William Lindsay Gresham (1909-1962) was born in Baltimore. His family moved briefly to Fall River, Massachusetts, in 1916, then to New York City, where he graduated from Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn in 1926. Gresham’s was a tortured mind and a tormented life, and seeking to banish his demons, he lost himself in a maze of what proved dead-ends for him, from Marxism to psychoanalysis to Christianity to Alcoholics Anonymous to Rinzai Zen Buddhism. From these demons came his novel Nightmare Alley (1946), one of the underground classics of American literature. He wrote one more novel, Limbo Tower (1949), which went largely unnoticed. Three non-fiction books followed: Monster Midway (1953); Houdini (1959); and The Book of Strength (1961). Nightmare Alley brought Gresham fame and fortune, but he lost it all. The second of this three wives, the poet Joy Davidman, left him in 1953 for the British author C.S. Lewis. In declining health, he killed himself in New York City on September 14, 1962.
Nightmare Alley begins with an extraordinary description of a freak-show geek— the object of the voyeuristic crowd’s gleeful disgust—going about his work at a county fair. Young Stan Carlisle is working as a carny, and he wonders how a man could fall so low. There’s no way that anything like that will ever happen to him.