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 fourth 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.
Even with it all, the money, the crackling atmosphere of the set, the kiss Maya Vos Santé had given me, I might never have longed for a star of my own and a place high in the Los Angeles sky. I don’t know what else might have happened to me; I was too young when it all began, and I hadn’t shown the twists and hooks that would have drawn other fates to me.
(“Oh, you were always meant to be in movies,” Jane said. “One way or another, you would have found your way in, no matter what was standing in your way.”
“Is that a compliment?” I asked her.
“It’s better than a compliment, it’s the truth.”)
Three weeks after shooting Jackson’s Corner, my mother swore and thrust a crisp paper package into my arms.
“Hurry. The lady in the blue dress. She forgot this one. Run after her, or she’ll think we lost it.”
It happened often enough that I didn’t think much of it, instead dashing out with the package under my arm. I glimpsed a lady in blue disappearing around the corner, and I ran after her, weaving my way through the crowd and keeping the package close to my body.
The woman was moving fast, but I knew she was the right one because she had a paper bag printed with our logo—the character for “lucky”—on her arm. She was barely taller than I was, but she walked with the quick, precise steps of a regimental soldier, glancing neither right nor left.
My mother hadn’t told me her name, so I couldn’t call out to her. I didn’t catch up with her until she paused in front of a small café on Carver Street. Her look of wariness dissolved when she realized that I wasn’t a beggar, and she beamed when I handed her my package.
“Oh! This must be my cashmere. How silly of me to forget it. And, poor thing, you ran all this way to give it to me. Wait just a moment, let me give you a little something for your trouble.”
I was wondering if she would give me enough to go to the Comique again, but then Michel de Winter appeared.
Michel de Winter was a relic from another time, a silent actor who came from the French stage. Just a few years ago, I had seen him haunting the smoky, shadowed streets of Bucharest, following a mysterious woman who dropped white flowers in her wake. It turned out in the end that he had been chasing Death’s consort, and he had died, face twisted with agony, only to be resurrected in front of me now in a gray suit and green silk tie, the white strip of hair that had shown so bright in the old films gleaming in the afternoon light.
“You are late,” he whispered, because the silent films had finally consumed his voice, leaving him only a shred to use.
“Darling, I am sorry, but look, I am here now, aren’t I?”
When she spoke to me, the woman had had an easy way about her, pleasant but entirely unremarkable. Now there was a grandness to her voice, the sound of it bell-like, and people around us turned their heads, curious and unsure why they were curious.
I stared, tip forgotten as I realized that I was looking at Clarissa Montgomery, who just a few months ago had lit up the screen in The House on Faust Street. I felt as if the very breath had been pressed from my lungs, because she changed everything.
One moment, life was what it was, dull, busy, and common. The next… she had changed it. She wore her glamour like a stole tossed around her shoulders, and she cast it like a net over everyone who had seen her.
When I looked at Michel de Winter, old god that he was, I could see the worship in his eyes, a kind of helpless love that didn’t even want to help itself. To see her was to love her, and a wanting rose up in me like an ache. I wanted someone to look at me like that; I wanted to change the world simply because I could.
Clarissa Montgomery forgot all about my tip, sliding her cashmere into the bag as she went to join Michel de Winter. They switched to his native French, their conversation fading quickly into the noise of the afternoon as they walked on.
I had seen Maya Vos Santé on set, that power sharpened to devastating purpose, but I had never seen it used in the real world. Simply by being herself, Clarissa Montgomery changed the afternoon from common to something I would never forget. From the way some of the people on the street were still blinking, whispering among themselves Was that Clarissa Montgomery? I could see that they wouldn’t forget it either.
When my parents looked at me, they saw another mouth to feed, another pair of hands around the laundry. When people on the streets saw me, they saw a little foreigner, a doll to be played with and cooed over or pushed away from something I had no right to, which, judging by some people, was everything. Jacko saw an easy way to appease Maya Vos Santé, and Maya Vos Santé saw a prop that she wanted and had been denied.
I wanted what Clarissa Montgomery had, the ability to take those looks, to bend them and to make them hers, to make the moment hers, to make the whole world hers if she wanted. I wanted that, and that want was the core of everything that came after.
By the time Jackson’s Corner came out, I was something of a regular on Jacko’s sets. He knew that I had a family, so he never tried to pull me into the pack of changelings the studio kept around for that sort of thing. I was no Baby Joy or Baby Gemma either; I was only able to do the kid parts for some six or seven months after Jackson’s Corner. I started to grow, painfully and by inches, as tall as my mother by the next year.
After a picture or two, I started to figure out my way around. When I look back at that time, which seemed to last forever but now I know was barely more than an hour on a summer afternoon, I could slap myself for what I thought I knew. I thought I was wise for knowing not to cross the circle of the camera’s eye, for knowing which crew members would smile at me and which would curse. I thought I was doing very well to know that while most of the people I met were real actors, some few were empty props who could not talk and could not move unless they were directed to do so. I brought my own lunch, never made trouble, and when I was hurt or tired, I only stood straighter and hoped that no one ever noticed.
I saw the thin and crying girls who haunted the edge of the set, looking not for the lead but for Jacko himself. I watched one morning, silent and unnoticed as a ghost, as Jacko took one girl aside and talked to her in stern and fatherly tones.
“Look, you ain’t hurt. Not really. Not like some of these mooks would hurt you, right? Stop crying about it. You got a long life ahead of you. Stop crying. You’re going to be fine.”
He forced money into her hand, and she stumbled away like a dog that had been struck a glancing blow by a car. He looked after her anxiously until she was out of sight, and then, shaking his head, he returned to the set.
My sister and I went to the Comique to see Jackson’s Corner when it came out. I would never have known what movie I had appeared in if I hadn’t heard the name mentioned after my short scene.
It was bread and butter fare for the time. Maya Vos Santé was a woman with a past, looking to make amends, and the male lead turned out to be Raymond Reeves, forgettable but with a fairly admirable profile. The movie was like any I had seen, but suddenly I recognized the set change to Baker Street, which in this movie served for the streets of Hell’s Kitchen.
My body jerked like a fish on a hook when I heard my cue again. The camera found my skinny form pelting around the corner barefoot, and I watched, face flushing red as I skidded to a halt.
“Please,” came a childish, piping voice through the Comique’s tinny speakers, and my arm by my side itched as its twin rose on the screen.
It was exactly what Jacko had needed it to be, drawing pathos and wistful sighs from an audience that was just as likely to spit on a beggar as give her money. More important, of course, was Maya Vos Santé herself, kneeling down to kiss my forehead.
In that moment and out of it, I felt the brush of something true there, something larger than life and far better. She was generous, she was pure, she was a woman with a past, but her heart was still kind enough to wrap around a skinny little beggar child. She was a benediction, and again, I felt strangely and mysteriously blessed.
None of Maya Vos Santé’s films survived, of course. They were lost in the great fires that took so many of the kings and queens of Hollywood. There were some rumors about hers, that Jackson’s Corner, Dream of Wild Days, She Demands Her Way and all the others were sacrificed to John Everest’s revenge, long after she could do
anything to stop him.
She disappeared before her films did, and there weren’t even any rumors about it, none that I heard. Women disappear, and even if you are famous, it can happen without a sound, without a ripple. I have to assume that one night, when the stars were gleaming overhead, she met a devil on the road like so many of my friends did, and he offered her a spread of cards, flipping them between his pale fingers. Alcoholism, born-again reverence, madness, a quiet cottage, a noisy car wreck, a lonely house on the edge of the desert, a book she could use as a tomb, a single line etched in the boardwalk, they would have flickered by, and taking a deep breath, she would have closed her eyes and chosen.
Excerpted from Siren Queen, copyright © 2022 by Nghi Vo.