How William Lindsay Gresham’s Life Delivered Us Nightmare Alley

Noir has not always been confined to rain-swept streets or roadside diners or gangsters on the lam.  The carnival, with its seedy operators who prey on a public desperately wanting to believe the big top clairvoyants can communicate with the dead, has also featured in noir novels.  The most famous of these was Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962).  But in actuality, Bradbury’s novel is more horror than noir and violates one of the cardinal rules of noir, in that the novel has a happy ending.  Good triumphs over evil.

The best example of noir under the big top is, in fact, William Lindsay Gresham’s Nightmare Alley (1946).  The novel is uber-noir in that, for sheer bleakness and greed, very few noir novels can touch it.  Good doesn’t triumph over evil, and the lasting impression from the book is that the desperate will continue to be fleeced by the amoral grifters.