Nightmare Alley

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This article is about the 1946 novel. For the 1947 film, see Nightmare Alley (film).
Nightmare Alley
US paperback edition cover
Author William Lindsay Gresham
Country United States
Language English
Genre Novel
Publisher Rinehart & Company
Publication date
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)

Nightmare Alley is a novel by William Lindsay Gresham published in 1946. It is a study of the lowest depths of showbiz and its sleazy inhabitants – the dark, shadowy world of a second rate carnival filled with hustlers, scheming grifters, and Machiavellian femmes fatales.

Gresham attributed the origin of Nightmare Alley to conversations he had with a former carnival worker while they were both serving as volunteers with the Loyalist forces in the Spanish Civil War. Gresham wrote the novel, his first, while working as an editor for a "true crime" pulp magazine in New York City during the 1940s. He outlined the plot and wrote the first six chapters over a period of two years, then finished the book in four months. Each chapter is represented by a different Tarot card.


The novel begins with Stanton Carlisle, the story's protagonist, observing the geek show at a Ten-in-One where he has recently begun working. After the show, Stan asks the carnival's talker Clem Hoately where geeks come from. Clem replies that geeks don't come from anywhere – rather, they're "made": a sideshow owner finds an alcoholic bum and offers him a temporary job. Initially, the bum uses a razor blade to slice chickens' necks and fakes drinking the blood. After a few weeks the owner threatens to fire the bum in favor of a "real" geek, and the fear of sobering up terrifies the bum into actually biting the chickens. Thus, a geek is made.

Stan performs sleight of hand tricks in the sideshow. He asks the carnival's mentalist Zeena to teach him how to execute a refined "code" act, where the performers memorize verbal cues that correspond to certain audience questions, allowing the mentalist to appear psychic. Stan also begins to pick up Zeena's talent for cold reading. He eventually leaves the carnival with beautiful and naïve electric girl[1] Molly Cahill to perform a team code act.

The act becomes very successful, but Stan grows bored and transforms himself into Reverend Carlisle, an upstanding Spiritualist preacher offering séance sessions with the help of his medium – Molly, appearing as "Miss Cahill" to obfuscate their relationship. Stan gains a devoted following, but the stress of leading a false life leads him to seek the help of a highly regarded psychologist named Lilith Ritter, who seduces Stan and soon begins controlling him. Stan pleads constantly for the two to run away together, and Lilith eventually agrees, suggesting the Rev. Carlisle swindle a rich man for the getaway money. They settle on Ezra Grindle, a ruthless auto tycoon with a skeptical interest in the occult. Stan manages to convince Grindle of his powers, and the businessman becomes a devoted spiritualist.

Stan keeps Grindle hooked by promising to reunite him with his deceased college sweetheart Dorrie. In private meetings with Grindle, Stan communicates with Dorrie's spirit (played by an increasingly reluctant Molly); Dorrie seems to move closer to corporeality with each session. At the crucial moment of full bodily materialization, Molly panics and destroys the illusion, forcing her and Stan to flee and leading Grindle to vow revenge. Knowing Grindel will come after him, Stan tells Molly to leave him and go back to the carnival life with their bankroll, knowing he has much more cash on hand at Lilith's. Stan goes to Lilith's and tells her what happened with Grindel. At Lilith's suggestion, Stan decides to go into hiding and takes with him an envelope containing a large sum in cash that Grindle had donated to the church, but on the way to the train station Stan discovers that Lilith has stolen the money. When he returns to her office to confront her, Lilith prays on Stan's insecurities and convinces him no one will believe his story of her being involved with the swindle, and she'll have him committed to a mental institution. He narrowly escapes the police and goes on the run, performing as a mentalist at increasingly shoddy venues and barely evading the men Grindle continually sends after him. Eventually he becomes a hobo, staying afloat by giving Tarot readings and selling horoscopes. He descends into alcoholism and depression.

His life in utter shambles, Stan finds a carnival owner and asks to join the sideshow as a palm reader. The owner gives Stan some whiskey but refuses his proposal, saying the show is full. But as Stan begins to drunkenly stumble out, the owner changes his tune and invites Stan back in with a job offer: "Of course, it's only temporary – just until we get a real geek."


In a 2010 review of the book, the Pulitzer Prize–winning book critic Michael Dirda proclaimed, "I was utterly unprepared for its raw, Dostoevskian power... It's not often that a novel leaves a weathered and jaded reviewer like myself utterly flattened, but this one's more than just a steamy noir classic. As a portrait of the human condition, Nightmare Alley is a creepy, all-too-harrowing masterpiece."[2]

Author and creative writing professor Dwight V. Swain described the conclusion of Nightmare Alley as an exemplar of a novel with an unhappy ending that was nonetheless a "fitting ending," where the protagonist brought misfortune on himself.[3]



Nightmare Alley was also produced as a film noir motion picture starring Tyrone Power in 1947.

A graphic novel adaptation of the novel was produced in 2012 by underground cartoonist Spain Rodriguez.[4]

The novel has been adapted into a musical by Jonathan Brielle, and directed by Gil Cates. The musical opened on 21 April 2010 at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles.[5]


  1. ^ [1]
  2. ^ 'Nightmare Alley,' by William Lindsay Gresham, reviewed by Michael Dirda
  3. ^ Swain, Dwight V(1990). Creating Characters: How to Build Story People. Cinncinatti: Writer's Digest Books, p. 101
  4. ^ "Graphic Novel Review: Nightmare Alley". Retrieved 2012-05-18. 
  5. ^ Fick, David."NIGHTMARE ALLEY" Musical Cyberspace, February 23, 2010