Nightmare Alley begins with an extraordinary description of a freak-show geek—alcoholic and abject and the object of the voyeuristic crowd’s gleeful disgust and derision—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 in hell, he vows, that anything like that will ever happen to him.
And since Stan is clever and ambitious and not without a useful streak of ruthlessness, soon enough he’s going places. Onstage he plays the mentalist with a cute bimbo (before long his harried wife), then he graduates to full-blown spiritualist, catering to the needs of the rich and gullible in their well-upholstered homes. It looks like the world is Stan’s for the taking. At least for now.
Certainly one of the most valuable reissues of the year.
…capable of eating toasted little Cormac McCarthy novels for breakfast.
The ‘nightmare’ of the title rings true, for this delirious and unstoppable novel…inverts the American dream. The plot turns the Horatio Alger myth on its head and the psychology leans on Freud, but the torment, the pervading sense that the human creature lives in a trap he or she is doomed never to escape, comes from the heart and mind of the author. Never was noir more autobiographical than here….Nightmare Alley remains a masterpiece, not only due to its driving narrative power, but because it’s underpinned by the premise that the human animal is alone, helpless in the face of destiny, stumbling in the dark, down the nightmare alley toward the inevitable wall of death at the end. Yet we can’t stop ourselves hoping, and fearing, that there might be something beyond that wall. The message of this disquieting book couldn’t be more human, yet that message is metaphysical rather than moral.
—Los Angeles Times
Mr. Gresham yanked the reviewer into the midst of his macabre and compelling novel, and kept him a breathless captive until the tour was over. It’s a truly rewarding whirl through his nightmare alley, adding up to Grade—A guignol with a touch of black magic about it. If you enjoy hundred—proof evil—and a cogent analysis of same with your nightcap—then, in the words of the Ten-in-One barker, hurry, hurry, hurry!
— James MacBride, The New York Times
Gresham has something of Nelson Algren’s mordant power in picturing denizens of the lower depths. He is a promising contender for heavyweight honors in the rough, tough and morbid division.
— Jack Conroy, The Chicago Defender
While Gresham is usually described as a “popular novelist,” the epithet fails to capture his contemporary notoriety. Gresham wrote the 1946 best-seller “Nightmare Alley” (dedicated to Davidman), a grotesque noir classic about the carnival demimonde, later made into an arresting film with Tyrone Power and Joan Blondell. One reviewer described the book as a ‘tough, relentless, colorful novel that exposes the private world of the freaks in order to comment on a sick, degrading society.’
— San Francisco Chronicle
An impressive low-life novel.
— The Observer (London)
Gresham…wrote with vivid punch and a close understanding of the carnival world.
— Los Angeles Times
Nightmare Alley is a portrait of greed seen through the rise and fall of a carny con man.
— Publishers Weekly
For fans of vaudeville and magic, the book is a treasure trove of trade secrets.
— Walter Kirn, The New York Times
Nightmare Alley combines the creepy world of Tod Browning’s movie ‘Freaks’ with the relentless cynicism of a Jim Thompson novel.