The Nightmare Life of William Lindsay Gresham
By ZJ Czupor
At the end of 2021, a disturbing film was released to the public. Tagged as a neo-noir psychological thriller and directed by Guillermo del Toro, it quickly won nine major awards and received forty-two nominations. The film is Nightmare Alley, a remake of the 1947 film both of which are based on the crime novel by William Lindsay Gresham.
Gresham’s novel (Rinehart & Company, 1946) and the two adapted films observe shady characters from a two-bit carnival in 1930 populated by grifters, hustlers, femmes fatales, alcohol, and repressed desire. Like any well-crafted noir, the novel follows the protagonist, Stan Carlisle, in his ascension toward greatness and his descension into the abyss.
Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda said, “It’s more than just a steamy noir classic. As a portrait of the human condition, Nightmare Alley is a creepy, all-too-harrowing masterpiece.” (2010).
British columnist John Sutherland said, “Along with The Grapes of Wrath and They Shoot Horses Don’t They?, this is a great American Depression-era novel.” (The Guardian, May 6, 2014).
Gresham (1909-1962) was an American novelist and non-fiction author best known for Nightmare Alley. He led a tormented life of alcoholism, depression, financial ups and downs, illness, and three failed marriages. He was born in Baltimore. His family moved briefly to Fall River, Massachusetts and then to New York City. For the better part of his young adult life, he drifted from job-to-job. He trained to be a Unitarian minister and he performed folk songs in Greenwich Village.
In Gresham’s writings, he focused on themes of crime, psychology, magic, and spiritualism sprinkled with dark wit and portensions of doom. He was published in The Saturday Evening Post, Esquire, Atlantic Monthly, and Redbook and he wrote for the detective pulps of the 1940s, the science fiction digests of the 1950s, and men’s magazines of the early 1960s. Between 1945-1962, he wrote about eighty short stories, articles, and essays. Twenty-four of his short stories and essays are published in Grindshow: The Selected Writings of William Lindsay Gresham (Centipede Press, 2014).
He was divorced twice before he served as a volunteer medic for the Loyalist forces during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). In 1937, he was 29 and living in Valencia, Spain awaiting repatriation. There, he drank with fellow medic Joseph Daniel Halliday, who had worked as a carny. Halliday enlightened him about the carny lifestyle. One story involved a carny attraction called a “geek,” a drunkard employed to bite the heads off live chickens in return for the booze he craved. Gresham said, “The story of the geek haunted me. Finally, to get rid of it, I had to write it out. The novel, of which it was the frame, seemed to horrify readers as much as the original story had horrified me.”
When Gresham returned home from Spain, he was traumatized by the war and suffered with tuberculosis. He was hospitalized, partially for depression. After his release, he drank heavily and in 1940 tried twice to commit suicide before agreeing to psychoanalysis to rid his inner demons.
While writing Nightmare Alley, Gresham turned to tarot, a deck of playing cards used in prediction and prophesy. He also studied the teachings of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), and the Russian mystic P.D. Ouspensky (1878-1947).
Gresham’s novel centers on the carnival and the supernatural. But he structured the novel using tarot card names as chapter titles. A tarot card deck consists of twenty-two trump cards, of which twenty-one are numbered, the first being “The Fool,” and the final “The World.” But Gresham reorganized the deck and titled the last chapter “The Hanged Man.”
Gresham said six years of therapy both saved him and failed him. “Even then I was not a well man, for neurosis had left an aftermath. During years of analysis, children in small rooms, I had controlled anxieties by deadening them with alcohol.”
When the novel was reissued in 2010, American author and biographer Nick Tosches (1949-2019) wrote in the introduction: “Booze is so strong an element in the novel that it can almost be said to be a character, an essential presence like Fates in ancient Greek tragedy.”
Apart from the booze and the depravity of the story’s characters, Gresham was enthralled with the gutter language of the carny hustlers and fortune tellers. When his protagonist enters the deep south, Gresham describes the language as:
“…a composite of all the sprawling regions of the country. A language which sounded Southern to Southerners, Western to Westerners. It was the talk of the soil and its drawl covered the agility of the brains that poured it out. It was a soothing, illiterate, earthy language.”
While writing his novel, Gresham continued performing as a folksinger. He appeared at the League of American Writers Fourth Annual Congress in New York (1941) alongside singers Woody Guthrie (1912-1967), Pete Seeger (1919-2014), and Burl Ives (1909-1995), and authors Richard Wright (1908-1960) and Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961).
At the conference, he met the writer and poet Joy Davidman (1915-1960). She and Gresham married a year later. They had two sons. Unfortunately, their marriage was a rocky one abetted by Gresham’s alcoholism, infidelity, and physical violence. And yet, he tried hard to curb his afflictions. He studied yoga, Zen Buddhism, Dianetics, Christianity, and attended Alcoholics Anonymous. He and Joy gravitated to Christianity and began reading the works of British writer C. S. Lewis (1898-1963). She began corresponding with Lewis and eventually traveled to England to visit him.
In 1944, New York literary agent Carl Brandt (1888-1957) sold Gresham’s novel to Harcourt Brace with a $1,000 advance. But Gresham had to return the advance because he missed the deadline to submit a finished manuscript. As a result, he took a city job to pay his bills until Brandt sold Nightmare Alley to Rinehart & Company. Unfortunately, Gresham continued his heavy drinking and suffered a nervous breakdown.
The novel was finally published in 1946 to positive reviews, but it was also briefly banned due to its sexual imagery and language. Plus, numerous editions were heavily censored. Two years later, Hollywood movie star Tyrone Power (1914-1958) read the novel and influenced the film studio, Twentieth Century-Fox, to pay Gresham $50,000 for screen rights. While the film employed the shadows and light of classic noir the ending was changed to one of redemption instead of the novel’s ending of failure.
Within ten years after the novel’s publication, it was nearly forgotten.
Later, Nightmare Alley was reissued as a paperback and was included in the Library of America’s Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930s & 40s (edited by Robert Polito, 1997).
Like the noir genre in which he wrote, Gresham couldn’t rise above his failures. He and his wife mismanaged their financial affairs. They bought a large house but didn’t pay their taxes. He resorted to freelance writing to pay his bills and demanded a divorce from Davidman after admitting to her he was having an affair with her cousin. She moved to England and eventually married C.S. Lewis. She retained custody of their two sons which Lewis helped to raise. Lewis influenced her work and her conversion to Christianity. After Davidman died of cancer, Lewis took guardianship of her sons.
In 1962, at the age of fifty-three, Gresham’s eyesight began to fail, and he suffered from tongue cancer. On September 13, he checked into the Dixie Hotel, off New York’s Times Square, the same hotel where he’d written most of Nightmare Alley. He checked in as Asa Kimball from Baltimore. In Room 2023, he committed suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills. Found in his possession was a business card that read: “Retired. No address. No phone. No business. No money.”
He dedicated Nightmare Alley to his wife, Joy Davidman.
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- The word “geek” derives from “geck” of Germanic origin meaning fool, simpleton, or dupe and has been used since the early sixteenth to nineteenth century. The carnival world referred to geeks as wild men who ate live animals. The word wasn’t common usage until Gresham introduced it in his novel.
- Want ads for geeks appeared in Billboard magazine until at least 1960. A 1957 ad, for example, placed by Johnny’s United Shows straightforwardly said, “Want outstanding geek for geek show, must know snakes.”
- Other words and terms Gresham introduced in Nightmare Alley include “lead-pipe cinch” (a sure thing); “cold reading” (a technique used by mentalists, psychics, fortune tellers, and mediums); and “spook racket” (tricks of spiritualists and mediums).
- Gresham did write a few other books, most notably Houdini: The Man Who Walked Through Walls (Henry Holt, 1959), about the life and career of magician and escape artist Harry Houdini (1874-1926); and the fictional Limbo Tower (Rinehart, 1949) about tuberculosis treatment in the early 1950s against the physical, moral, and political implications of the day.
- C. S. Lewis (1898-1963) is best known for The Chronicles of Narnia (Geoffrey Bles and The Bodley Head, 1950-1956), and writings on Christian theology.
- In 1993, a British biographical film, Shadowlands, depicted the relationship between Joy Davidman and C. S. Lewis. William Nicholson wrote the screenplay which was based on his 1985 television film and 1989 stage play of the same name.In 2013, British author and broadcaster Brian Sibley wrote Shadowlands: The True Story of C. S. Lewis and Joy Davidman (Hodder Paperback).
- The League of American Writers Fourth Annual (and last) Congress was held in New York City from June 6-8, 1941. The League was founded by the Communist Party USA in 1935 and terminated in 1943. Both Gresham and Davidman were listed as members but not all members considered themselves communists. Dashiell Hammett served as the League’s president in 1942.
- Tyrone Power was 33 when he starred in Nightmare Alley. He said it was his favorite among all the films he starred in and one in which he received some of the best reviews of his career.