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September 2011

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Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham, Naxos AudioBooks - Complete Classics, unabridged, read by Adam Sims, 8 CDS, total time: 10:24:00, NA0043, ISBN 978-184-379-482-0

Cover of Naxos audio book Nightmare Alley

1946 cover of Nightmare Alley


By Alidë Kohlhaas

There is a new interest in a seemingly forgotten novel by the late William Lindsay Gresham. Aptly named Nightmare Alley, it was reissued last year in paperback format as well as in e-book format by NYRB Classics. Now Naxos has released this suspense novel as an unabridged audio book. After listening to this well read, and acted 8-CD audio book, I find it easy to understand why there is this new interest in the Gresham work. It is a masterly written piece of suspense that is amazing in its depiction of the rise and fall of a carnival entertainer. But also, it is remarkable for its insight into human nature, and the revelation of the insecurities that lie just beneath the surface of not only the tale's leading character, but all those we meet through the carnival atmosphere of another era.

The Naxos audio book is read by Adams Sims. He has trained at LAMDA (London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts), has appeared in the movie Lost in Space, the TV series, Band of Brothers, has a role in the UK thriller Junk currently in post-production, and has acted in numerous stage productions throughout England. Among others, he was named Best Actor at the Manchester Evening News Theatre Awards for his role in Snake in Fridge, a play by Canadian playwright Brad Fraser. Nightmare Alley is not Sims' first reading for Naxos. Among others he has read Haruki Murakmi's 'after the quake' , a series of six stories inspired by the 1995 Kobe earthquake, and his novels Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. Sims uses his voice well in the portrayal of each character and he knows how to exploit their various idiosyncrasies  in this story full of desperate, sleazy fame seekers.

Before I continue with this review I want to make it clear that there are no spoilers revealed here. This reviewer neither believes in looking up the ending of a story, nor giving out the intimate details of the various characters. This is all the more important when dealing with a book in audio format. Knowing the ending or too much about the characters ahead of time will truly spoil the suspense and the horror that Gresham built into his novel.

What can be revealed is that the listener of Nightmare Alley is transported into the underbelly of a second-rate traveling carnival made up of dreamers, schemers, hustlers and femme fatales. Gresham's gift in this novel is to make us think that he actually experienced this world. In reality he was inspired to write it by a story he heard from a former carnival worker while they both served as volunteers for the Loyalist forces during the Spanish Civil War.

The book was published in 1946. It was an instant hit and Tyrone Power fought for the chance to play the lead in a movie adaptation. Unfortunately, the producer thought that the film, released in 1947, would tarnish the star's image. This resulted in it being released as a B-movie, which limited it to a much smaller audience than it would have had as an A-movie released in major houses. As a consequence both movie and novel were soon forgotten.

The main character of the story is Stanley Carlisle, whose ambition is to become a great magician and mind reader. He learns his tricks through subterfuge from Mademoiselle Zeena (played in the movie by Joan Blondell) and her alcoholic husband Pete. But Stanley is not satisfied with working as a carny. He wants to be a major act on the stages of great theaters and gain entrance to the homes of the rich. So he persuades young Molly, known to her gullible audience as Mamzelle Electra, to leave the troupe so they can set out on their own.

Other characters in the novel are The Geek, who for a bottle of booze will carry out degrading acts that make him subhuman in the eyes of the carnival's audience, and especially to our own sensibilities; the grotesquely tattooed Sailor Martin (no doubt many today would not be quite so repelled or fascinated by him considering the popularity of grotesque tattoos on the arms and bodies of so-called stars and their followers); the spiteful dwarf Major Mosquito; Joe Plasky, a gentle-natured acrobat with atrophied legs; the strong man Bruno, who has his heart set on Molly.

Stanley, it turns out, has few scruples and is prepared to step on anyone or use any means that will lead him to the top. He becomes the consummate con man, who plays on the fears and longings of the rich patrons he eventually meets. There he is helped by an equally unscrupulous psychologist, Dr. Lilith Ritter, to ensnare his marks, not realizing that by putting his trust in her, he has exposed his own vulnerabilities. These were nightmares born in his childhood in a wooded grove that revealed more than his childish sensibilities were able to comprehend.

Gresham created a highly literate work in Nightmare Alley, in which he separated the chapters by the names of the Tarot cards used so frequently by fortune tellers at carnivals. His novel is a careful exploration of human nature and its frailties in which he slowly reveals the traumas of Stanley's childhood. By doing so, we begin to realize that Stan's Horatio Alger-like rise will eventually become the reversal of the American Dream; that we are faced with a Cinderella story in which the Fairy Godmother is an evil spirit and not the benevolent one we are used to in our fairytales.

Gresham's own life in some ways resonates in this novel. It led him through a variety of jobs, including working for a newspaper. A marriage to a socialite lasted nine years, but his battle with his insecurities eventually led to a divorce. He drifted from one philosophy to another, became a Marxist, sought refuge in Christianity, in Buddhism, followed P.D. Ouspensky's Fourth Way, and succumbed to L. Ron Hubbard's Dianetics (Scientology) in an attempt to assuage his own terrors, including alcoholism.

Along the way he married the American poet Joy Davidman, herself a Marxist and atheist. The marriage produced two sons, and under Davidson's guidance he grew as a writer. As he lost his belief in Marxism, succumbed to alcohol, and became unfaithful, the marriage collapsed and Davidson moved to England with the two boys. She converted to Christianity and married C.S. Lewis, while Gresham married her cousin, Renée. This last marriage appears to have been a success and Gresham worked as an editor, and freelance writer of short stories. Then in 1962 he was diagnosed with cancer. One September 14 he took a room in the Dixie, an old showfolk's hotel in New York which he had frequented while writing Nightmare Alley and committed suicide with an overdose of sleeping pills.

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