In the world of Nightmare Alley, everyone is their own worst enemy. The con men, cheats, and liars prey on the unwary, yes, but these grifters have the same weakness as their marks; that existential want hanging onto their periphery, like black dots in your eyes when you stare at the sun too long, fading the moment you reach for them.
Stanton Carlisle is our chief con artist, scratching out a living with a band of carnies. To call Stan an antihero would be generous. He starts out doing card tricks then cold readings, a sunny haired kid with cold guile willing to use friends and lovers as props in his quest to score cash.
A pulp-noir classic, Nightmare Alley finds its horrors in the most intimate places. In Stan’s single-minded quest for money and status while running from a childhood trauma; in his naïve girlfriend’s search for a surrogate for her deceased gambling father; alcoholics willing to rip the heads off chickens with their teeth for that all-important bottle of booze; everyday folks longing so much to commune with their dead that they would, against all logic and better judgment, turn to grifters like Stan in an effort to find solace.
The author needn’t tease us with gun-toting baddies or psychopaths with butcher knives. The terror of Nightmare Alley is a real one that you could envision finding yourself consumed by if your heart tremored badly enough.
Stanton Carlisle is hardly a character to root for, but you’ll be enthralled by his tenacity, quick wit, and ability to navigate himself out of a sticky situation while still picking his mark’s pocket. When he trades in his carny tricks for a reverend’s garb, you won’t be surprised.
It’s just another racket, another scam, one that lends itself well to Stan’s devious talents.
Don’t expect a happy ending here. This is no spoiler, for you’ll see it coming, as Stan catches himself in his own damning web, scarcely aware that he’s the fly wriggling helplessly in the middle, falling into delusions of grandeur so blinding that he doesn’t realize when he becomes the victim of a more dangerous con or targets the wrong mark.
I discovered this book after perusing this fascinating blog of underappreciated authors. Certainly, William Lindsay Gresham should be a household name, especially among the ranks of horror and suspense readers.