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Nightmare Alley

4.04  ·  Rating Details ·  1,260 Ratings  ·  138 Reviews
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 hi ...more
Paperback, 275 pages
Published April 6th 2010 by NYRB Classics (first published 1946)
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Jeffrey Keeten
May 04, 2016 Jeffrey Keeten rated it really liked it
Shelves: hardboiled, gothic
“How helpless they all looked in the ugliness of sleep. A third of life spent unconscious and corpselike. And some, the great majority, stumbled through their waking hours scarcely more awake, helpless in the face of destiny. They stumbled down a dark alley toward their deaths. They sent exploring feelers into the light and met fire and writhed back again into the darkness of their blind groping.”

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Stan Carlisle is an ambitious man looking for a way to make the big score. He is working for a ten
Eddie Watkins
Sep 29, 2014 Eddie Watkins rated it really liked it
Shelves: american-fiction
Early reports from friends suggested that this was a lurid melodrama set in a carnival; a warped carnie fantasia with freaks foregrounded. While the first few chapters fit this description fairly well - with a somewhat fragmented narrative accentuating the fun-house mirror effect (which by the way has an ill-fit with the remainder of the book), and the melodrama thick and lurid until the end - what I ultimately found more interesting were the occult themes running throughout, as related by an au ...more
Paquita Maria Sanchez
Jul 23, 2016 Paquita Maria Sanchez rated it it was amazing
Shelves: literature
Oh fuck yeyah. Some things I love: carny tales, equally comic and tragic spiral into substance abuse tales, cynical (some would argue "realistic") love stories, multi-character studies where the people actually have convincing voices that are distinct from one another and present very different perspectives on the same story because that's life, occasional fits of flowery "why fucking bother" prose, critiques of pseudoscience (it's fleas, dude), critiques of religion-as-corporation (ravenous, sw ...more
Jun 13, 2010 Greg rated it really liked it
Shelves: fiction
1. This afternoon, after finishing this book and having a great lunch with Karen I couldn't stop thinking about this song and about how in a roundabout way it reminded me of Nightmare Alley. I'm not going to do more than just share the video, which is kind of amusing in an almost hipster kind of way.

2. How to make a geek, paraphrased poorly from the first chapter of Nightmare Alley. Find a drunk who has no money and is suffering from the DT's. Tell him you
James Thane
Dec 11, 2010 James Thane rated it liked it
Stan Carlisle is a mentalist in a traveling carnival. But the young man has higher aspirations and not many moral qualms. In the carnival he hooks up with Molly, an attractive young woman who becomes his partner in a vaudeville routine. Still aiming higher, Stan buys a mail-order divinity degree and sets himself up as a spiritualist.

Stan is looking for the one big mark that will make his fortune, but his own life is beginning to unravel. Molly possesses the moral compass that Stan lacks, and she
Nancy Oakes
Apr 29, 2015 Nancy Oakes rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: american-fiction

I'm changing my previous rating from 4 to 5 stars. There is so very much I missed the first time through -- updated post coming soon.

Written in 1946 (my copy is from 1948), I would imagine that this book was a shocker when it came out. It is a classic version of the rise and fall type story, and very well done, considering that it took the author about 4 months to write it.

The basic premise is this. Stanton Carlisle works in a carnival, becoming an assistant to a woman who did a sort of mind rea
Jun 24, 2013 J. rated it really liked it
If you've read Chandler, and you've read Hammett ... If you prefer a cigarette to a dame, and a rotgut rye whiskey to both, you'll love this. If you like a little Cain, some Goodis or Willeford, even a little raunchy Simenon when he's feeling unreconstructed-- this one is for you.

This is American Gothic, a noir madhouse on wheels. The major opus of cult writer William Lindsay Gresham, this is a fullscale assault on everything legit, anything on the up and up; Nightmare Alley has exactly no char
Mar 09, 2014 Still rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Those interested in the carny lifestyle or con artists
Recommended to Still by: Drawn to it after seeing the film noir based on this novel

Anyone intending to read this novel needs to own the edition pictured in this review and published in 2010 by New York Review Books Classics.

It has an introduction by Nick Tosches (which should not be read until after finishing the novel) that along with biographical information on William Lindsay Gresham reveals that this edition is the first complete and uncensored version of NIGHTMARE ALLEY to have been published since the first edition back in 1946.

One other thing: while the film version o

Description: 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
Jan 29, 2008 Tosh rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: those fascinated with carny literature
One of the strange titles from Noir literature. And at the moment very hard to find. William L. Greshan's novel is the rise and fall of a carnival con artist. From ambitious 'mind reader' to geek - the book has an excellent view of the carnival world as well as some show-biz aspects of the social world of Manhattan, etc. I read this book many years ago, and it stays in my mind as a contemporary (well 40's era) horror story of sorts. Also it became a great film made in the 40's. But the book I fe ...more
Oct 10, 2015 Lynn rated it liked it
I struggled through this one. The central figure is an increasingly nasty conman and I didn't even want to endure his company long enough to see him get his just deserts. I usually love carnival stories so the original ideas, trick spoilers and quirky descriptions save this from a lower rating. It seemed about 100 pages too long.

Read in Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930s & 40s collection from the library.
Feb 06, 2013 Sketchbook rated it it was amazing
Spiritualism or your fav religio, it's same damn thing : balderdash. But peops (who are marvelously Dumb) need this. Darryl Zanuck, least stupid of classic moguls, agreed to let Tyrone Power - a big star - appear in film version. "Shrewd, absorbing movie," said Kael. Story is all about bogus mind-reading (any relig), blackmail (any relig) and a carny freak show where Geek, our hero, must bite off - live - the heads of chickens (any relig). A grim novel. Hats off to Z for letting it be filmed in ...more
Strongly delivered novel of the charismatic Stan Carlise, from his humble beginnings working as a carnival roustabout, where he fine tunes his "hustling" to his rise as a spiritualist of renown. The novel is atmospheric and moody, very noir. The characters and times well depicted. Loved the language of the novel. This was an unexpected "gem." Well worth the time.
Mar 05, 2014 Franky rated it it was amazing
“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 never reached the light.”

That something is fear, and Stan Carlisle knows how to avoid it, and how to sell it back to prospective buyers. As a con man, Stan wears many hats: Stan Carlisle. The Great Stanton. Reveren
Randolph Carter
Dec 21, 2013 Randolph Carter rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Fans of noir writing of the '40s.
A great but depressing noir book. The rise and fall of Stanton Carlisle, sociopath. Stan starts out as a lonely dreamer, a magician in the carny with dreams of becoming a mentalist and finally a nationally renowned spirit medium. These are all brilliant cons, Stan has no illusions about actual paranormal powers.

While he starts out as a fairly likable lonely dreamer, he becomes ever more hardened and cynical, and despicable as he becomes more successful. In fact, there are few sympathetic charac
Nov 11, 2013 Jim rated it really liked it
Shelves: mysteries
If the title is familiar to you, it's because Nightmare Alley was made into a film starring Tyrone Power and Joan Blondell in 1947. I had seen the film several times before I decided to try the original novel.

There is a genre of tales that are like a slow spiral down into the pit. We find Stanton Carlisle working at a carny show as a magician. Driven by ambition, he seduces Zeena the mind reader and horns in on her act. Feeling his oats, he makes a pass at Molly the "Mamzelle Electra" who lets
Tim Mayer
Dec 11, 2011 Tim Mayer rated it really liked it
Recommended to Tim by: timothymayer
This is the story of Stanton Carlisle, a carnival
sideshow mentalist, who decides to strike out for the big time by
going into the spiritualism racket. With his knowledge of human
nature from years of working sideshows, he is able to fleece enough
people to start his own church. But it all comes crashing down
around him when he tries to scam a wealthy industrialist. The book
ends with the protagonist's descent into alcoholism.
First published in 1946, this is a grim book. Its moral could best be summ
Lauren Mangold
Jul 25, 2011 Lauren Mangold rated it really liked it
What would you give to know your future? Let Madame Zeena answer your questions. Who would you call back from the afterlife if you had a chance? Let Stan Carlisle scare up your spooks. The characters that populate Nightmare Alley aren't psychics, or prophets-- they're hucksters looking for marks, laid low by drinking and by circumstance, and they can already see all the darkest parts of you. They know something that the humans who choose not to crawl along the seediest of underbellies never seem ...more
Sep 18, 2010 Harold rated it it was amazing
Shelves: noir, favorites
Quite a ride! The rise and (predictable) fall of a con artist, carny hustler turned spiritualist of the kind that Houdini exposed in his search for a legit medium. Great ending - understated, not cataclysmic by any means, but very poetic in the context of this book, wraps things up very nicely. Gresham manages to touch on the world of the carny, the con man, Spiritualism, mail-order Reverends, the alcoholic, the corrupt and the self absorbed all in a very realistic manner. I haven't done any res ...more
Rebecca McNutt
Jun 04, 2016 Rebecca McNutt rated it it was amazing
Shelves: classic, fiction, noir
This dark classic is absolutely amazing, it's been on my to-read list for ages but I only wish I'd gotten to it earlier than now. Nightmare Alley is as powerful as if it were real.
Apr 13, 2014 Philipp rated it liked it
Shelves: america, hard-boiled
tl;dr: A mixed bag

I'm not exactly sure what to make of this book - it's a hard-boiled noir story, but not set in the usual world of PIs and dames, but in the world of the carnival and travelling 'mediums' and spirit-talkers.

The problem is that only the beginning and the end are really interesting - the beginning reminding me of the awesome 1932 movie Freaks and also of one of the best X-Files episode (sadly, no guy tattooed in puzzles appears); the end is a great character study of someone loosi
Apr 09, 2013 Michael rated it really liked it
A great noir novel! Like other greats in the genre (especially the god-like Jim Thompson), Gresham takes an incredibly jaundiced, bleak view of humanity and spends the book piling on the misbehavior and misery. The now famous carnival geek sequence is only the beginning...
Jessica T.
Aug 07, 2016 Jessica T. rated it really liked it
Shelves: freaks
Crime fiction from the 30's and 40's isn't about crime... They have crimes in them but I believe it's really about the meaningless of existence. Happy Saturday!
Nov 03, 2015 Mizuki rated it really liked it
Is the ending a bit predictable? Yes, but everything else within the story makes up for that.

Longer Review:
Daniel Polansky
Ooooh. Ooooooh! Our tale of horror begins with the protagonist, a slick-talking, amoral stage magician watching a side show geek bite the head off a chicken, and swearing he would never fall so low. You can probably guess how it ends. In the middle is a narrative which makes the Hot Spot seem absolutely light-hearted by comparison, one in which faith of all kinds – in stage magic, in clairvoyance, in Christianity, and, most fascinatingly, in the practice of therapeutic psychiatry – is ridiculed ...more
Jun 20, 2012 MG rated it it was ok
Shelves: dark-matter
The main character is Stan Carlisle. He is a carnival worker who cons people into believing that he can see into their souls. His game evolves into some weird spiritualism that allows him to perform "seances." In those painfully raw moments, he exploits the guilt-ridden living with ethereal film projections of the dead. He gets really good. Molly, his assistant, is a beautiful girl who's way too needy for her long-dead "Daddy" and sleeps a lot in sexy negligees that Stan buys but no one sees. Sh ...more
Aug 16, 2015 J.M. rated it it was amazing
Someone put this on their to-read pile and I got to it first. I wasn't surprised to learn that it was right up my, um, alley.

Anyway, despite the 'pulpy' or lurid surface of this (just go look at the original cover on its Wikipedia page), there is a lot of bloody meat inside, plenty of substance beneath the creepiness. It made me think of Jim Thompson's work, only a little fatter, a little darker. It's unsettling, uncompromising, beautiful and bleak, with its guiding light (darkness?) being that
Carla Remy
Mar 26, 2010 Carla Remy rated it it was ok
This book was such a disappointment because I thought I loved it at first. It was atmospheric and absorbing. The background of the travelling carnival was creepy, with some amazing imagery. The carnies playing poker with Tarot cards! But then the main character graduated to vaudville- with a mentalist act- then became a spiritualist, convincing wealthy people that he talked to the dead. This was still pretty interesting. But the second half of the novel dove deeper into the dark and surreal, too ...more
A very challenging read for my course in Noir, in that often it seemed to drag things out far longer than necessary, when I was used to much quicker novels before. I think I liked the ideas of it more than the book itself. It got very much into the carny underworld, and the fake seances and spiritual manipulations were interesting, but again far too drawn out. Also, extremely Freudian and in a very uncomfortable way.
Jun 13, 2011 E. rated it it was ok
I quit about 200 pages in. This book was making me anxious and I couldn't see it going anywhere I was going to care about. I am open about my book quitting. If I'm not getting there I am happy to walk away from books. If I think there is any chance I'll re-visit down the road I usually won't review it but I'm pretty sure me and Nightmare Alley are kaput. The writing isn't bad, I just don't have any interest in the story.....
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NYRB Classics: Nightmare Alley, by William Lindsay Gresham 1 7 Oct 29, 2013 10:51AM  
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William Lindsay Gresham (August 20, 1909 – September 14, 1962) was an American novelist and non-fiction author particularly regarded among readers of noir. His best-known work is Nightmare Alley (1946), which was adapted into a 1947 film starring Tyrone Power.

Gresham was born in Baltimore, Maryland. As a child, he moved to New York with his family, where he became fascinated by the sideshow at Con
More about William Lindsay Gresham...

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“What sort of God would put us here in this goddamned, stinking slaughterhouse of a world?” 4 likes
“Nothing matters in this goddamned lunatic asylum of a world but dough.” 3 likes
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