Tarot Noir

Cynthia Giles
5 min readDec 31, 2021

The “Nightmare Alleys” of Guillermo del Toro and William Lindsay Gresham

Cover of Criterion Collection re-issue of the 1947 noir classic

If you happened to see the teaser-trailer for Guillermo del Toro’s remake of Nightmare Alley last summer, you might have noticed a close-up image of a Tarot reading. But you won’t see that frame — or anything else about Tarot — in the “official” trailer that has now replaced every previous version.

From what I can piece together, the film’s emphasis shifted somewhat in the final cut. The atmospheric early trailer was a kaleidoscope of scenes from the protagonist’s rise and fall (from carnival barker to celebrity spiritualist to victim of his own ambition). Whereas the final trailer is focused intently on the theme of human depravity.

It seems from reviews of GDT’s film that his version is closer in spirit to the original novel than the 1947 noir classic, which starred Tyrone Power in an uncharacteristically dark role. That film was considered so depressing at the time that the studio insisted on a tacked-on ending that offered (in about 30 seconds) hope for a happier outcome.

Not so the remake, however. If anything it is more grim than William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel, ending the same way but descending even further into the depths of moral degeneration. At the time of publication, Gresham’s novel was widely seen as a crime thriller, but more recently it’s been viewed as a social commentary — and in the words of Washington Post reviewer Michael Dirda, “a portrait of the human condition.”

The relevance of all this for Perspectives on Tarot begins with the fact that Gresham structured his novel in 22 chapters, each with the title of a Major Arcana card. He had taken a strong interest in Tarot during the 1940s after become disillusioned with psychotherapy — and his portrait of an icily evil psychiatrist in Nightmare Alley seems like a commentary on that aspect of his experience.

The trump-titled chapters are not in order, so they seem to unfold as a reading might. Here’s the sequence from the novel:

1 The Fool
2 The Magician
3 The High Priestess
4 The World
5 The Empress
6 Resurrection of the Dead (Judgement)
7 The Emperor
8 The Sun
9 The Hierophant
10 The Moon
11 The Lovers
12 The Star
13 The Chariot
14 The Tower
15 Justice
16 The Devil
17 The Hermit
18 Time (Temperance)
19 The Wheel of Fortune
20 Death
21 Strength
22 The Hanged Man

If you want to see more of the novel, quite a lot of it is available in the Google Books preview.

But let’s get back to Gresham — whose story is both fascinating and cautionary. Here’s the abbreviated version:

  • An interest in communism led Gresham to volunteer as a medic in the Spanish Civil War. There he met a former carnival worker and began work on Nightmare Alley.
  • He returned to America in 1939, ill and disillusioned. After recovering from a nervous breakdown, he married poet Joy Davidman in 1942 — his third marriage. Then, while working for a true crime magazine, he finished and published Nightmare Alley.
  • The book and film provided financial success, but Gresham continued to drink heavily, and had a series of affairs. Eventually he divorced Davidson, began a seemingly happy marriage with her cousin, and joined Alcoholics Anonymous.
  • In the meantime, Davidman (a secular Jew) had traveled to England, where she met Christian apologist C. S. Lewis — author of the Narnia Chronicles. They began a relationship that lasted until her death in 1960, and was dramatized in the play Shadowlands.
  • After having been diagnosed with cancer and incipient blindness, Gresham took his own life in 1962. Ever a spiritual seeker, he had by then developed an interest in Zen Buddhism, and he wrote to Davidman (with whom he remained friends) that “Life seems to be an imperishable divine ferment, the Ego simply a working tool which is discarded when blunt.”

But that brief description of Gresham’s life leaves out so much that is worth attention — especially from the Tarot perspective.

In 1949, he wrote a very intelligent introduction for a new edition of Charles Williams’ Tarot-themed Christian fantasy, The Greater Trumps. Gresham gives his personal interpretation of each Major Arcana card, and offers ideas about the history and mysteries of Tarot.

Among my favorite passages:

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.

and . . .

The comparison of any card with any other generates ideas . . . . The mind is allowed to wander over [a spread], making associations, drawing parallels and inferences, until at last a new conception is born of understanding.

It is a strenuous pastime.

I highly recommend Gresham’s reading entire introduction, which is available as a free PDF.

That link came from “Tarot in Gresham’s Nightmare Alley”, a thoughtful post by writer and critic K. A. Laity. I also learned from Laity’s commentary that the Criterion Collection recently issued a remastered DVD of the 1947 film version of Nightmare Alley — which comes with its own Tarot deck! The card designs reflect characters and themes from the film, as you can see:

A few cards from the Criterion Collection deck

The original film of Nightmare Alley became a “cult classic” of the noir genre — and since Guillermo del Toro is a “cult favorite” director, his remake was highly anticipated. But I suspect that GDT’s interest in Tarot is little known to most of his fans.

As it turns out, del Toro’s mother was a long-time Tarot enthusiast, and he eventually took an interest in the subject. In fact, he wrote an introduction to the guidebook that accompanies Tarot del Toro, a deck “inspired by the world of Guillermo del Toro.”

Here’s my favorite quote:

The archetypes locked in the Tarot are pliable, multi-valent; they mutate according to the card laid beside them. . . . An unexpected turn is always one card away and, in that, the Tarot is like life itself.

And here’s a look at the deck:

Deck and companion book by artist Tomás Sánchez (Tomás Hijo)

There you have the record of a long trip I hadn’t expected to take. I’m not a noir fan, knew nothing about Gresham, and little about del Toro — but I’m very glad to have found out about their insightful approaches to Tarot.

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Cynthia Giles

Writer at large, Ph.D. in interdisciplinary humanities. Persistently curious! Launching Complexity Press, Spring 2023.