by William Lindsay Gresham
“I’ve given ‘em mentalism and they treat it like a dog walking on his hind legs. Okay. They’re asking for it. Here it comes.”
As a young man, Stan finds himself joining a carnival. He begins learning the ropes of selecting marks, prying money from their hands, and finds himself a natural at it. He rises to fame, conning everyone around him, and quits the carnival life to set up his own business as a spiritualist. Betraying his friends and lovers and constantly trading up as a way of life, his skill at separating a fool from his money continues to increase to the point he’s ready to take on that final, major score that will set him up permanently.
Not only does this story wind through the underbelly of the circus, exposing all the dirt and grime you find whenever you look at anything too closely, it finely details human greed, human gullibility and the human need to reach past what we know to be true—to hope.
“Folks are always crazy to have their fortunes told, and what the hell—You cheer ‘em up, give ‘em something to wish and hope for. That’s all the preacher does every Sunday. Not much different, being a fortune-teller and a preacher, way I look at it. Everybody hopes for the best and fears the worst and the worst is generally what happens but that don’t stop us from hoping.”
We hope there’s more than what we see, something better, and we put our lives into it. The Washington Times has a 2012 article citing research that 84% of the world’s population identifies with a religion. Some figures go as high as 9 in 10, and if that’s not proof of the human need to hope, nothing is.
We devour ourselves and each other, as Nightmare Alley demonstrates with its floodlight narrative, and most of us hope to make it to the point where that no longer happens. It’s a worthy goal, something to reach for. Something to reach for here.
Near the end of the story, as our anti-hero is lamenting his fate, philosophical concepts arise that not only directly challenge Higher Power concepts, but between the lines they demand we take a little responsibility for ourselves and not foist our troubles off on the mystical.
“But the purpose back of it all—why are we put here?”
“Way I look at it, we ain’t put. We growed.”
“But what started the whole stinking mess?”
“Didn’t have to start. It’s always been doing business.”
This is a real argument out there in the world today. Some say God created the universe, and He (She/It) was always there. But if we’re going to consider a stretching concept such as He always existed, isn’t a bit less of a stretch to consider the concept that the universe itself always existed? Doesn’t this second idea fit in nicely with current, known universal laws, such as matter can neither be created nor destroyed? The universe is expanding outward, but gravity says we’ll contract someday, then expand out again in another Bang. Wouldn’t that, poetically almost, illustrate the constantly recurring theme of the circular, looping nature of time itself?
It’s deep stuff, fit for the religious, psychologists, philosophers, scientists, bartenders and stoners. And let’s not forget readers, who possess many of the characteristics of all of these.
Nightmare Alley is a journey through the life of a man with few scruples, so it can be a cautionary tale. It exposes weakness in pretty much everyone, so it’s a perfect example of cynical, noir storytelling. Even within known reality, it descends to terrifying depths; so it’s horror as well. While there’s a ton of philosophy between the lines, and you could pick it apart just for that, it’s also a razor-honed slice of life from planet Earth. When the aliens visit one day, wondering about the previous inhabitants, they’ll read this book and shudder. And probably leave.
As for the big questions, I don’t know; I just live here. Over and over again, apparently.
See you next time.
“There is no weapon you can use against malicious envy except the confidence in your way of life as the moral and righteous one, no matter what the envious say.”