Thursday, October 28, 2010

Poor Stan Carlisle

 “Nightmare Alley” was Tyrone Power’s greatest performance, and he made an indelible impression as that doomed carny. Now that it’s available on DVD, I can re-live one of my more interesting experiences in watching film – it brings its own special frisson with every viewing.  I saw “Nightmare Alley” at an unfortunately impressionable age, and I was ever after fascinated by the carny life that it delineated, having read the book almost immediately after seeing Power's awesome portrayal of Stanton Carlisle's descent into Hades.  In the deep dark recesses of my young mind, I feared the path to true Geekdom that awaited any slip or mis-step I might make in the uncertain future, so much so I would have a recurring dream about it every so often.

   After the first time, I soon confided this to only one person, my film-pal girl, Mouse - she told me I worried too much, and if I ever seemed like I was descending down the Carlisle Road, she would tie me to a chair and beat me senseless.  She opined this wouldn’t necessarily save me, but while I was unconscious, she would steal all my film and sci-fi books so they wouldn’t end up in a pawnshop, hocked to pay for my liquor and opium habits. Then she asked to borrow my library copy of “Nightmare Alley”, because her card wasn’t renewed – practical girl. Her take on the movie wasn’t as vivid as mine, I’m glad to say, and she seemed more fascinated with Helen Walker’s work as Lilith Ritter, which she always maintained was one of the great villains of the screen, especially because women on screen weren’t usually that coldly intelligent.

  Anyway, I never went to another fair or carnival without that dream/nightmare in the back of my mind, and every circus visit from that moment on had a hidden side I always looked for, really hoping not to find. The traveling carnivals had their own kind of fascination, however, filled with a sort of grim laughter and forced fun. Watching the people was more fun than the actual experience, and many of the carnies seemed to be headed down poor Stan's road, or had been down there and were limping back. The collapsible rides were trucked in and set-up over the course of a few days, and the almost furtive appearances of the crews at nearby businesses were part of local lore.  Just mentioning the word carny brought on stories of Gypsies, Travelers, and how you had to watch yourself and your possibles when the carnival was in town. It didn't help that many of the denizens of the midways and sideshows seemed like escapees from the Trailer Park From Hell or a Bosch painting, and talked a brand of the King’s English that was only a little intelligible.    

 One ride in particular that was run by a heavily keloid-scarred carny who seemed to have stood too close to another kind of Lilith himself, was a test of my will to cease gawking. He had a sibilant whisper of a voice, and the fire which had marked him as a halfway-to-hell survivor had also lamed him cruelly - children glanced furtively at him as they passed by on the bumper cars, and it was some kind of right-of-passage for children of a certain age just to get on that ride. I was a bit too young to catch any real carnival kiss-offs, but the freak shows I saw had nothing on the casual horror implied by the carny with one good arm. For a while, he was part of my recurring dream, a bystander watching me walking to an Elmer Gantry-style Main Tent. Never did make it to the tent in the dream, maybe it was like one of those falling nightmares, where you don't really want to find out what's at the end of the drop. I must have exorcised that particular demon, tho, and haven’t had that dream for many years. I still have a fascination with carnivals, but that fear of the geek was very real for me – even today I have that “There but for the grace of God go I” feeling when pass by a carnival, and since my film girl isn’t there to tie me to a chair, I’ll have to continue the hostage to fortune bit for a while longer.


Karen said...

I saw Nightmare Alley at an impressionable age myself, but I seem not to have been as scarred as you were! *phew*

Vanwall said...

I passed a local traveling "carnival" set up on a schoolgrounds recently, and immediately though of "Nightmare Alley", how strange it happens every time. It was actually easier reading the book, it was so much meaner than the film I didn't relate to it the same way. I still watch it compulsively.