The Initiative

A combination of my first (woefully uncompleted) NaNoWriMo challenge and a Friday Fictioneers piece, along with some other smattered blog postings have muddled together into a lengthy story idea. Since I promised more Jakob Van Helsing, I am delivering. This is only the beginning. 

         Jakob grunted and opened one eye. The world tipped sideways and he felt a moment’s alarm before realizing he had fallen asleep with his head on the bar. He wiped saliva from his chin as he sat up, trying to move as slowly as possible.
         “How did you find me?” he asked in English, looking at the man who had woken him.
         “Your uncle tell me this place is your favorite.” Frans carefully removed his felt hat and twisted it in his big hands.
         “Shame on Uncle Hendrick, using precious Initiative resources to track me down.” Jakob looked around for the bartender, but he was nowhere in sight.
         “I send him home,” Frans said, his misshapen face splitting in a grotesque parody of a smile.
         “On his own two feet?” Jakob asked.
         “Not natuurlijk, Frans, You’ve sent plenty of upstanding men away in boxes.” Jacob groaned and rolled his neck, trying to ease the cramped muscles.
         “This bartender not so upstanding, Jakob.”
         Jakob considered a moment before shrugging, “Perhaps not. Well, Frans, don’t just stand there, tell me what dear Uncle Hendrick wants from me today.”
         “Amerika.” Frans pronounced it with what Jakob thought was far too much undue reverence.
         “Hellfire and ashes, America? Mijn god does he want me in that speelhol of a country. I’ve just come back from Transylvania where I almost got blown up—twice—and did get shot!” Jakob felt the side of his neck where a makeshift bandage was still in place.
         “Is only a graze.” Frans shrugged.
         “The hell you know. Fine, fine, I’ll go to Amerika.” Jakob retrieved his coat from a nearby bar and shoved his arms through the sleeves, concealing the bandolier that crisscrossed his chest. “Jezus Christ, just once I’d like to have a full week in once place before Hendrick ships me off to fight another demon.”
         “Your uncle, he not like you speaking the Lord’s name so.”
         “He can take it up with the Almighty, then. Although, of the two of us, I’m more likely to see him first.” Jakob found his hat hanging on a lonely coat rack and tipped it on his head over his eyes. The weak morning sunlight already hurt his pounding head. “Lead on, Frans.”
         As Frans held open the door, Jakob double checked that his best pistol was in the concealed pocket in his coat. He rubbed his thumb over the letters etched into the polished wood handle, remembering his sixteenth birthday when his father presented it to him. Jakob Abraham Van Helsing. The V engraved below his name was not the Roman numeral but instead stood for the Latin Venator. Hunter.

         Jakob was hoping to catch up on some sleep with something other than a dirty bar for a pillow on the flight, but the briefcase Frans handed him as he prepared to board the jet would keep him occupied for the duration of the flight into Boston. It was a compendium of everything the Initiative had on a coven of Nightwalkers led by a leech known as Sinistrari. He leafed through the yellowed parchments, some of which were so stained–by what he hated to guess–that he could barely decipher the writing. Half of it was a mixture of law enforcement documents and speculation, half ancient lore, and none of it digitized. He sighed. Hendrick was the current head of the Venator Initiative and despite the old man’s hunting acumen and otherwise quick wit, Jakob could not convince this grandfather to use a scanner. He snapped photos of the documents on his iPad and managed to decipher some of the more difficult passages once he had manipulated the images. At this rate, half the Initiative’s documents would be digital from Jakob’s missions alone.
         He sipped a sparkling water as he tried to dredge something useful from pages torn out of old family bibles, cramped journal entries, and annotated newspaper clippings. The stewardess had the water and a bottle of Advil waiting and he regretted—again—that he didn’t know her name to thank her. You’d think if they were going to keep putting the same girl on his flights, they’d at least let him know her name. She had to be involved in the Initiative in some way. They didn’t hire just anyone for these transatlantic flights. Sometimes he flew commercial, but when he had this much research to do, it was best done away from prying eyes.
He got up from his seat and stretched, pacing down the aisle of the small jet. The stewardess looked up at him and asked if he needed anything. He thanked her and said he just needed to rest his legs and eyes. The information seemed seared into his corneas when he shut his eyes against the light streaming in. Nightwalkers were nasty by nature; blood-sucking parasites that were better off rotting in the ground before they became revenants. He had heard the name Sinistrari whispered by older members of the Initiative in his youth–the bogeyman that hid behind crumbling mausoleum doors. He could hardly believe this leech was the same, but the lore seemed to indicate that Sinistrari was one of the ancients. The last recorded attack by the coven was in a small town in Russia–a man and woman and their young son and daughter were slaughtered and drained, but he left one alive, the youngest daughter. Mina Volkov, age six.
         He reached for his iPad and opened the crime scene photos. The bloody footprints tracked across the wood floors looked like something from a bad horror movie set. If he hadn’t seen the work of Nightwalkers before, he would have hardly believed there could be so much blood. Where is she now? Jakob wondered. The documents indicated that she had been sent to live with an aunt and uncle. When the case was finally closed–blamed on an enraged psychopath that would never be found–there were no further notes on her. He looked back at the photos. There was one of Mina, the day after her family was slaughtered. Her dark eyes looked huge and her delicate ankles hung off the side of the bed as an investigator knelt beside her, measuring her bloody feet. It wasn’t the first time Sinistrari left a single victim alive, Jakob knew from the dossier, but it was the first time he had left one behind. Little Mina would be in her thirties now, if Sinistrari had not returned for her already. Jakob pulled out the satellite phone he kept for emergencies and dialed the Initiative.
         “Hallo Frans. Ja,  Jakob hier.” He glanced back at the stewardess, his habitual paranoia making him lower his voice as he continued in English. “I need you to find someone for me. Name: Volkov. Mina Volkov.”



Thursday Thoughts: The Stereotypes That Bind

Now, before you roll your eyes or run away, this is not going to be a political post. I promise. While I sometimes discuss politics on this forum, today is not the day. I have been mulling over some thoughts lately about stereotyping as it relates to writing, especially “genre” writing. A post from a great blog I just started following volleyed the idea back to the forefront of my mind. You can (and should) read it here. In it Misha Burnett discusses the origins of different “genres” as well as how they have been manipulated, reversed, and inverted over time. He points out that literature (and arguably any creative venture) is in constant flux, a refreshing contrast to a more widely held thought. A more commonly held idea states that “nothing is unique” or “everything has been done before.” It’s a terribly depressing thought. But there is also the sage advice a professor gave me: “steal from other writers.” Obviously he was not condoning plagiarism, instead he was telling us to borrow, to twist, to bend things that have been done before and to make them our own.

       One of the examples Mr. Burnett uses is horror fiction and particularly vampire fiction. *cue reader eye-roll* Stay with me on this one. Bram Stoker’s Dracula was arguably the first “popular fiction” novel on vampires (to my limited knowledge), but obviously it wasn’t the last. That book spawned countless more creative works dealing with vampires, from Anne Rice’s novels to The Series That Shall Not Be Named, to the content on the shelves of the Young Adult section in any bookstore, to my current guilty pleasure, the TV show “Vampire Diaries.” So my question is: What’s wrong with that? People say that vampire fiction, or werewolf fiction, or any of the current “trendy” topics are so cliche and that real writers wouldn’t waste their time with such a topic. Watch out, because Bram Stoker and Anne Rice might come after you with a stake. I agree that there is plenty of  t e r r i b l e  Young Adult (and Adult) fiction that has been spawned by the vampire craze, but take a walk down the Adult Romance aisle and tell me that is all good writing.  I’m using vampire fiction as an example because a) too much Netflix and b) my generation is the generation that raved over Twilight…er…The Series That Shall Not Be Named. I’ve said before, I’ve read the books, seen the movies (even went to a few midnight premieres), and enjoyed them. The Twilight series is entertaining. It’s not high quality, academia writing–but why should it be?

       Harry Potter can easily join the conversation as well. J.K. Rowling is not the first person to write about boarding school, magic, or witches and wizards, but she spun the common subjects her way. If you boil it down to its barest bones, Harry Potter is a coming of age story and, as every high school English class I ever took taught me, bildungsroman has been around since the dawn of time. So why do we look down our noses with disdain when writers choose to write about subjects that are popular or “cliche”? In one sense, the saying that “nothing is new” is encouraging; you have plenty of examples to learn from as you seek to create something that has your personal fingerprints all over it. So to writers: if you want to write about vampires–do it. If you want to write detective novels–do it. But make it your own.

       To readers: read whatever you want to read, reading should be about enjoyment and if you learn something or are inspired or affected along the way, so much the better. Readers have another responsibility, too, and that is to try new things. If you are a fantasy reader (guilty) read some non-fantasy, read some autobiographies, read some classics. This applies to writers as well–read voraciously, whatever you can get your hands on. If you hate a book, never read it again (I suggest getting cheap/used/kindle books just in case). If you love it, read it again until it falls apart, until the pages are stained with tears and crumbs and dirt and memories. But don’t let the stereotypes of genre bind you, cage you in, or prevent you from reading, writing, and experiencing.