Graduate Liberal Studies Program

Course Descriptions

GLS 592: "Nightmare Alleys": American Noir Fiction

Instructor: Mike Wentworth

"The only significant fiction in America is popular fiction. It is from Chandler and Hammett and Hemingway that the best modern fiction derives."-Kenneth Rexroth

"Anything that doesn't kill you will make you stronger."-Friedrich Nietzsche

"There were no street lamps, no lights at all. It was a narrow street in the Port Richmond section of Philadelphia. From the nearby Delaware a cold wind came lancing in, telling all alley cats they'd better find a heated cellar. The late November gusts rattled against midnight-darkened windows, and stabbed at the eyes of the fallen man in the street. The man was kneeling on the curb, breathing hard and spitting blood and wondering seriously if his skull was fractured. He'd been running blindly, his head down, so of course he hadn't seen the telephone pole. He'd crashed into it face first, bounced away and hit the cobblestones and wanted to call it a night. But you can't do that, he told himself. You gotta get up and keep running."


"I'd finished my pie and was having a second cup of coffee when I saw him. The midnight freight had come in a few minutes before; and he was peering in one end of the restaurant window, the end nearest the depot, shading his eyes with his hand and blinking against the light. He saw me watching him, and his face faded back into the shadows. But I knew he was still there. I knew he was waiting. The bums always size me up for an easy mark."


"I drove out to Glendale to put three new truck drivers on a brewery company bond, and then I remembered this renewal over in Hollywoodland. I decided to run over there. That was how I came to this House of Death, that you've been reading about in the papers. It didn't look like a House of Death when I saw it. It was just a Spanish house, like all the rest of them in California, with white walls, red tile roof, and a patio out to one side. It was built cock-eyed. The garage was under the house, the first floor was over that, and the rest of it was spilled up the hill any way they could get in. You climbed some stone steps to the front door, so I parked the car and went up there."


"It must have been around a quarter to eleven. A sailor came in and ordered a chile dog and coffee. I sliced a bun, jerked a frank out of the boiling water, nested it, poured a half-dipper of chile over the frank and sprinkled it liberally with chopped onions. I scribbled a check and put it by his plate. I wouldn't have recommended the unpalatable mess to a starving animal. The sailor was the only customer, and after he ate his dog he left. That was the exact moment she entered. A small woman, hardly more than five feet. She had the figure of a teen-age girl. Her suit was a blue tweed, smartly cut, and over her thin shoulders she wore a fur jacket, bolero length. Tiny gold circular earrings clung to her small pierced ears. Her hands and feet were small, and when she seated herself at the counter I noticed she wasn't wearing any rings. She was pretty drunk. 'What'll it be?' I asked her."


By way of introduction I've reproduced the opening paragraphs from a number of classic American noir fictions. Want some more? Yah, I figured you might. And you probably should ask yourself why; but that's none of my business; that's strictly between you and your shrink. But if you're intrigued or even mildly curious, this nifty little curricular caper might be right up your alley. In fact, let's call it "Nightmare Alley." But let me warn you, it's gonna be a rough ride, with heavy casualties along the way, and if you're lucky enough to survive, you may just come out at the end of this metaphorical road trip with official documentation that you've "made the grade." But like I said, it's gonna be tough going and, yah, while we're at it, you might as well go ahead and call me Captain Midnight," though I'm sure you'll manage a few choice sobriquets of your own as the plot of the course thickens, not unlike the hurly burly special of the day concocted by Macbeth's three witches. Want some? Sure you do! You're already in too deep and there ain't no shovel to dig your way out or a pass key to unlock a door that was strictly an illusion to begin with or go ahead and provide any nihilistic metaphorical analogue of your own. Despair, pessimism, psycho-pathological obsession, perversion, corruption, schizophrenia, and paranoia (and all this, on a good day!) insufficiently describe the Sophoclean fatalism, the abject bleakness, the unrelieved toothache in the yawning abyss of the endless night that inevitably evolves as the "order of the day" in nearly every one of our featured texts. Whatever the scenario, you can be sure that just when things can't imaginably get any worse, they get a whole lot worse, to such an extent that the terror and horror of it all elides, almost imperceptibly, into laughter, even though the joke's on you. So if you're looking for a few good "laughs," check this one out when it plays at a theater near you.

So much for the long-winded introduction. More directly put, during our course we will be reading a number of classic short stories and novels in the American noir tradition. One compelling agenda will, of course, involve determining what philosophical, psychological, sociological, and cultural characteristics serve to define "American noir." Aside from such an agenda, we will be concerned with matters of language, style, and narrative craft, genre conventions, gender roles, criminal pathology, socio-cultural influences, audience, and marketing and publishing trends, and I can almost guarantee that you'll discover additional agendas of your own. But whatever trajectory the course assumes, don't be surprised if early on, you, like Shakespeare's Claudius in Hamlet (a crafty piece of noir if there ever was one!), desperately call out, "Give me some light!"

Required Texts:

James Cain, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, Mildred Pierce, and Selected Stories

Ed Gorman, Bill Pronzini, and Martin H. Greenburg, eds. American Pulp

Bill Pronzini and Jack Adrian, Hard-Boiled: An Anthology of American Crime Stories

Robert Polito, Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930s and 1940s

Horace McCoy, They Shoot Horses, Don't They?

Edward Anderson, Thieves Like Us

Kenneth Fearing, The Big Clock

William Lindsay Gresham, Nightmare Alley

Cornell Woolrich, I Married a Dead Man

Robert Polito, Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1950s

Jim Thompson, The Killer Inside Me

Patricia Highsmith, The Talented Mr. Ripley

Charles Willeford, Pick-Up

David Goodis, Down There

Chester Himes, The Cool Killers

Written Requirements:

You will be expected to produce twenty double-spaced pages of text by the end of our course. You can satisfy the written requirement in terms of any one of the following three options.

Option Number One

Three "short" critical/analytical essays, each of which should be 6-7 pages in length and each of which will constitute one-third of your final grade.

Option Number two

Two "intermediate" critical/analytical essays, each of which should be 10 pages in length and each of which will constitute one-half of your final grade.

Option Number Three

One longer critical/analytical essay, 20 pages in length, which will constitute 100% of your final grade.

Whichever option you choose, you are free, of course, to write on any relevant topic of personal interest, but let me provide some general suggestions. Nearly all of our assigned readings easily lend themselves to philosophical, psychological, and sociological analysis. Likewise, it might be illuminating to examine various classic noir fictions of the 1930s and 1950s against the social, cultural, and political climate of the two decades. Moreover, what do various of the assigned readings reveal about the viability of romantic love, marriage, family, material success, the American dream? You also might want to focus on the stylistic idiom, or register, of a particular author or examine the complementary or contrasting styles of several authors. You also might want to examine the original critical reception of various of the assigned texts or to compile an annotated bibliography of scholarship on various of the assigned texts. Recalling the course description at the outset, you might want to establish the noir aspects of representative fictions; or to investigate the extent to which marketing and publishing trends and the notion of audience influenced the shape, content, and tone of various of the assigned readings. It might be equally revealing to identify and examine various points of contact, or deviation, between selected readings or to examine earlier and more recent texts to determine how "things" have changed or remained the same. In terms of audience and reader response, how do you account for the continuing appeal of the noir tradition in American popular culture and what, in fact, are the differences between "popular" and "literary" fiction (how, for example, would you classify a novel like Thomas Harris's Silence of the Lambs)? Since many of you may have a specific interest in the craft of fiction, which of the assigned selections were particularly instructive, for better or worse, in regard to various aspects of narrative craft and technique? Since a number of you have taken courses on rhetoric and literary theory, you might want to examine one or several readings in terms of a particular rhetorical or theoretical approach. Since many of the assigned readings have been adapted to film, you might want to examine the relations between a particular text and the corresponding film adaptation or to examine various points of contact between our course and American film noir.

Last Update: February 8, 2012