The Pre-History of Slash
a talk for Slash Night 2 by Helen Raven
I’m Fiona Clements. Or Helen Raven when I was writing in The Professionals and Angel fandoms. I think I can confidently say that I am the second-best writer that Professionals fandom ever produced. I’m guessing that I’m also the person here with the longest history as a slash fan, and that’s – mostly - what I’m going to talk about.
I got my hands on slash fiction for the first time in the 1970s, when I was 15, and everything about the process of “getting your hands on slash fiction” differed radically in those days from the way it works now. In my case, there was something that made the process particularly complicated, and that’s the fact that I was born and brought up in the Falkland Islands. At that time the primary school was excellent but the secondary school might as well not have existed, and so, in 1973, when I was 9, I was sent away to a boarding school in North Wales. We were only allowed to watch TV at the weekends, and only allowed out into town every three weeks, for a few hours on Saturday afternoon. I don’t recommend being sent to a boarding school in North Wales in the 1970s – avoid it, if you can.
Star Trek was my first fandom, from around 1974, and this was of course the original series, because Next Gen didn’t start until 1987. I hadn’t seen the program at home because there wasn’t any TV in the Falklands, but it was shown often enough on UK TV that I’d catch a few episodes when I was staying with friends of the family during school holidays. On one of those school holidays I used a book token to buy a couple of books in the series of short story adaptations of the episodes. [see Page 1 in PDF of selected slides from the talk] They were written by James Blish, a respected science-fiction author, and it was these books that turned me into a rabid Star Trek fan.
Like any number of studious, off-putting geeks in an environment obsessed with sport, I identified strongly with Spock, and while Kirk was every attention-seeking extrovert who raised my hackles, I could entirely see why they were necessary to each other. It was completely obvious from the books – and from the few episodes I’d seen – that they loved one another, and I couldn’t get enough of that.
Some time around 1975 there was an article about Star Trek in a high-profile magazine, and from that I learned about the fan club “Star Trek Action Group” (or STAG). The “Action Group” in the title was because they were campaigning to get the BBC to show regular reruns of the show. I joined the club, and from the quarterly newsletters I learned about the zines put out by ScotPress – which I think were the only Trek fanzines being produced in the UK at the time – and I ordered all of those.
In those days, if you didn’t have a cheque book or a credit card – and at 12, I didn’t – then you had to pay by Postal Order. This involved going to the Post Office on one of those scarce Saturdays out, handing over the £1.20 (or whatever small sum it was), and getting a document that ScotPress could then redeem for cash at their Post Office.
I’m pretty sure that this one was the first fanzine I bought. I don’t know if you’ve come across the Fanlore wiki, but it’s amazing. Apart from anything else, it has thorough summaries of all 141 issues of the STAG newsletter. Apparently around the time I joined the group there were regular discussions in the newsletter of how much Kirk and Spock loved one another. I honestly don’t remember this, but it doesn’t surprise me that the topic was so much in the air at the time.
None of these zines depicted a sexual relationship, but there were some like this series that referred to alternate universes in which Kirk and Spock did have such a relationship. In the Review of Issue 1 you can see the self-righteous homophobia that in those days was never very far away during any community discussion about the nature of the relationship. “The porno crap”. And while I for one was holding my breath waiting for the descent to the porno crap, there was still enough emotional intensity in the ScotPress stories to keep me perfectly happy.
But then in April 1978 there was an advert for an American zine called Thrust, which was described as “a zine exploring a possible sexual relationship between Kirk and Spock. Contains material which may be offensive to some. The editor describes herself as an ‘intellectual fence-sitter’ on the subject and is not convinced of its validity, but does feel that it is a valid subject for fictional discussion.” From the tone of that, even without the line at the top of the Fanlore page, you might gather that this was one of the very first slash fanzines.
I remember the price as being $50, but that may be too high. It’s the one type of fact that Fanlore doesn’t cover. The publisher wanted an International Money Order but I had no idea how to obtain one of those – I heard later from other fans that you had to go to your bank and explain what you wanted it for – and so I somehow got my hands on $50 in cash. They also wanted a statement that I was at least 18 years of age, and as I was (and am) a good girl, I wasn’t willing to lie about that. I asked my school-friend Suzie who was over 18 and who knew something about my enthusiasm for Star Trek if she would sign the order form for me. So the order was in her name, but the address was my home address – and my home address was in Wiltshire by then as my family had moved to the UK in 1976. The boarding school had got easier, and I stayed on there.
The zine was waiting for me when I got home for the summer holidays. I’d told my parents that the friend Suzie this package was addressed to was Canadian (true) and that she’d asked to use my address because she was travelling all that summer (possibly true), and she’d said I could open the package (definitely true). It’s baffled me for many years now that I took that age declaration so seriously, because how on earth was anyone going to find out? But, you know… “good girl”.
The editor might have been a fence-sitter but she was not pulling her punches, because this was the front cover. The artist was Gayle Feyrer, the Aubrey Beardsley of Star Trek fandom, and a fine writer as well as a talented artist. The cover was a fair indication of the contents of the zine – though there was also plot, of course, and characterisation, and that sort of time-wasting nonsense that women will insist on putting into their porn. I had a very happy summer with it.
And then my mother found it and was quietly freaked out, and said I must send it on to my Canadian friend Suzie straight away. I couldn’t take the risk that she would find it again in my possession so I destroyed it – I still have the full sensory memory of the process of tearing it up – and I also gave all of my Star Trek books to a second-hand bookshop in an attempt to convince her that the zine had completely put me off fandom. So I’m afraid I was not able to bring along my very first slash zine.
I left the fan club too, and I went dormant as a fan for the next two or three years, until I left school, and finally had a bank account and space of my own, and 18 years to my name. I re-joined the club and started going to conventions – meeting other fans for the first time!
Some of the conventions were big, official ones, with the actors as guests and a lot of men attending, whereas others were much smaller and female-dominated, and they would have actual panels on slash – though held in the privacy of someone’s packed-to-the-ceiling hotel room, because you couldn’t possibly have that discussion in a public space. I remember coming back from the first convention with such a panel, which was at a motel in Leicester, and for all of the next week walking around the streets of Portsmouth with such a huge grin on my face that passers-by were commenting on it.
And while I was in Edinburgh for the Festival one year I stumbled on the section of the local gay community that contained some wonderfully fun and creative slash fans. They’re friends to this day, as are another group from Cambridge, who I met at the UK’s first ever dedicated slash convention, which was in an Oxford college.
I never wrote K/S though. The world of Star Trek did a lot for me, but it didn’t get me asking the sort of “But what if…?” questions that would force me to get writing. For some reason it was The Professionals [see Page 2 in PDF of slides] – a thoroughly mediocre crime-and-espionage show – that got inside my head in that way. It was not love at first sight. I’d seen the odd episode since it started airing in 1977, and although the level of sexual tension between the two leads was immediately obvious to anyone with even the slightest experience of slash, I had no time for the macho bullshit of that world. [see Page 3 in PDF of slides]
Then in… I think around 1985… I attended one of the large Trek conventions, and while there were no slash panels there was a zine library with a lot of slash, including an American zine – with a Gayle Feyer cover - that I was very sad to part company with at the end of the con. As it happened, the next issue of the STAG newsletter arrived the following Saturday, and there was an advert from a fan called Sharon who was selling a lot of Star Trek zines, including that one. There was no phone number but the address was just five miles or so from me in South London, so I cycled over just in case.
She was in, as was a slash fan friend who was visiting her for the weekend. Sharon was selling her zines partly to raise money for studies, but mostly because she was losing interest in Trek in favour of The Professionals. Her friend in particular enthused to me about Pros, and thrust a story at me. And while I was thinking, “Oh, for goodness sake, I’m not interested! I don’t even know which one is which!” I took it to be polite, wrote Sharon a cheque for £200 – and then spent the next two months cycling back and forth between Balham and Dog Kennel Hill with the contents of Sharon’s Pros library in my panniers. And that was that. I don’t think I ever opened any of those Trek zines I’d bought from her.
I later gave away almost all of my Trek zines to one of my Cambridge friends, but I discovered in preparing for this that I did in fact keep one, so finally I can show you a real, live slash zine. [bring out a very, very battered copy of Mirrors of Mind and Flesh] It’s an alternate-universe crossover piece written and illustrated by Gayle Feyrer. It’s not that I was always this hard on my zines. I took out the staples to copy it for someone, and never put it back together again.
Unlike Trek fandom, Pros was 100% slash, so it had no respectable face to show to the world. I think partly because of this, and partly because many more people had easy access to photocopiers in the 80s than in the 70s, a lot of the first wave of stories in the UK didn’t appear in zines, but were collections of loose pages that were passed around a network of fans and photocopied. This was known as ”the Circuit”.
All of the stories that I borrowed from Sharon were in this form, and I’ve brought along a couple of very short ones. They’re both by the best writer that Pros fandom ever produced: a woman who wrote under the name of Sebastian. She brought such immediacy and intensity to her depiction of the lads that I had to ration my reading of her stories because I knew I was going to lose sleep over them. I would be lying there for hours churning with adrenaline over the precariousness of this vitally important relationship.
[bring out “The Anniversary”, and show Page 4 in PDF of slides] I chose this first example because it shows: a) that these stories were produced on manual typewriters; and b) how many generations of photocopying could be involved. It was usually not possible to track down the master copy of a story, so if the copy that first reached your group of fans was teetering on the verge of illegibility, someone would usually volunteer to type up a fresh copy. Not too daunting with a short story like this, but I know of at least one very hefty novel that was retyped by other fans.
[bring out “Velvet Underground” and show Page 5 in PDF of slides] The second one is interesting because it was produced on a dot-matrix device. I had an electronic dot-matrix typewriter in 1986, but this story gives a date of 1990 at the end and I think it was produced on a dot-matrix printer, suggesting that Sebastian had a computer in 1990.
1990 was also the year in which I wrote my first Pros story, which was distributed via the Circuit. I can’t show you the master copy because about ten years ago I lent it to someone who promptly left the country – but it actually looked a lot like this version on my website. I typed it up at work in WordPerfect for DOS, and printed it on the office laser printer. I realise that “WordPerfect for DOS” is just a collection of syllables to you guys, but the point here is that this was before Word. It was before Microsoft Windows, even.
It’s a very short story – just four pages – in which Doyle is a CI5 agent and Bodie is the Angel of Death. Or at least an Angel of Death. It’s a horror story, that was inspired by a friend’s remark about the fatal attraction that Bodie seemed to hold for other macho men. The dialog is pretty clunky but I’m still rather proud of the idea, and it got a good reaction in fandom.
By the time I finished my next story – two years later - the practicalities and economics of text-reproduction had shifted again. People were now producing Pros zines, and over the next few years the Circuit gradually wound down. Almost all of the rest of my Pros stories appeared in zines, and I do still have copies of those zines.
I’ve been assured that you’re keen to see zines, so I’m going to show you each of them and say a little about the story and also about the various changes that occurred in fandom over the time I was writing.
The story that took me two years to write is called “Heat-Trace”. It’s an alternate universe story in which Bodie is in CI5 but Doyle stayed in the police force, so they don’t have the luxury of working together while they conduct their secret relationship. It was inspired by this Circuit story [showing the story] called “Brother’s Keeper”, which I’d come across very early on and which had moved me deeply. But in my ideal world it would have veered off in a slightly different direction at the end, and [bringing out the zine and starting to flip through the pages, showing the double-column layout] would have been much, much, much longer.
I bought my first computer in order to write it, a SHARP PC-6220 which was one of the very first notebook machines, and at over £2,000 the most expensive single object I had ever bought at that point in my life. It had a 20 Meg hard drive! And a screen that was not black and white, but could display 16 shades of grey! It was a treasure. I've never bonded so strongly with any computer since.
The zine was published by my friend Sara, who was the main UK Pros publisher. I did the page layouts, though, and designed the cover –and yes I am fully aware that my graphic design talents lag behind those of the common woodlouse. It got my name much better known and I got a lot of feedback, including many actual handwritten letters, some of which I’ve also brought along [holding up a few of the letters] because… they fit right in with the zines as an extinct literary species.
I celebrated being done with “Heat-Trace” by writing a novella-length sequel to the Angel of Death story, and that I put on the Circuit. I re-read it three weeks ago for the first time in ten years or more, and it is seriously bizarre, and desperately romantic. Since my writing had got steadily better during the two years of writing ”Heat-Trace”, I could also re-read it without cringing at any of the dialog. While I was digging out the feedback letters from the back of my wardrobe, I found this certificate for an award it won [showing Huggies certificate], which I had completely forgotten about.
My next two stories, over the next two years, were also published by Sara, but in anthology zines in her very straightforward house style. [bring out Unprofessional Conduct 3 and 6]
The first one is a novella called “Freezing" that was a happy ending to an unfinished sequence of stories by Sebastian that had been a torment to many of us for years. Left to myself, I wouldn’t have dreamed of trying to second-guess Sebastian, but a friend begged me for the story as a birthday present, and to my own surprise I did make it work. It convinced me. Those boys are happy now.
The zine as a whole won an award, and Sara sent us all photocopies of the certificate. [show photocopy]
The second one is a novella called “Transients” in which Doyle used to be a police constable but is now a massage therapist, and Bodie’s been invalided out of CI5 and is Doyle’s newest, least-friendly client. It’s all takes place in Doyle’s treatment room and is very low-key by my standards. It got me my third and last award. [show certificate]
Now, the reason this was my last award – when we’ve got three more zines to go - may have something to do with shifts in my fannish social life since about 1992. I was spending a lot of time in California and Seattle for work and fun, and it was easy by then to get contact information for local fans – after all, they were ordering zines from Sara. And wherever I went, the local fans always gave me a very warm welcome (remember, I was the second-best writer in Pros fandom!).
It was on a 1994 visit that I saw just how many of the West Coast fans had this email thing. A fan in San Francisco talked me through using her account to send a message to a fan in L.A. – who replied within the hour - and as soon as I got home I bought a modem and signed up with CompuServe – which was pretty much the first ever commercial online service.
The L.A. fan I’d sent my first email to was a woman who wrote as M. Fae Glasgow, or sometimes as Cally Donia, or as Emma Scot – you get the idea. She had recently burst onto the scene with some gritty and controversial stories, and she’d managed to make contact with Sebastian, who had dropped so far out of the UK fannish scene that I’d entirely accepted the fact that I would never, ever meet her. But M Fae sent me home with a letter of introduction, and Sebastian and I really hit it off.
I soon persuaded her to get email, and we spent a couple of years happily bouncing ideas off each other and occasionally off M. Fae. I was still with the regular UK fandom, but maybe not being too clever about hiding the fact that my emotional life had shifted elsewhere.
And in 1995 they had concrete proof of just how far I’d strayed when my novella “The Same River” appeared in a zine from M. Fae’s publisher [showing zine], along with novellas by Sebastian and M. Fae. This [turn to first page] is a horror story inspired by “Robocop”. It starts three years after Bodie had died in action, which is one year after the UK security services started taking delivery of their first mechanoids. Doyle has come back to CI5 as a Trainer, which means he’s socialising the machines to the point where they can start working effectively with humans. No prizes for guessing who his latest mechanoid trainee turns out to have been. It’s a horror story. Some people liked it a lot. No one in UK fandom was prepared to admit to me that they’d read it.
And now I feel it’s appropriate to show you what a 1995 CompuServe email address looked like [see Page 6 in PDF of slides]. As you see, they just assigned you two numbers at random. I closed my CompuServe account so long ago that I would have no way of telling you my numbers if I hadn’t printed out so many of Sebastian’s emails.
And my narcissism isn’t as bottomless as the choice of this particular email would suggest. It’s honestly the only one I have that doesn’t include personal family information in the first paragraphs. I think it does also have some inherent interest as a document, too. No one sends me emails like this any more. And I’ve long got out of the habit of printing out emails, even the most flattering ones.
She’s not wrong, though. The mechanoid story is my masterpiece. It’s an exceptionally tight piece of writing, with some very striking sex scenes, and it still makes me cry every time I read it. It’s as deliciously tragic as anyone could wish for, and isn’t that what everyone’s looking for in their fanfic?
My next story appeared two years later, in a zine from the same American publisher [bring out zine]. It’s a short piece of porn called "Technique", about the boys getting turned on by the damage they inflict on people in the course of their work. Not much danger of that winning an award, but it had a select group of enthusiastic admirers.
My last Pros story was also published in 1997, and that was another novel, called “The Cook and the Warehouseman” [bring out zine]. For this I was back with Sara in the UK, with me doing the layout and cover again.
[open to first page] Because it’s my last chance – and because this is the right story for it – I’m going to describe the story by reading the first three quarters of a page. [reads up to "and a longer one with the king" in Chapter 1]
A few paragraphs later he’s summoned to see his boss, who tells him [turning to second page and pointing to paragraph] here that the king has just told the Prime Minister that he wants Bodie to marry the soaking-wet prince. No, the king won’t let Bodie talk to the prince before he gives his answer. If Bodie says yes they’ll put the base in Britain, but the king had strongly implied that a no would be taken very badly indeed.
Again, I’d been inspired by another Pros story: a novel in an American zine that I think I read at a convention in California. I never owned a copy. The original novel was set way in the future, not on Earth, there were no masks involved, and all of the tension and uncertainty between the boys was resolved in the first third, with the rest of the novel devoted to a court intrigue plot that was tedious even by the standards of court intrigue plots. I thought, ""Wow!" As in “Wow! what a fantastic idea!" and "Wow! she really fucked that up!”
This version is certainly a piece of fluff, but I like to think it’s intelligent fluff. At the time the story was pretty comprehensively ignored by Pros fandom on both sides of the Atlantic, but since then a respectable number of people have come forward to confirm my impression that it is a damn good read.
The other thing about 1997 is that it’s the year that Buffy started, and for the next five years I got my fannish itch scratched just from watching Buffy and Angel, not feeling the need for fanfic because all that juicy stuff was right there on the screen. And then the show disappointed me and I started to wonder if there were fans out there doing better than the writers on the shows – and I discovered how thoroughly fandom had gone online in those five years.
There were quite a lot of familiar names from Pros fandom to be met online, but it was disconcerting to discover that the vast majority of the people in this new world seemed to have no idea that slash fandom had a history. Whereas I think that pre-internet any new fan soon became aware of it – after all, you’d visit other slash fans and see the archaeological layers of zines in their houses. Another shock was the fact that the name Helen Raven cut no ice here at all.
But I soon got over that, and started making friends, and then found myself writing again [slide of my website, showing the two Angel stories and the dates]. It’s now over ten years since I’ve written any fanfic, which feels a shame, but fortunately most friendships that start in a fandom keep on going after that fandom has run its course.
I’ve talked a lot about the two best writers in Pros, and really the fandom did have a lot of very good writers. However, I’m going to finish by telling you about the hands-down worst writer that the fandom can boast of. I wrote a post about her on livejournal back in 2003, and I’m simply going to read you that post. Except with her name changed, because I do have something resembling a conscience.
On Monday a guy at work mentioned that a friend had got married that weekend in an Air Force mess tent in Las Vegas, and the other guys got quite indignant on the bride’s behalf at the lack of romance. Hearing a group of men talk seriously about romance in an office setting made me think - for the first time since the expensive electro-convulsive therapy - of a remarkable piece of Professionals fanfic that is my datum point for the genius of bad art.
I can’t remember the title of this story or which zine it appeared in, but it could be by no one except Cherry Hubbard because no one else could get the characterisation so fabulously wrong. She must never have seen the show, she must never even have met anyone who had received male socialisation. Your four-year-old niece with the addiction to Fairy Princess costumes would reject Cherry Hubbard’s view of the world as “far too sappy”.
I will break in here to say that it’s perfectly possible that she had never seen the show. She was American, and I don’t think the Professionals was ever shown on US TV. The few video cassettes that were circulating in the States at the time she was writing were such horrible, fuzzy, nth-generation copies that you’d get the impression from them that it was permanently snowing in London.
And now back to the livejournal post.
This particular story is set in the weeks before Valentine’s Day, and the boys of CI5 are having a nice little competition. There’s a sheet of paper on the noticeboard, and the tough, gun-toting agents are lining up to write down their ideas of The Most Romantic Evening Ever, and then they will vote on the level of romance in these ideas, just so’s they can pay for the winner’s Dream Valentine’s Day. Doyle so wants to enter but Bodie is being a miseryguts and Doyle is so baffled by Bodie’s attitude that he takes Kate Ross out to lunch (CI5 psychiatrist - but chosen here because she’s Doyle’s bestest friend) and he asks her about “different people’s ideas of romance”. As far as I can remember, she mostly talks about long, long massages with her girlfriend in some cottage in Wales. The rest is, mercifully, blank, but I’m sure it emerges that Bodie’s problem is just “that he cares too much about Doyle” to be able to express it all in one evening.
Actually, that one isn’t her worst, but it’s short and is based around a single ludicrous idea so is easy to describe. The very worst is surely “The Tea-Party Story” in “The Purple Zine” (again, I don’t know the real titles) but this is so crammed with inspired absurdities (in a meandering way) that any description sounds like a hallucination. It’s mostly about Doyle’s tortured-artist sister who just can’t cope and leaves Bodie and Doyle to bring up her little girl (they’re still in CI5 - Cherry Hubbard does not do A/U). Their main way of entertaining her is to arrange tea-parties which feature Raymond Rabbit and Bodie Bear - and I want to believe that those are only stuffed animals, but I think they are also nicknames for the boys, and nicknames that the boys are proud to acknowledge. The girl grows up to be “an artist of whimsy” (the actual words, I swear), which means “she does greeting cards”, and the piece that made her reputation was “The Tea Party”.
This story also features “Bodie’s sister, the nun”, and by the end of the story she and Bodie have set up a children’s charity called “Bears Inc.” (this is a British children’s charity, so the “Inc.” is beautifully clueless). This is the charity favoured by CI5 - which means that when CI5 agents are not busy with CI5 work, they use their time to pay casual visits to fathers who are defaulting on their child-support payments. And I swear to God that she thinks that sending men with guns to collect money from the general public is cute!
Oh, oh, oh! And there’s the story in which Bodie had been injured and has just been released from hospital, and it’s all about what he does on his first day out (with Doyle trailing along behind, learning things about his partner that he’d never suspected). The only part of this that I really remember is the visit they pay to the Children’s Zoo in Battersea Park, where Bodie is such a regular visitor that all of the animals know him, and he kneels down and they come and cluster around him - and tears run down his face. Bodie! I mean, Bodie! [see Page 7 in PDF of slides] If you were attempting a parody, you would never have the guts (or the imagination) to go for something so totally wrong. It’s genius, I tell you.