William Lindsay Gresham explores the effects of greed on the soul through this story of Stanton “Stan” Carlisle, who starts the novel as an ambitious carnival magician and rises to incredible heights before a calamitous fall. Stan’s rise is based on his ability to charm people into giving him what he wants, but eventually his greed surpasses his talent. Starting out at the carnival, Stan discovers that the itinerant showbiz lifestyle agrees with him and he seems to have camaraderie with his fellow carny folk, but suckering rubes out of their nickels with close-up magic isn’t enough for him.
Stan’s rise begins when he displaces a rival and becomes a mentalist, using his charm and skill at reading people to convince the crowds that he can literally read their minds. Eventually he takes up with a beautiful woman and takes the show to New York. There, prolonged exposure to the rich and powerful convinces him that they’re just as easy to fool as the hayseeds at the carnival. Setting himself up as a spiritualist reverend, Stan starts hosting seances at wealthy homes and soliciting donations for his phony church.
Though Stan is flying high the toll on his soul is obvious. He mistreats his wife horribly, forcing her to continue participating in the act despite her misgivings and denying her the quiet family life she craves. He keeps pushing his schemes further and further with no thought to the morality of his actions. When he finally finds the big score he’s been looking for, it’s clear that there is nothing he won’t do to get his hands on the money.
When Stan finally receives his comeuppance, Gresham revels in depicting his fall in both spiritual and physical terms. It all culminates in an inevitable, but nonetheless devastating conclusion as he sinks to a depth previously inconceivable to him.
Nightmare Alley has been adapted into a film for the second time. The new version, following in the footsteps of the original from 1947, is directed by Guillermo del Toro and stars Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, and a host of other big names. After reading the source material I’m really looking forward to seeing what they do with it.