A shallow soap opera in the late 1940s

Not Our Kind by Kitty Zeldis

This book was recommended to me by a library computer while I was searching for Dara Horn’s recent essay collection, the provocatively-titled People Love Dead Jews, as a similar book. Since it was in that very library, and the blurb made it sound right up my alley, I went to look for it and assumed I’d love it.

In 1947, while running late to a job interview, 25-year-old Eleanor Moskowitz’s taxi is rear-ended by another taxi in bottleneck traffic, caused by Pres. Truman’s visit to the city. Because Eleanor suffers an injury to her face, and because cops get involved after the cabbies start arguing, she’s unable to go to the interview.

However, the woman in the other taxi, Patricia Bellamy, invites Eleanor to her glamourous Park Avenue apartment to calm down. Patricia does have some belated misgivings after she hears Eleanor’s obviously Jewish surname, but feels it would be poor manners to rescind the invitation.

When Eleanor arrives at the apartment, she meets Patricia’s only child, 13-year-old Margaux, a polio survivor. Margaux is very understandably bitter, angry, and surly on account of her long illness and being left with a withered leg. But for some reason, she’s instantly drawn to Eleanor, and begs for Eleanor to become her tutor. Eleanor previously worked as a teacher, but resigned when the principal refused to punish a girl for plagiarism. She was also romantically involved with another teacher, and found it awkward to be around him after he started going out with the school’s third Jewish teacher.

Eleanor isn’t too sure about the prospect of being Margaux’s tutor, but ultimately agrees to do it. Prior to accepting the offer, she went to an unemployment agency and was advised by the woman who saw her, Rita Burns, to change her surname to something less obviously Jewish, like Moss or Morse, so her résumé wouldn’t be automatically thrown away. Miss Burns says she knows what she’s talking about, since her real name is Rachel Bernstein.

Because the Bellamys’ building is restricted, Eleanor indeed ends up pretending to have the surname Moss when she announces herself to the doorman. This charade continues when she joins the Bellamys at their summer home in Argyle, Connecticut.

And it’s in Argyle where all the trouble begins.

Patricia’s Bohemian playboy brother Tom arrives for a visit, and he and Eleanor feel an immediate attraction. For many compelling reasons, Patricia is quite alarmed to discover their romantic feelings, and even more upset when she discovers Eleanor was in Tom’s bed. Not only is Eleanor her employee and expected to set a good example for Margaux, but she’s also a good thirteen years younger than Tom and of a different religion and social class. Tom is also notorious for his string of broken hearts and endless affairs, one of which ended with the woman having an abortion.

Also angry is Patricia’s husband Wynn, whose many terrible qualities include antisemitism, sexual predation, drunkenness, classism, poor anger management, lack of success in his law firm, and hatred of modern art. He blames Eleanor for the increasing strain in his marriage, and will stop at nothing to let her know who’s boss and what he really thinks of her.

And when Wynn crosses that line, everyone’s lives are sent into even more of a tailspin.

Overall, I was really disappointed in this book. While Ms. Zeldis does a superb job of describing things like interior decoration, architecture, clothes, and Manhattan streetscapes of the era, the characters all seemed kind of flat and shallow. I never truly felt in anyone’s head, and the narration is rather telly instead of trusting readers to discern things for themselves.

This book also follows the annoying trend of alternating POV characters every other chapter, except for one time where two chapters in a row are in Patricia’s POV. Thus, many times the revelation or cliffhanger than ends a chapter isn’t followed up at all, or the resulting reactions and events are relayed later instead of shown as they actually happen. God forbid you use third-person omniscient in a book with more than one main character!

I also wished there’d been more development of Eleanor’s relationship with Margaux and their lessons. And without giving anything away, there’s a really convenient deus ex machina plot development for one of the storylines. I agree with reviewers who feel this is a YA book that just happens to have adult characters.

I was hoping for a more thorough, engrossing exploration of the institutionalized, systemic antisemitism which continued even after the Shoah, not just alternatingly heavy-handed and minor mentions every so often. Eleanor is very secular and assimilated, with almost no connection to either religious or cultural aspects of Judaism. It feels so out of character when she visits a mikvah, not to mention contrary to norms of halacha (Jewish law).

Obviously, antisemites don’t care how religious or secular someone is, but Eleanor never demonstrates a strong or believable Jewish identity. The distinction between her and the Bellamys feels more believably based on class instead of religion.

Also, her relationship with Tom and their supposed chemistry never felt believable to me, coupled with how rare and scandalous interdating and intermarriage were in that era. Eleanor only thinks about how she’ll be excluded from Tom’s Gentile world, not about things like how they’d raise potential kids.

The treatment of premarital sex also felt a bit unrealistic and ahistorical. Outside of really Bohemian types, which Eleanor isn’t depicted as, it was generally only done by couples planning to marry anyway in this era. Not couples only thinking of a good time and unsure of their relationship’s future.

And did I mention the book just kind of ends in media res?

Happy Halloween!— WeWriWa: Halloween surprises

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. The rules have now been relaxed to allow a few more sentences if merited, so long as they’re clearly indicated, to avoid the creative punctuation many of us have used to stay within the limit.

This year’s Halloween-themed excerpts come from the eighth book in my Saga of the Sewards series (formerly known as Max’s House). It needs a great deal of editing, rewriting, and revision, along with a new title, so I’m doing preliminary edits and fleshing it out as I go this month.

It’s now near the end of Halloween night, and Mr. Seward’s stepdaughters and younger children have finally come home from trick-or-treating. He’s very displeased, to say the least, when he learns about what happened without his knowledge or permission.

“It’s eleven-thirty!” Mr. Seward raged. “Where have you been all night? It never took that long to trick-or-treat before!”

“We were at the older kids’ party at school a lot of that time,” Harold said.

“Gene ran off, and we searched everywhere!” Cora Ann yelled. “When his mother dropped him off at the party, neither of them apologized for scaring us so much.”

“Mommy gave me really good candy and cocoa,” Gene said. “I got bored of trick-or-treating, and it was cold, so I decided to visit her.”

“That was illegal!” Mr. Seward shouted, shaking his fist in the air. “Clara knows damn well I have full custody and that she’s not allowed to see you again unless it’s by accident in public!”

The ten lines end here. A few more follow to complete the scene.

Gene peeled the paper off of a candybar and began eating it. “I don’t care if you tan my hide for visiting Mommy. We had a lot of fun, and I’ll visit her again whenever I feel like it. She missed her favorite child.”

“Clara said many times she had no interest in motherhood, and made no attempt to even pretend to care in all those years before our divorce. Even her spoiling of you was constantly interrupted by her many trips abroad with her much-younger lovers. I refuse to believe she’s had a radical change of heart after so much time.”

“I’m sleepy, Daddy,” Amy whimpered.

“Who are you?” Mr. Seward asked. “Did you follow my kids home?” He took a double-take.  “Four strange kids followed you home!”

“What?” Adeladie asked. “Who? There are only ten of us, not fourteen.”

“My God!” he went on. “Where are the other four quints? Did somebody steal them?  Who’s the only quint here?”

“All the quints are here. Take off their costumes if you don’t believe me.”

Mr. Seward yanked the sheet off the ghost to reveal Andrew. Peggy was underneath the seal costume, Paula was under the peanut, and Amy was under the marshmallow.

“Quints, that was terrible, dressing in different costumes! You are not individuals! I’ll have some serious words with Elaine when she comes home, since she was the one who bought you these costumes instead of all five clown outfits.” His jaw clenched as he pointed at the staircase. “Go on up to bed, all of you. Thanks to Gene’s stunt, it’s well past all your bedtimes.”

Mickey’s Halloween costume

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. The rules have now been relaxed to allow a few more sentences if merited, so long as they’re clearly indicated, to avoid the creative punctuation many of us have used to stay within the limit.

This year’s Halloween-themed excerpts come from the eighth book in my Saga of the Sewards series (formerly known as Max’s House). It needs a great deal of editing, rewriting, and revision, along with a new title, so I’m doing preliminary edits and fleshing it out as I go this month.

We’re now at the school’s Halloween dance and party, which Elaine and her friend Quintina were in charge of putting together. Elaine’s cousin Max carved all the jack-o-lanterns, and finished shortly before the first attendees arrived.

Elaine stared at Mickey as she entered the gym. It seemed a foregone conclusion she’d win most original costume, with a leotard splattered with twenty different colors, hands encased in rubber snake heads, alligator feet, yellowed teeth, a sash of cellophane flowers, hair dyed ten different colors, skin dyed more different colors than Elaine could keep track of, and kaleidoscope glitter glued around her eyes.

Mickey waved as she approached. “I’m a peyote hallucination. Don’t ask how many hours it took to make this.”

“What’s peyote?” Elaine asked.

“It’s a type of mescaline, a natural drug the Indians use for spiritual experiences. Peyote produces visions that look like me.”

“Where’d you get the purple lipstick from?” Kit asked. “I’d love to wear something besides red and pink for a change.”

The ten lines end here. A few more follow to finish the scene.

“This is dye, not lipstick.” Mickey lit a Lucky Strike. “Though I have seen a few lipsticks that are so dark they look almost purple. I wish makeup producers would be more creative with colors. Sometimes you just want to have fun.”

“You and me both. If I ever found lipstick in purple, green, and blue, I’d want to wear it every day, not just for Halloween and costume parties. Makeup is supposed to reflect our personalities and interests instead of being a boring one size fits all uniform.”

An island mansion full of secrets and zombies

Released 14 May 1941, King of the Zombies was intended as a vehicle for Béla Lugosi (a role for which he would’ve been perfect). Unfortunately, he was unavailable at the time, and Monogram tried to negotiate for Peter Lorre (who also would’ve been great). Finally, Henry Victor was signed shortly before filming commenced. Because of Mr. Victor’s heavy German accent, he was unable to be a leading man, and instead established himself as a character actor.

James McCarthy (Mac) (Dick Purcell), his buddy Bill Summers (John Archer), and his very funny valet Jefferson Jackson (Jeff) (Mantan Moreland) are flying from Cuba to Puerto Rico when their plane blows off-course and crashes in a storm. The trio end up on a strange island, right in the middle of a cemetery.

With nowhere else to go, they enter the first house which presents itself and meet the acquaintance of owner Dr. Miklos Sangre (Henry Victor). Though they heard a faint radio signal while still in the air, Dr. Sangre denies any radio stations on the island. He instead claims they must’ve heard something from one of the many ships passing through, and says the next ship won’t arrive for about two more weeks.

Despite Jeff’s fears and suspicions, particularly regarding creepy butler Momba (Leigh Whipper), Bill and Mac accept the offer to stay as longterm guests. Jeff meanwhile is banished to the servants’ quarters in the cellar, which connects to the kitchen. He’s delighted to make the acquaintance of pretty maid Samantha (Marguerite Whitten), but newly frightened by the ancient cook Tahama (Madame Sul-Te-Wan).

Other residents of the mansion are Dr. Sangre’s wife Alyce (Patricia Stacey) and niece Barbara Winslow (Joan Woodbury). Jeff, who’s already wise to the existence of the household’s zombies and refuses to believe Dr. Sangre’s rebuttals of their true nature, is even more alarmed by Mrs. Sangre. As Dr. Sangre explains, “She lives, yet walks in the land of those beyond.”

Everyone then gets settled for the night, but Jeff still can’t relax. When a few zombies try to attack him, he flees upstairs and tells his friends what happened. The commotion gets Dr. Sangre’s attention, and he once more insists there are no zombies and that Jeff is just imagining things. However, he does finally permit Jeff to stay in the same room as Mac and Bill.

Jeff freaks out again when he sees Mrs. Sangre coming through a wall. Mac and Bill are finally convinced he’s on the level when Jeff finds an earring she dropped on the bed, and they go to investigate. During the course of the investigation, Mac finds Barbara in the library, researching how to break her aunt’s hypnotic state.

This time, no one believes Dr. Sangre when he finds them and tries to set their minds at ease. They’re determined to get off this island as soon as possible.

These plans, however, are thrown into jeopardy when the zombies come calling again. Will they be able to escape without joining the ranks of the undead?

A sleepwalking strangler

Released 25 April 1941, Invisible Ghost was the first of Béla Lugosi’s nine films with Poverty Row studio Monogram Pictures. Despite Monogram’s lack of financial resources, however, they produced a lot of solid films, managed to lure a lot of stars (both current and former) from other studios, and launched a number of new stars. They also won an Academy for Best Short Subject (Two Reeler) in 1947, and were nominated for a number of other Academy Awards.

Lugosi went to work for them when his career was in the doldrums, a consequence of the restrictive Hays Code coupled with a British ban on horror films.

Charles Kessler (Lugosi) seems for all intents and purposes a very nice, respectable man, except for one big flaw—he went half-mad after his wife left him for his best friend a few years ago. She and her lover are believed to have died in a terrible car accident, and now every year on the Kesslers’ wedding anniversary, Mr. Kessler pretends she’s alive. The butler Evans (Clarence Muse) sets the table for two, and Mr. Kessler talks to this invisible presence.

Mr. Kessler’s daughter Virginia (Polly Ann Young, older sister of Loretta Young) is aghast when her serious beau Ralph Dickson (John McGuire) visits on this very evening and witnesses the bizarre spectacle. In embarrassment, she draws him aside and explains what’s going on.

Ralph was also secretly seeing the Kesslers’ maid Cecile Mannix (Terry Walker), but broke it off with her because he fell in love with Virginia. Now Cecile won’t accept the fact that it’s over and that Ralph’s heart is no longer hers. After they quarrel that night, Ralph drives off and Cecile retreats to her room.

We then learn Mrs. Kessler (Betty Compson) is alive, albeit not very well, and living in the cellar, where the gardener (not her lover) takes care of her. She’s terrified to come home, believing her husband will kill her, and anybody else as well. However, she regularly prowls through the grounds at night to appear below Mr. Kessler’s window.

And when he sees her, he goes into a trance and indeed kills someone.

That night, Mr. Kessler strangles Cecile with his overcoat (to avoid fingerprints). Evans discovers her corpse in the morning, and Ralph is accused of the crime. Though he heartily pleads his innocence, it seems an open and shut case of guilt due to the lovers’ quarrel Evans overheard. Ralph gets the death penalty.

Shortly afterwards, a dead ringer for Ralph visits and becomes a longterm houseguest—his twin brother Paul (also John McGuire). Paul is determined to get to the bottom of what really happened. While he believes Ralph was innocent on account of their being brothers, he also is highly suspicious of how several other servants in the household were murdered before that.

The next victim is the gardener, who’s also found by Evans. This time, Evans is accused of the crime, despite having no motive or suspicious behaviour. Mr. Kessler and Virginia also fully stand behind his innocence and good moral character.

Paul is also still determined to get to the bottom of all these mysterious murders, and some unexpected twists and turns may just expose what’s really been going on.

Invisible Ghost was very positively reviewed by The Los Angeles Times, which called it “head and shoulders above the average horror picture” and praised it for evoking a creepy mood more through psychological and psychopathic situations instead of directly showing the horror. They also loved Lugosi’s acting.

Another wonderful aspect of this film is the character of Evans. Clarence Muse always imbued his characters with such fully-realised humanity, dignity, and intelligence, whether they were servants or leading roles. Evans is a very important secondary character, and is never once cast as a stereotype or used for cheap laughs. This was quite refreshingly unusual for the era.