Nightmare Alley (novel)

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Nightmare Alley
First edition
AuthorWilliam Lindsay Gresham
CountryUnited States
PublisherRinehart & Company
Publication date
Media typePrint (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.


Stanton Carlisle watches the geek show at a Ten-in-One where he has recently begun working. He later asks the carnival's talker Clem Hoately where geeks come from. Clem explains that geeks are "made": a sideshow owner finds an alcoholic bum and offers him a temporary job with a steady supply of liquor. Initially, the bum is only asked to pretend to be a geek, using a razor blade to slice chickens' necks and then faking the drinking of the blood. After a few weeks, the owner threatens to end the job and replace the bum with 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 but studies under the carnival's mentalist Zeena to learn a refined "code" act, where performers memorize verbal cues that allow them to appear psychic by accurately answering written audience questions. 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.

Their 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 psychologist named Lilith Ritter, who seduces and then begins controlling him. Stan pleads constantly for them to go 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, who died in a botched back-alley abortion Grindle convinced her to seek. A reluctant Molly plays "Dorrie" in a series of sessions but eventually breaks character, destroying the illusion, and Grindle vows revenge for Stan's lies. Stan tells Molly to go back to carnival life. At Lillith's suggestion he decides to go into hiding with Grindle's money but discovers that Lillith has stolen it. When he confronts her, she tells him that he is deluded and attempts to have him committed to a mental institution, and he narrowly escapes. He flees and resorts to performing as a mentalist at increasingly shoddy venues, 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 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, 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]


  • (reprinted in) Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930s and 40s, Robert Polito, ed. (Library of America, 1997) ISBN 978-1-883011-46-8
  • 2010 reprint by New York Review Books ISBN 978-1-59017-348-0


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]

On December 12, 2017, Fox Searchlight Pictures announced that Guillermo del Toro will direct a remake of the 1947 film and co-write with Kim Morgan.[6] In April of 2019, Leonardo DiCaprio was negotiating to star in del Toro's remake.[7]


  1. ^ Joe Nickell (2005). Secrets of the Sideshows. University Press of Kentucky. p. 248. ISBN 978-0-8131-2358-5.
  2. ^ 'Nightmare Alley,' by William Lindsay Gresham, reviewed by Michael Dirda.
  3. ^ Swain, Dwight V (1990). Creating Characters: How to Build Story People. Cincinnati: 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.
  6. ^ Kroll, Justin (12 December 2017). "Guillermo del Toro Taps Scott Cooper for 'Antlers' and Sets New Project 'Nightmare Alley' (EXCLUSIVE)". Variety. Retrieved 12 December 2017.
  7. ^ Kroll, Justin (23 April 2019). "Leonardo DiCaprio in Talks to Star in Guillermo del Toro's 'Nightmare Alley' (EXCLUSIVE)". Variety. Retrieved 23 April 2019.