GRINDSHOW: The Selected Writings of William Lindsay Gresham. Edited and with a biographical essay by Bret Wood. Centipede Press hardcover. June 2013.


   There are some authors that are known by only one book. Perhaps it really is the only book that they wrote, or the book just stands out above everything else that they did. In other words it is so excellent and powerful that when you think of the author, you just think of the one book.

   Well known examples are TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee and GONE WITH THE WIND by Margaret Mitchell. In the crime novel field NIGHTMARE ALLEY by William Lindsay Gresham would be a good example. Usually when we discuss Gresham, the topic is NIGHTMARE ALLEY, a very powerful and nourish crime novel told from the viewpoint of the criminal. Carnival life plays a big role in the story which is a fascinating tale of the rise and fall of a con man.

   I’ve always been fascinated by carnivals and NIGHTMARE ALLEY is one of the best known novels about carny life. Other examples are MADBALL by Fred Brown, THE DREAMING JEWELS by Theodore Sturgeon, SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES by Ray Bradbury, and CARNY KILL by Robert Edmond Alter.

   Like many readers and lovers of carnivals, I first became aware of them as a child when the carnival would come to town. During my teenage years the schools would let us out early to attend the New Jersey State Fair. The Fair would last a couple weeks during the summer and in the Trenton area was an enormous undertaking. I would get off the bus and it would take me an hour to stroll from one end to the other. It had something for everyone: car races, 4H livestock shows, all sorts of food stands, varied items for sale, clothes for sale, rides for the kids, etc.


   But the main draw for me was the long row of tents and stands that made up the carnival and freak show exhibit. I have a confession to make. As many times as I tried to win a prize, not once was I successful. I attended the girly shows, always hoping to see something sexy. Nope, just a bunch of tired, worn out, jaded, and surly carny girls, many who had seen their best days a long time ago. The freak shows were always a ripoff and I never did see an impressive freak. Sure there were plenty of fat and bearded ladies, tallest man in the world, strongest this and that, and pickled things in jars. But nothing really of note.


   But this didn’t stop me from coming back year after year until I finally grew up and realized the carny life was not for me. The workers seem to be living lives of quiet desperation and often looked like they were drunk or stoned. Everything was a con to separate cash from the townies, and I always had the strong feeling that the carnies felt nothing but scorn and disgust for us. Easy marks indeed.

   But all the above didn’t stop me from thinking that NIGHTMARE ALLEY was one hell of a read and a fine tough, hardboiled crime novel. One of the best and the same applies to the film starring Tyrone Power. Despite the cop out ending, the movie is in the running for top ten film noirs.

   So for over 50 years, that is all I really knew about William Lindsay Gresham. The novel was so impressive that it overshadowed everything else the man ever did. In 1949 he published his second and last novel, LIMBO TOWER, about life in a city hospital. It was not a success and I will soon read it to see why.

   Then in the early 1950’s he wrote a non fiction book called MONSTER MIDWAY. The title says it all and it never appeared in paperback. His fourth book was a biography of Houdini and finally a last book just before his death in 1962. It was about body building and weight lifting.


   So there we have it, five books with one great one standing above all the rest. That is until now. Evidently Gresham had an extensive career writing short fiction and articles during 1945-1962. There are over 80 that we know about and this is how he mainly earned his living during the last years of his life.

   He died at age 53 in 1962, a suicide in a hotel room. He had been diagnosed with cancer and was supposed to see a specialist but instead took his own life with an overdose. Gresham had lived a life straight out of a film noir movie. For awhile he was a drunk but he finally stopped drinking. Though he tried for another success on the level of NIGHTMARE ALLEY, it was not to be. His second wife even left him for another man. Talk about cold blooded plans, she developed a liking for the books of C.S. Lewis, so she planned to go to England and seduce him. Which she did, meanwhile divorcing Gresham and marrying Lewis. Then the final straw was the cancer.

   All the above and more is discussed in a new book published by Centipede Press. GRINDSHOW reprints 24 pieces that Gresham did for various magazines, mostly fiction. The collection shows there was more to Gresham than just NIGHTMARE ALLEY. The first few stories are about carny life and the rest are a mixture of SF, crime and detective fiction. There are a few factual articles (“King of the Spook Workers”) and even a piece from a true crime magazine (Master Detective).


   As a magazine collector, I was impressed by the range of the markets that Gresham wrote for. At first, because of the success of NIGHTMARE ALLEY, it looks like he was writing for the high paying slick magazine markets. Magazines like THE SATURDAY EVENING POST, ESQUIRE, ATLANTIC MONTHLY, and REDBOOK.

   However he also wrote for the pulps (Doc Savage and Bluebook), the SF digests (Fantastic, F&SF, Satellite), the crime digests (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine and Manhunt), the true crime magazines like Master Detective, the men’s adventure magazines like Saga and Argosy, and the girly magazines like Dude and Rogue.

   All the above markets are represented within the 397 pages of this collection. The biographical essay is a valuable piece of research and 30 pages in length. The dust jacket is by David Ho and quite impressive, showing a skeleton carny barker.

   The stories vary in quality, but overall I’m very glad I bought the collection. My favorites are the first seven stories about carny life and the detective stories “Don’t Believe a Word She Says” and “The Corpse From Nowhere”. If you don’t buy this collection, check out “Don’t Believe a Word She Says” in the August 1956 issue of EQMM. It is an excellent hardboiled, private eye story.


   You might note that I say above, “If you don’t buy this collection…” I say this because Centipede Press only publishes small print run books that immediately become collector’s items. When I say small print run, I mean like 200 or 300 copies. The books are well made with interesting essays and often reprint fiction that is not available except in hard to find back issues. The artwork is outstanding also. The series “Masters of the Weird Tales” reprints authors in editions of hundreds of pages (900) and cost hundreds of dollars.

   However GRINDSHOW costs $75 and like the Paul Cain collection, THE COMPLETE SLAYERS, which I reviewed here, once it goes out of print the price will start rising.

   This book has a companion volume, also priced at $75. It is of course the Centipede Press edition of NIGHTMARE ALLEY. It has another nice introduction by Bret Wood, the novel, and five interesting essays about carnival life. If you have the money, I recommend both books.

   And if you want to watch some films about carny life, in addition to NIGHTMARE ALLEY, I recommend FREAKS (1932), CARNY (1980), and the HBO series CARNIVALE, which ran for 24 episodes and is available as a box set DVD.