Immortality is just a casting call away…
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from Siren Queen, a dazzling new novel from author Nghi Vo—available May 10th from Tordotcom Publishing. Read the third chapter below, or head back to the beginning with chapter one!
It was magic. In every world, it was a kind of magic.
“No maids, no funny talking, no fainting flowers.” Luli Wei is beautiful, talented, and desperate to be a star. Coming of age in pre-Code Hollywood, she knows how dangerous the movie business is and how limited the roles are for a Chinese American girl from Hungarian Hill—but she doesn’t care. She’d rather play a monster than a maid.
But in Luli’s world, the worst monsters in Hollywood are not the ones on screen. The studios want to own everything from her face to her name to the women she loves, and they run on a system of bargains made in blood and ancient magic, powered by the endless sacrifice of unlucky starlets like her. For those who do survive to earn their fame, success comes with a steep price. Luli is willing to do whatever it takes—even if that means becoming the monster herself.
Siren Queen offers up an enthralling exploration of an outsider achieving stardom on her own terms, in a fantastical Hollywood where the monsters are real and the magic of the silver screen illuminates every page.
I ran back to the Comique as often as I could. When my mother gave me a nickel for my lunch, I would go hungry, feeding myself on dreams in black and silver, and then much, much later, miraculously and magnificently, in color. I ran errands for the neighbors when I could get away from the laundry, and when it had been too long since I had last sat on the painfully hard pine benches, I sold another inch of my hair.
The movies on the marquee changed every week, but the ticket taker, gorgeous, smiling, and sly, never did at all. I grew like a weed, but she remained a fixed twenty, which she told me once was just the perfect age for her.
“What about being twenty-five or thirty?” I asked once, while she clipped my hair. There were probably ages beyond that, but at the age of ten, I couldn’t quite imagine it.
“Fine for some people, but not right for me. Forever’s a long time, you know, and it’s no good if you can’t have it like you like best.”
What I liked best was the movies, and for the day the actors opened their mouths and spoke, I gave her a shade of darkness off of my eyes. It was worth it to hear the first tinny voices spilling to the enraptured crowd. It was a revolution, new stars in and old stars out, but in a year, we took it for granted. Movies were a cheap magic, after all, never meant to be beyond our grasp.
I started pinning my hair up to hide how short it was getting, and my father and mother, exhausted by the steam and the weight of so much silk and wool and rayon and polyester on top of us, never even noticed.
Luli noticed. She went with me sometimes into the Comique, wrinkling her nose as if she had smelled something bad, holding her breath as if the vapors would somehow contaminate her.
She liked some of it. She liked the romances, the ones that ended happily with a kiss. There was even a Chinese actress, Su Tong Lin. She always played the daughter of a white man with a painted yellow face, and she always fell in love with a handsome chisel-faced hero who loved another. Luli loved Su Tong Lin, and I think I did too, but I couldn’t love her without a twisting in my stomach of mingled embarrassment and confused anger. I went home angry every time she threw herself into the ocean, stabbed herself, threw herself in front of a firing gun for her unworthy love.
It was different from Josephine Beaufort’s turn as Juliet, as different as wearing wet silk is from dry. It was Juliet that earned Josephine Beaufort her star, set up high in the Los Angeles firmament. The darkness of the Los Angeles night receded year by year from a city fed on electric lights, but no matter how orange the sky paled, those stars never dimmed. You can still see hers up there, enshrined for her Juliet, her Madame Bovary, and her taste in fast men and even faster cars.
I wasn’t thinking of Josephine Beaufort or stars or immortality the day I accidentally wandered into fairyland. One moment I was crossing the invisible border that separates Hungarian Hill and Baker Road, and the next, it was as if the very air turned sharp and chemical. I dodged around a group of people who were standing stock-still on the sidewalk, wondering as I did what was going on, and the next I was nearly rushed off my feet by a man carrying an enormous box over his shoulder.
“Outta the way, asshole,” he growled, not stopping to look.
I was twelve, and my startled eyes took it all in at once, the tangle of cords that connected the cameras to their generators, the shades that blocked out the harsh sun, and the lights that gave them a new one. Everyone rushed around so quickly that I thought for certain that there would be some terrible crash, but instead it was as if all of them, cameramen, grips, script girls, and costumers, were on rails. They ruled over their own thin threads, weaving in and out to create a setting fit for . . . Maya Vos Santé was what they called an exotic beauty, not quite white but not dark enough to frighten an easily spooked investor. There were rumors of rituals performed in the basements of Everest Studios, peeling away her Mexican features, slivers of her soul and the lightning that danced at her fingertips, leaving behind a face they could call Spanish alone. Rumor had it she held a knife to John Everest’s balls until he signed off on passing her contract to Wolfe. She was so powerful, just beginning to understand how to wield her new glamour, and they would never have let her go otherwise.
She has no star, so you will have to settle for what I saw that late afternoon in 1932.
She was born short but lofted herself high in perilous heels, and her dark hair, piled with artful abandon on her head, made her taller still. She was all hearts: heart-shaped face, pouting lips, round breasts pushed high, and round hips pushed low.
The red dress she wore—which ironically became something of an immortal thing itself after Jane Carter wore it in High Over the Chasm—gave her eyes a peculiar cold maroon cast, and when she saw me, they narrowed thoughtfully.
“Hey, Jacko, is this the kid you wanted?”
A big man with small, pale eyes, a toothpick clenched in his teeth, came to look at me. He dressed as rough as any of the men laying wire or manning the cameras, but through all of the chaos, he was the only one who moved slowly, at his own pace.
“The studio never sent one of the kiddies over,” he said with a shrug. “Think they’re all working on that duster over in Agua Dulce, that big thing with Selwyn and Ramone. Orphan Train or whatever.”
Maya made a face, which did not make it less beautiful. She pointed a red nail at me.
“Well, she’ll do fine, won’t she?”
Jacko looked dubious, and she turned to me. Her eyes weren’t cold at all, they were melting chocolate, and she smiled with the weight of a blessing falling over my shoulders.
“Won’t you, baby?”
“I will,” I said instantly. “What should I do?”
“A real trouper, huh?” said Jacko with a laugh. “All right, we’ll give it a try. What you’re wearing will be good enough, but stash your shoes and socks somewhere.”
The moment she got her way, Maya lost interest in me. An assistant came forward to straighten out the ruffle at the hem of her red dress, kneeling down like a supplicant, and I was left sitting on the curb and carefully untying my shoes and removing my stocks, trying not to stub my feet on the scattered pebbles when I stood up. A nicely dressed woman took pity on me.
“Here, honey,” she said. “We’ll wrap them with paper and put them right here so that you can get them later, all right?”
I’m glad she thought of it. My parents would have skinned me if I came home without my shoes, but I never gave it a second thought.
My dress, which Jacko had declared good enough, was a carefully mended calico that hung limp in the heat. It had been made for an adult woman, and though my mother had sewn in the curves, it still hung on me with an irregular kind of frump.
Orders must have been shouted from somewhere, because an assistant director came up to me, thin as a whip, harried and distracted.
“All right, you start here. When Mrs. Vos Santé says, ‘In all my born days, I never saw the likes of you, Richard,’ you run around the corner. Go up to her and beg for change, all right?”
A shiver of shame went through me at his words. I knew what beggars were, people with desperate eyes and clutching hands, trying to grab for whatever extra bit of life they could squeeze out of the day. I looked down at my dress in confusion, because I couldn’t understand what made it a beggar’s dress, and I could see my bare and dusty feet underneath, stepping on each other shyly now.
The assistant director didn’t wait to see if I understood. Instead he left me on my mark and ran to attend to other matters. Time slowed for a moment, solid like it can get when prep pulls out like taffy.
Then I heard the sharp, dry clack of the clapboard, rendering all else silent, and Jacko called out the magic word.
From my spot on the corner, everything seemed dim even as I strained my ears to hear Maya Vos Santé’s words. She was talking with a man about cruelty and how a woman could expect to find nothing but in a world ruled by men.
The man said something utterly forgettable even in my memory, and Maya Vos Santé laughed. The sound was like drops of cold water running down my spine.
“In all my born days, I never saw the likes of you, Richard.”
My cue, though I didn’t even know to call it that yet.
I ran around the corner, stubbing my heel badly on a rock, but I didn’t even stumble.
The moment I stepped into the camera’s eye, I had entered some kind of magical circle. The air was thicker and somehow clearer, the colors more vibrant than they had been before. I had to stop myself from looking down at my hands, certain that they would be glowing against the umber light.
I stuttered to a stop in front of Maya and the actor. To me, they were both dressed like royalty. My mouth went utterly dry, and there were no words for them. Beg, the assistant director had said, but I didn’t know how to do that.
I swallowed hard. The click in my throat was so loud that it should have been audible on the reel. The actor just frowned, but Maya was looking at me with concern and warmth, her face tilted to one side like a gentle cat’s, so perfect I could have died.
“Please,” I managed, my cupped hand coming up slowly.
“Oh, sweetheart,” said Maya sadly. I thought I had ruined it all, that she was disappointed, and I would be sent away from this magical world. My eyes filled with tears, but then Maya was digging in her enormous black handbag.
“Here, baby,” she said, crouching down to see me almost eye to eye. She pretended to tuck something into my palm, and then she cupped the back of my head with her hand, pulling me forward and pressing a cool kiss to my brow.
“I think you’re the special one, Marie,” said the actor, and Jacko bawled cut.
The air snapped back to normal, so hard that I could barely breathe. For a brief moment, I could truly see, and now someone had come along and slid transparent snake scales over my eyes. Everything looked so shoddy and so dirty that I could have cried.
I heard some muttering from Jacko and the man with the camera, and he looked up, nodding.
“We got it! Set up for scene fifteen.”
Scene fifteen certainly didn’t need me. Maya forgot about me the moment the scene was over, and I was bumped and jostled away from the center of cameras and lights, washing up finally next to the nicely dressed woman who had helped me with my shoes before. I noticed that she wore a silver cuff around her thin wrist, lovely, but so narrow that it could not be removed easily. The word Wolfe was emblazoned on it, and she caught me looking at her curiously.
“I’m under contract at Wolfe,” she said with pride. “Seven years. It means that I can’t take jobs with any of the other big three, and that they’ll have work for me the whole time. I’m not in scene fifteen, but I’m in scenes seventeen and eighteen, which are being shot right after.”
I was duly impressed. At home, the worst thing you could be was without work, and seven years of standing around in nice clothes seemed far better than pushing a blazing-hot iron that seemed to weigh as much as my little sister over an endless line of white shirts.
“What’s your name?” I asked shyly, and her gaze turned wistful. She had remarkable eyes, one blue and one brown, giving her a cheerful, puppyish look.
“They haven’t given me one yet,” she responded.
I sat with her for the next hour as they shot scene fifteen, more complicated than the one I had been in and requiring more takes. That year, Wolfe put out close to three hundred pictures. Speed was key, and even if Jacko was no genius the likes of Dunholme or Lankin, he got the pictures through on time and under budget, better than artistry any day.
My new friend had been whisked away for a final tug at her wardrobe when my mother came looking for me. I saw her standing as confused as I must have been amid the lights and wires, the people all on their own tracks and us without. She looked frightened, slightly disgusted, and confused, and when she saw me, she stalked over, taking my hand.
“Where have you been? We thought you would be back…”
“Oh, hey, you the kid’s mom?”
Jacko came up behind her like a bear, making my mother wheel around in shock. He looked rough, like a man who wouldn’t bother with clean clothes from the good laundry, no one who came into our place.
He reached into his wallet and peeled out a few bills, thrusting them at my mother. My mother didn’t move to take the money from him, and he scowled.
“English? You speak English? Christ…”
“I do,” she said finally, her words clipped. “I will.”
She took the money, even if she had no idea what it was for, and she never took her eyes off of him. If he was discomforted by her gaze, he never showed it.
“Good, good,” Jacko said, crunching on his toothpick. He glanced down at me speculatively.
“She’s cute. I’m shooting down here again in two weeks, the fourteenth. If you bring her back, she can do that too.”
My mother only stared, and with a sigh, Jacko turned to me.
“I heard you, your English is great, ain’t it?”
“Yes, sir,” I said, proud and oddly ashamed at once. My mother’s was just as good.
“Good. Well, you stick around, you do as you’re told, and maybe someday, well, who knows, right? Could be you up there smooching the sheikhs, yeah?”
Something else called for his attention, and my mother was finally allowed to tug me away.
She opened her fist a block away to reveal two ten-dollar bills. It could be used to patch any number of holes in the laundry, and at the height of the Depression, there were many of those.
“What did you do?” she asked, stunned, and I looked down, suddenly ashamed.
I stammered out an explanation, too anxious and overexcited to lie, and her face turned stony. I could see pride warring with the money in her hand. To my mother, there were things we did and things we did not do. What I had done on the movie set ranged back and forth over that line, pacing restlessly.
To my surprise, instead of scolding me or pinching me, she pulled me into an alley. I could smell the starch and lye of the laundry on her, a clean but oppressive scent. The trains had run the night before, and her hair, hanging over her shoulder in a braid, looked like a strip torn out of the world.
“All right,” she said. The money had disappeared into one of the secret pockets sewn into her shirt. “You don’t have to go back if you don’t want to.”
“I want to,” I said instantly, and she frowned.
Still, she gave me her hand to hold all the way back to the laundry, where I helped my sister fold clothes and wrap them up in crinkling paper. I don’t know what she told my father, if anything. The money wasn’t mine to keep, it wasn’t real in any way that mattered to me. There were more important things.
That night, as I stripped down for a shared bath with my sister, Luli looked at me with some consternation.
“What’s that on your forehead?”
I pulled down my father’s little round shaving mirror to look. There was the faint silvery imprint of a kiss where Maya Vos Santé had kissed me. She hadn’t left a trace of rouge on my skin, but she had left something else instead.
I couldn’t scrub it away, and despite my sister’s uneasy look, I didn’t really want to. Fringes were in fashion, and the kiss was covered readily enough. It was not quite a scar, not quite a brand, but more telling than either.
Excerpted from Siren Queen, copyright © 2022 by Nghi Vo.