Monday, December 29, 2003

Nightmare Alley

Darth Swank points out this article about the Tarot, which is a pretty interesting read, and not just in itself, but because in a strange bit of cenvergence -- insert the X-Files theme here -- I just finished a noir novel that is arranged around the Tarot and fortune-telling, called Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham. (My copy is part of am outstanding Library of America collection, Crime Novels: American Noir, 1930s and 40s, which also contains such books as The Postman Always Rings Twice and They Shoot Horses, Don't They?) Each chapter of Nightmare Alley is titled, and themed, after one of the cards of the Tarot.

The novel, which was originally published in 1946, apparently arose from conversations Gresham had with a former carnival worker with whom he served in the Spanish Civil War. The story is that of one Stan Carlisle, who at the beginning of the book is a minor assistant with one of those traveling carnivals that features "mindreaders" and strongmen and other such acts. Stan gradually discovers that he has an uncommon gift for doing what is called "cold reading", which is basically using an ability to think fast and pick up on visual cues in order to simulate psychic ability. Stan, though, is so good at it that he leaves the carny and strikes out on his own, developing an act which he first calls "mentalism" and then changes to "spiritualism", even going so far as to become an ersatz clergyman so as to more effectively bilk his "flock". However, Stan's ability to manipulate other people's psychological baggage (and some of his manipulations are truly diabolical) does not quiet his own demons, and in the end, his hubris leads him into tragedy.

This book's subject matter reminded me of a couple of X-Files episodes that dealt with traveling carnivals and charlatan magicians and such, although it's perfectly clear that there never is anything supernatural going on here -- just the perversions of a man using his gifts to deceive and swindle others. Gresham writes in that wonderful noir style in which he doesn't always tell us exactly what's going on because it's more effective to get us to see it on our own. I love writing like this passage when Stan is shown to his hotel room by the bellhop:

Stan nodded, throwing his hat on the bed and getting out of his overcoat. "Bring some club sode. And plenty of ice."

The boy took a five and winked. "Like some company? We got swell gals in town -- new since you was here last. I know a little blonde that's got everything. And I mean everything."

Stan lay down on the other bed and lit a cigarette, folding his hands behind his bed. "Brunette."

"You're the boss."

I loved this book's darkness; it's a virtual study in mood and emotion. The book was made into a film starring Tyrone Power and, more recently, a graphic novel adapted by Spain Rodriguez (reviewed here).

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