comments:

Post a Comment