William Lindsay Gresham: Took Us To “Nightmare Alley”

Having already written posts about the original 1947 Nightmare Alley film as well as the 2021 remake, you might think yet a third post related to the sordid tale a bit much, but the author of the book William Lindsay Gresham (1909-1962) proves to be about as fascinating as his most famous story. (How perfect is it, by the way that he is born on the same day as horror scribe H.P. Lovecraft and magician Max Holden?) At any rate, I read Gresham’s original 1946 novel Nightmare Alley a few months ago and it knocked my socks off, better than either screen version. Gresham was one of those pulp writers (like Lovecraft and others I could name like Dashiell Hammett) whose dazzling craft, honesty, and psychological acumen permit them to bump up against and frequently reach the status of actual literature. While his subjects were lurid, his writing was about something, and occasionally profound and insightful.

Gresham (born in Shocked and Amazed‘s James Taylor’s town of Baltimore) grew up in Brooklyn, and spent of a lot of time at Coney Island. That experience, as well as long conversations with fellow Spanish Civil War volunteer Joseph Daniel “Doc” Halliday, a former carney, were what inspired Nightmare Alley. Gresham’s other related books included Monster Midway: An Uninhibited Look at the Glittering World of the Carny (1954), Houdini: The Man Who Walked Through Walls (1959), and the posthumous collection, Grindshow: The Selected Writings of William Lindsay Gresham, edited by Bret Wood (2013). To keep body and soul together he edited true crime magazines..

Gresham’s other novel Limbo Tower (1949) was inspired by his time in a TB hospital. An alcoholic who also suffered from depression, Gresham had been divorced twice before marrying poet Joy Davidman. The pair became interested in Christianity, Spiritualism, and for a time, Scientology. Through an amazing set of circumstances, Davidman ended up leaving Gresham for the man whose books inspired her, author C.S. Lewis, and Gresham ended marrying Davidman’s cousin Renée Rodriguez.

Gresham’s last book to be published during his lifetime was The Book of Strength: Body Building the Safe, Correct Way (1961). Ironically, he was diagnosed with tongue cancer at around that time. Alcoholic, as we’ve mentioned, going blind (depression era hooch?), broke, and no doubt despondent about being separated from his two sons who lived with the Lewises in London, he checked into the Dixie Hotel (later known as the Hotel Carter), where he wrote some of Nightmare Alley (and which clearly inspired some of its settings), and took a fatal dose of sleeping pills. According to legend, the authorities found business cards in his pocket on which were inscribed “No Address. No Phone. No Business. No Money. Retired.” He was only 53.

For more on the variety arts please read, No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.