Nightmare Alley (The Criterion Collection)
The Criterion Collection release of the film Nightmare Alley

[N.B. Written when I first heard that GDT was remaking it]

When I showed Nightmare Alley to the students in my noir film course, one came up at the end to complain that the tarot readings were way off. I agreed and encouraged him to pick up Gresham’s novel. I assured him that the author cared a lot more about the tarot than Hollywood (e.g. the Death card surely always means literal death).

William Lindsay Gresham must have spent some time exploring the tarot in his too-short time on this earth. The troubled man might have found some solace shuffling the fated deck or maybe just amused himself reading fortunes for others like Zeena does in the novel. According to Nick Tosches’ introduction to the NYRB edition of the novel, he turned to tarot after Freud. Through the character of Lilith Ritter, he seems to suggest that psychoanalysis is just another form of the grift.

Gresham structures the book with 22 chapters, matching the major arcana of the tarot and begins with the card of the Fool—numbered 0, a card for beginnings. But he shuffles the deck and slips in a couple changes or innovations: card 6 should be the Lovers, but the chapter is called Resurrection of the Dead—which could be a bit of a Freudian joke itself. The Lovers do appear as card eleven. Card 18 is usually the Moon but chapter 18 is called Time. The Moon becomes instead card ten.

What are the missing or changed cards? Card 14: Temperance is the first one missing. The NYRB edition of the novel uses the Waite-Smith image of the Temperance card to illustrate the chapter called Time (itself a short chapter, as if time were fleeting). The image of the card shows an angel mixing wine and water in a gravity-defying manner (well, it is an angel). The chapter subtitle is ‘One foot on the earth and one on water, an angel pours eternity from cup to cup’. Time however is often an aspect not of Temperance, but of The Hermit (card 9 but chapter 17). In some decks the card is simply called Time. Temperance (or the lack thereof) is certainly a big part of the story (and the author’s story as well) so it seems a resonant change.

The other card not named is Judgment, usually card 20. It’s used to illustrate the chapter called Resurrection of the Dead. The subtitle of this chapter describes the card like this: ‘At the call of the angel with fiery wings, graves open, coffins burst, and the dead are naked’ and the Waite-Smith image is clearly based on ideas from the Book of Revelation, but it’s usually interpreted with more positive meaning than the macabre focus here. The chapter, however, fits this dark image. Stan dredges up the memory of when his childhood died.

I’m still mulling over Gresham’s novel and his interpretations of the cards. I recommend both the book and the film for noir fans who life the art of the grift, the smell of the carnival and the mystery of the tarot.


While musing on Nightmare Alley (something I do more than most people I suspect) I often wonder how deeply William Lindsay Gresham studied the tarot and whether it was for more than just carny sideshow purposes. So I was pleased to receive a gem from a talk hosted by the Folklore Society.

The Katharine Briggs Lecture by Dr Julia Woods, ‘“I Cannot Find the Hanged Man”: Tarot Cards in Fantastic Fiction’ traced many references to tarot in fantasy fiction in the modern age (from a medievalist’s perspective the 19th century is modern). Since my knowledge of The Inklings was limited to C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien and ‘some other guys but not women’ I was delighted to hear more about Charles Williams and his novel The Greater Trumps. Not only is it a novel steeped in the tarot (yeah I ordered it), but Gresham wrote an introduction for it in 1950.

Obviously this was before his wife Joy Davidman left him for fellow Inkling C. S. Lewis.

Gresham offers a brief overview of the history of tarot which mostly pokes holes in the purported truths: ‘Eliphas Lévi, the French magus, writing in the middle of the last century, treated the gipsies with his usual blend of eloquence, erudition and inaccuracy. His speculations on the Tarot must be taken in this light.’ I’d love him for that alone, but he brings in Jung and Ouspensky and tilts some more at Lévi, so I suspect that he did indeed make a serious study of the cards.

Where did the Tarot designs come from, and what do the Greater Trumps mean? No one knows. But anyone who has studied them at length has felt their power of releasing unsuspected ideas from the subconscious. The cards seem to have an inner life of their own.

Gresham sees the tarot as unlocking the psychology of an individual: ‘The Tarot is not a mnemonic device for a set doctrine, it would seem, but a philosophical slide-rule on which the individual can work out his own metaphysical and religious equations. He and Davidman had converted to Christianity. For her it stuck, but he was always doubtful it seems.

He divines his own imagined idea of the history of tarot based on the ‘internal’ evidence of the cards, but admits it will take real historical digging. ‘Let us hope that in the future some devoted iconologist of means and broad scholarship will set himself the task of solving the mystery of the Greater Trumps’ origin. But let him not be an occultist, clasping his secrets close. Let us hope that he is a humble Christian, eager to share.’

Gresham lists meanings for the Major Arcana, claiming ‘Here is a personal list of interpretations of the Greater Trumps, drawn from Williams, with Waite in the background, and intuition-of-the-moment playing a large part.’ How much weight each of those has is difficult to judge. I was most struck by this one:

(xiii) The Hanged Man. Renunciation of self is the greatest triumph; the long battle with man’s untaught impulses and self-will; sacrifice leading to the secret at the heart of the world.

Always the meaning in flux, always Gresham hiding behind layers of disavowal. Did the cards have different meanings when he wrote Nightmare Alley in the mid-40s? Did their meanings change again after Davidman left and his fortunes fell further? Did they bring him comfort? Did he long for The Sun or fear The Last Judgment? The Juggler keeps all the balls in the air, but when they finally fall, are we all just The Fool?

You can read Gresham’s introduction to Williams’ novel here.

Charles William’s The Greater Trumps