The year is 1926, and Shanghai hums to the tune of debauchery…
We’re excited to share an excerpt from These Violent Delights, Chloe Gong’s debut and an imaginative retelling of Romeo and Juliet, with rival gangs and a monster in the depths of the Huangpu River. Available November 17th from Margaret K. McElderry Books.
The year is 1926, and Shanghai hums to the tune of debauchery.
A blood feud between two gangs runs the streets red, leaving the city helpless in the grip of chaos. At the heart of it all is eighteen-year-old Juliette Cai, a former flapper who has returned to assume her role as the proud heir of the Scarlet Gang—a network of criminals far above the law. Their only rivals in power are the White Flowers, who have fought the Scarlets for generations. And behind every move is their heir, Roma Montagov, Juliette’s first love…and first betrayal.
But when gangsters on both sides show signs of instability culminating in clawing their own throats out, the people start to whisper. Of a contagion, a madness. Of a monster in the shadows. As the deaths stack up, Juliette and Roma must set their guns—and grudges—aside and work together, for if they can’t stop this mayhem, then there will be no city left for either to rule.
In glittering Shanghai, a monster awakens.
Its eyes snap open in the belly of the Huangpu River, jaws unhinging at once to taste the foul blood seeping into the waters. Lines of red slither through this ancient city’s modern streets: lines that draw webs in the cobblestones like a network of veins, and drip by drip these veins surge into the waters, pouring the city’s life essence into the mouth of another.
As the night grows dark, the monster pushes itself up, eventually emerging from the waves with the leisure of a forgotten god. When it turns its head up, all that can be seen is the low-hanging, plump moon.
It breathes in. It slinks closer.
Its first breath transforms into a cold breeze, hurtling into the streets and brushing the ankles of those unfortunate enough to be stumbling home during the devil’s hour. This place hums to the tune of debauchery. This city is filthy and deep in the thrall of unending sin, so saturated with the kiss of decadence that the sky threatens to buckle and crush all those living vivaciously beneath it in punishment.
But no punishment comes—not yet. The decade is loose and the morals are looser. As the West throws its arms up in unending party, as the rest of the Middle Kingdom remains splintered among aging warlords and the remnants of imperial rule, Shanghai sits in its own little bubble of power: the Paris of the East, the New York of the West.
Despite the toxin trickling from every dead-ended alleyway, this place is so, so very alive. And the monster, too, is birthed anew.
Unknowingly, the people of this divided city carry on. Two men stumble out from their favorite brothel’s open doors, their laughter piercing and loud. The silence of the late hour stands in sudden contrast to the roaring activity they have emerged from, and their ears struggle to adjust, ringing loudly with the transition.
One is short and stout, as if he could lie on the ground and begin rolling down the sidewalk in the manner of a marble; the other is tall and gawky, his limbs drawn in right angles. With their arms swung around each other’s shoulders, they stumble toward the waterfront, toward the block of land by the sea where merchants arrive with commodities—day in, day out.
The two men are familiar with these ports; after all, when they’re not frequenting jazz clubs or downing the newest shipments of wine from some foreign country, they run messages here, guard merchants here, haul stock back and forth here—all for the Scarlet Gang. They know this boardwalk like the back of their hands, even when it is presently quiet of the usual thousand different languages hollered under a thousand different flags.
At this hour, there is only the muffled music from nearby bars and the large shop banners overhead ruffling with every gust of wind.
And the five White Flowers talking animatedly in Russian.
It is the fault of the two Scarlet men for not hearing the racket sooner, but their brains are clogged with alcohol and their senses are buzzing pleasantly. By the time the White Flowers are in sight, by the time the men see their rivals standing around one of the ports, passing a bottle, shoving shoulders with uproarious laughter, thumping chests with sturdy fists, neither party can back away without losing face.
The White Flowers straighten up, heads tilting into the wind.
“We should continue walking,” the short Scarlet man whispers to his companion. “You know what Lord Cai said about getting into another fight with the White Flowers.”
The gawkier one only bites down on the inside of his cheeks, sucking his face in until he looks like a smug, drunk ghoul.
“He said we shouldn’t initiate anything. He never said we couldn’t get into a fight.”
The Scarlet men speak in the dialect of their city, their tongues laid flat and their sounds pressed tight. Even as they raise their voices with the confidence of being on home turf, they are uneasy, because it is rare now for a White Flower to not know the language—sometimes their accents are indistinguishable from a Shanghai native.
A fact that proves correct when one of the White Flowers, grinning, bellows, “Well, are you trying to pick a fight?”
The taller Scarlet man makes a low sound at the base of his throat and aims a wad of spit at the White Flowers. It lands by the shoe of the nearest.
In a blink: guns upon guns, each arm raised and steady and trigger-happy, ready to pull. This is a scene that no soul bats an eye toward any longer; this is a scene that is more commonplace in heady Shanghai than the smoke of opium wafting from a thick pipe.
A whistle blows into the terse silence. The policeman who runs on site only expresses annoyance at the standstill before him. He has seen this exact scene three times already within the week. He has forced rivals into jail cells and called for cleanup when the members left one another dead and pierced with bullets instead. Weary with the day, all he wants to do is go home, soak his feet in hot water, and eat the meal his wife would have left cold on the table. His hand is already itching for his baton, itching to beat some sense into these men, itching to remind these people that they have no personal grudge against the other. All that fuels them is reckless, baseless loyalty to the Cais and the Montagovs, and it would be their ruin.
“Do we want to break this up and go home?” the policeman asks. “Or do we want to come with me and—”
He stops abruptly.
A growl is echoing from the waters.
The warning that radiates from such a sound is not a deniable sensation. It is not the sort of paranoia one feels when they think they are being followed down an abandoned junction; nor is it the sort of panic that ensues when a floorboard creaks in a house thought empty. It is solid, tangible—it almost exudes a moisture into the air, a weight pressing down on bare skin. It is a threat as obvious as a gun to the face, and yet there is a moment of inaction, a moment of hesitation. The short and stout Scarlet man wavers first, his eyes darting to the edge of the boardwalk. He ducks his head, peering into the murky depths, squinting to follow the choppy, rolling motions of the water’s small ripples.
He is just at the right height for his companion to scream and knock him down with a brutal elbow to the temple when something bursts from the river.
Little black specks.
As the short man falls to the ground and slams against hard dirt, the world is raining down on him in dots—strange things he cannot quite see as his vision spins and his throat gags in nausea. He can only feel pinpricks landing on him, itching his arms, his legs, his neck; he hears his companion screaming, the White Flowers roaring at one another in indecipherable Russian, then finally, the policeman shrieking in English, “Get it off! Get them off!”
The man on the ground has a thudding, thunderous heartbeat. With his forehead pressed to the earth, unwilling to behold whatever is causing these terrible howls, his own pulse consumes him. It overtakes every one of his senses, and only when something thick and wet splashes against his leg does he scramble upright in horror, flailing so extremely that he kicks free a shoe and doesn’t bother to fetch it.
He doesn’t look back as he runs. He scrubs himself free of the debris that had rained down on him, hiccuping in his desperation to breathe in, breathe in, breathe in.
He doesn’t look back to check what had been lurking in the waters. He doesn’t look back to see if his companion needs help, and he certainly doesn’t look back to determine what had landed on his leg with a viscous, sticky sensation. The man only runs and runs, past the neon delight of the theaters as the last of their lights wink off, past the whispers crawling under the front doors of brothels, past the sweet dreams of merchants who sleep with piles of money underneath their mattresses.
And he is long gone by the time there are only dead men lying along the ports of Shanghai, their throats torn out and their eyes staring up at the night sky, glassy with the reflection of the moon.
Excerpted from These Violent Delights, copyright © 2020 by Chloe Gong.