Monday, January 30, 2023

9. Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham

This is the one I found
I have had Gresham on my hunting list for a long time to no avail.  Though this movie tie-in edition is really quite unattractive and a terrible size, I do appreciate its existence both because I found it in a free box and because it is uncensored which I gather a lot of later editions were.  I saw the original movie and quite enjoyed it and was excited for the del Toro remake but the reviews deflated my enthusiasm so I haven't seen it yet.  My patience and interest in movies has really dried up in recent years.  All I seem to be able to watch these days are Indian action blockbusters and old 80s episodic series like The Equalizer.  Anyhow, people rave about this book so I was pretty excited to get into it.

It lives up to the hype.  I really wish I had read it before seeing the movie.  I suspect that the inevitable ending would have revealed itself to me anyways, but since I knew what was going to happen to our carny turned con artist spiritualist preacher friend it informed my reading especially near the end and made me somewhat conscious of the plot and pages left.  I think if you come at this book for the first time, with its original plotting and excellent twist (which totally threw me in the movie), you would be pretty blown away.

The story is about the rise and fall of charismatic runaway Stanton Carlisle who joins a travelling carnival and starts to learn the tricks of the trade.  He has a few magic skills, but soon realizes his potential for charm and fast-talking as well as a sharp mind to memorize codes to use as you take questions from the crowd for the medium.  His lack of morality is apparent early on as he gives alcohol to the geek husband of Zeema to get him out of the way so they can get it on.  He doesn't realize it, but it's wood alcohol and this kills him. His stress at the guilt is soon masked by his burning ambition and he absconds with a younger, more attractive woman to the big city to start plying a trade as a spiritualist to rich widows.  The narrative is a struggle between building up to his biggest scam and his own internal stresses and this race leads him to one of the greatest femme fatale characters in the history of noir, psychologist Lilith Ritter.  She takes Carlisle under her wing was they work together to con a rich industrialist, whose guilt over the abortion death of a girlfriend in his youth is the key they use to catch him up.

This is definitely adult material and while the original movie gets pretty dark, it eludes and even cuts out the harshest stuff, especially around sex.  I was reading this on the plane and gasped aloud when Lilith explains what role Molly (the pretty young one Stan took from the carny) will play in their con.  Great stuff.

This one's going for $150!

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