Sideshows, circuses, freak shows, end-of-the-pier attractions… there’s something universally fascinating in the tawdry magic of what I think of as Sideshow Gothic. Maybe because, as children, we perceive it all as a little bit dangerous and not entirely wholesome. Like moths to a flame, we’re drawn to flirt with it then and throughout our adult lives.
In my mind it extends into all of showbusiness – or perhaps not all, but mainly into the unstarry, off-stage, workaday areas of craft and survival by those who make their living from the human need to be entertained. In The Kingdom of Bones my first inspiration came from a troupe of middle-of-the-bill music hall players of the 1890s. The journey of The Authentic William James starts in 1912 with a pier theatre fire on the South coast, and ends in a shanty Western town built for silent movies in Malibu canyon.
All of which is a rather self-serving way to get to this reading recommendation, William Lindsay Gresham’s Nightmare Alley. I was aware of the Tyrone Power movie and I’d seen it staged at the David Geffen Theatre, but it was Guillermo del Toro’s adaptation that prompted me to add the new edition to my Mysterious Bookshop order.
I was somewhat blown away by what critic Michael Dirda has called its ‘raw, Dostoevskian power’ ; terrific writing, authentically dark vision, and an easy frankness about the morality of its characters that belies its era. One of those books where I berated myself for not having read it sooner. But then for many years it was available only in an expurgated version; the NYRB Classics edition not only reverts to the original text but presents it in facsimile pages with the original tarot card chapter headers.