Cult classic 'Nightmare Alley' resurfaces more macabre than ever

Baltimore-born writer William Lindsay Gresham could be seen as an heir to Edgar Allan Poe

April 16, 2010|By Michael Sragow, The Baltimore Sun

It's time for Baltimore to claim William Lindsay Gresham as one of the city's literary native sons and a proper heir to Edgar Allan Poe — and not just because he was born here in 1909. He fits the funk-art aspect of this town as well as James M. Cain or John Waters.

In the mid-1940s, he wrote his best book, "Nightmare Alley," about the rise of a ruthless mentalist from carnival hand to spiritual guru, and his fall back to the worst possible sideshow. It was so compelling, original and successful that one of the biggest Hollywood stars of his day, Tyrone Power, begged for the lead role and pushed his studio to produce it.

Later audiences would get to know the novel either from that potent, underrated film or from a gaudy, cheap paperback featuring a voluptuous blonde in a two-piece scarlet costume. But no matter how far it sinks into obscurity, Gresham's gritty masterpiece refuses to die. About a dozen years ago, the Library of America reissued it as part of a collection, "Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930s and 1940s."

Now New York Review Classics (an arm of the New York Review of Books) has published it in a handsome stand-alone edition with a fascinating introduction by novelist-biographer Nick Tosches and an evocative Bruce Davidson cover photo of a dwarf at the Clyde Beatty Circus that's like a grimy American version of a tough, sad Fellini clown.

"Nightmare Alley" is about a geek — but the word means something vastly different in the carnival of this novel than it does in teen comedies, where it serves as a synonym for "nerd. " For the denizens of Gresham's not-so-greatest show on earth, the geek is, in Tosches' words, "a drunkard driven so low that he would bite the heads off chickens and snakes just to get the booze he needed."

Gresham first heard about this kind of geek when he was 29 years old, waiting to return to the U.S. after defending the Republic in the Spanish civil war. The story connected so deeply with Gresham's internal agony that he said, "to get rid of it, I had to write it out."

He later described the novel's gestation as "years of analysis, editorial work, and the strain of children in small rooms." He alleviated anxieties with liquor — and became an alcoholic. In the middle of this chaos, he wrote a fictional chart of the lowest depths of drunkenness that also included, in Tosches' estimation, "the most viciously evil psychologist in the history of literature." Along the way, Gresham managed to debunk feel-good spiritualism and pseudo-paranormal trickery. But the book isn't an Upton Sinclair-like expose. It's a lowdown American tragedy.

Tosches, who has been researching Gresham's life on and off for ten years, says over the phone from New York that he's clearer on the novel's roots than he is on Gresham's. He hasn't located a marriage certificate for Gresham's mother and father, "and the Maryland State Archives has stated categorically there isn't one for them." He knows Gresham was born on McCulloh Street and that his family moved to Fall River, Mass., when he was 7, and then to New York City. "But even though he left Baltimore at an early age, he claimed that the strongest influence on his life was his mother's mother, Amanda, whose family, the Lindsays, came from Snow Hill, and who embodied, at least to him, the spirit of the antebellum South," says Tosches. (The Greshams came from the Piney Neck area of Kent County.)

When Gresham committed suicide in 1962 at age 53, with an overdose of sleeping pills, "Baltimore was certainly on his mind," Tosches says. Gresham registered at a rundown New York City hotel with a fake Baltimore address "under the name of a distant uncle, Asa Kendall, who had died before he had even been born."

Tosches is hungry for more information about Gresham's Baltimore life — and, for that matter, any proof that Gresham's parents actually got married. ("Gresham changed his middle name from Wilkins to Lindsay because William Wilkins was a friend of his father's, and he never liked that guy, and after his father abandoned the family, he changed Wilkins to Lindsay, his mother's maiden name.")

An adult life that encompasses fighting against Franco, fruitless attempts to find solace in everything from Alcoholics Anonymous to Rinzai Zen Buddhism, and a second wife who left him for C.S. Lewis, has proved full of biographical intrigue for Tosches. But it's still the power of Gresham's art that inspires him and anyone else who picks up "Nightmare Alley."

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