Angst and emotional dynamics in slash, as exemplified in Helen Raven's "Heat Trace"

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Title: Angst and emotional dynamics in slash, as exemplified in Helen Raven's Heat Trace
Creator: Shoshanna
Date(s): November 1992
Medium: print
Fandom: focus of The Professionals
Topic:
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Angst and emotional dynamics in slash, as exemplified in Helen Raven's Heat Trace is a 1992 essay by Shoshanna.

It was printed in the first issue of Strange Bedfellows #1, and is excerpted here on Fanlore with Shoshanna's permission.

The rough word count is about 4500.

Heat-Trace had been published two months earlier, and was a responsefic (something that was not without controversy) to a circuit story by Frankie written two years previously called Brother's Keeper.

While not specially mentioned in this essay, it should be noted that it was written around the same time that many Pros slash fans had first read Lezlie Shell's seminal essay, The Wave Theory of Slash

Some Topics Discussed

Author's Clarification

From the essay:

(Please note that this is not a review of Heat Trace in the traditional sense of the word. This is an essay on emotional dynamics in slash, using Heat Trace as an example. If you haven't read the novel and don't want any of it spoiled for you, don't read this essay yet. Read Heat Trace first; it's excellently written and fascinating.)

Excerpts

Heat Trace is billed as a "sequel of sorts" to an anonymous [1] circuit story from the mid-eighties called "Brother's Keeper" In important ways it is not, in fact, a true sequel, and the author warns us of this immediately; the last page or so of "Brother's Keeper" is assumed not to have happened [in "Heat Trace"]. More subtly, although Bodie is shown in BK as no more than reluctant to be fucked, Heat Trace plays up this reluctance, turning it into a near-psychotic inability nowhere hinted at in the original. (This is something of the same thing as happened in Waiting to Fall. If Bodie remained as nearly comfortable with being fucked as BK's author had had him, one of the wedges driving him and Doyle apart in HT would not exist.)
In the B/D circuit novel Waiting to Fall, for instance, the direness of Doyle's problems with anal sex increases throughout, as other problems are solved and some means is needed to keep them apart, in order to heighten the angst, the dramatic tension, and the final, total reconciliation. Sometimes new problems keep coming up between them, as in my own Never Let Me Down, in which as each misunderstanding is cleared up another arises to take its place. And commonly a pattern emerges of one partner emotionally hurting the other, and then being forgiven, and then the roles are switched and they do it again. Each crisis drives them apart, each forgiveness brings them together, and as long as the intensity of and the danger posed by the crises increases each time, the novel builds toward a climax, an ultimate burst of anguish and passion from which the lovers emerge, cleansed, having needed to forgive each other for the last time.
In at least one important way, however, Heat Trace is most certainly a sequel to "Brother's Keeper." The central image of HT is taken from the circuit story. It is an image of Bodie, delirious with pain and fever from snakebite, helpless and befouled, while Doyle tends him patiently and uncomplainingly. This image is directly evoked nine times in HT, and lingers behind many other scenes. And it is more complicated than a simple picture of a friend, or even a lover, caring for another. Throughout the novel Bodie and Doyle compete both to comfort the other, and to be themselves that helpless and foul creature, barely human, that is being tenderly washed and fed— that is being loved. It is this tension between two views of each character, the nurturer and the one unworthy of nurturing, the disgusting and the devoted, that creates most of the angst in the story.

One of the characteristic forms of a slash story is the "first-time" story. In a first-time story, the characters move from a more-or-less unstable position as friends or partners, unstable usually because of unstated attraction between them, to a stable position as lovers. Traditionally, the story includes their first lovemaking, hence the name, but overall a "first-time story' is a story of a change in the type of relationship between them; the first instance of sex is just a symbol of that change. I want in this essay to discuss one of the common patterns of longer first-time stones, as exemplified in a recent Bodie/Doyle novel, Helen Raven's Heat Trace. Although the characters are already lovers when Heat Trace begins, I think it is useful to consider it as a first-time story, since the main progression of the novel is from an unstable, uncertain relationship to a stable one, the fact that they have already had sex (in "Brother's Keeper") is only a detail.

Among the things that characterize first-time stories, and indeed much of slash in general, is an intense, almost claustrophobic focus on the emotional lives of the couple, as they center on each other. Slash stories, and especially first-time stories, are often "relationship-driven," propelled almost entirely by the characters' emotions. The slash community has a wary and humorous tolerance of what it calls "plot," meaning a plot or problem external to the developing emotional relationship of the protagonists: a crime to solve or the like. This wary and humorous tolerance shows in the labeling of some stories as "PWP," which stands for "Plot? What plot?" Most stories lack such "plot" entirely, even when not marked as PWPs; their textual plots are simply backdrop.
The problem with a story composed entirely of boy-gets-boy, however, is that it runs the risk of being boring. If there is no conflict and no problem to be solved, there is no progression, no plot in the larger sense. Sometimes, in very short stories, this is not a problem, and the piece is a vignette or simple sex scene. Larger works, however, need something with which to hold the reader's interest. Thus the story is usually the classic romance formulation mutatis mutandis: boy meets boy, boy loses boy, boy gets boy. The loss and regaining provide the progression, the relationship plot. Because we are writing fan fiction, we can usually dispense with the outline s first third, in which boy meets boy; the readers already know the characters before they pick up the story, and few writers bother to include in canon-universe stories the moment at which the characters meet each other, although some do. The classic slash version of boy-loses-boy is the scene in which one partner discovers his own love and passion for die other, and a homophobic crisis ensues. The crisis may take the form of half a page's worth of worry on the part of the viewpoint character before he reveals his love, only to discover an equal passion for his partner in the happy denouement; or it may go as far as actually destroying the previous relationship of partnership and friendship, which must be painfully pieced back together to lead to the third part, where boy gets boy again.

Because slash is so tightly focused on the internal emotional states of the characters, however, the crisis which disrupts them nearly always rises from within the actual or potential overs themselves. Rarely in slash are the partners divided because of a mysterious murder in a gloomy house, of which one of them is darkly suspected. Instead, they are separated by recurring doubts about the other, by uncertainty, fear, and mistrust. An external necessity, usually their job, may separate them, but it is used as a backdrop against which one character, isolated from the other and without his reassurance, can begin to worry and to doubt, so that the real crisis is, again, internal. The one significant exception to this rule is the hurt/comfort plot, in which, typically, one partner is abducted and tortured, and boy gets boy in and through the resulting comfort. Significantly, however, they are often separated immediately after the partners have had a fight or a homophobic crisis of the sort described above. Although it is technically not caused by them, it matches and dramatizes the state of their emotions; it arises from the characters dramatically although not literally. The physical separation allows each to reflect on the emotional separation, and to determine to recover the other emotionally as soon as they are reunited physically; at which point, of course, they are.

That aside, however, slash is notoriously driven by the inward emotional states of the characters. For a story to be longer than the bare-bones outline of attraction, crisis, recognition, and bliss, however—and many are not longer—more than one crisis is needed. If one drags on for too long, the reader may become bored or, worse, amused. For that reason, new crises have to continually be found. And these crises, like nearly all developments, arise from within the characters. It is the characters' emotions, which ultimately are to bring them together, which must during the body of the story tear them apart. Typically, one of them hurts the other emotionally, through losing his temper, or saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, or making a wrong assumption about the state of the relationship ("You mean you're still seeing women?"), and the other is temporarily driven away, or lashes out. A rift appears between them, which must be healed before the story can end. This creates what is often called "angst," or sometimes "emotional hurt/comfort." Master of the Revels is a good example here. Bevis, the evil magician, does pose an external threat, but most of the story's emotional "meat" comes from the pain that Zax and Galen repeatedly cause each other, and their repeated forgiving of each other.

In a story of significant length, and which is motivated almost entirely from within, which is "relationship-driven," it should be obvious that such crises must occur with some frequency. If they didn't, why would the novel be so long? So misunderstandings keep occurring, lovers keep hurting each other, bitter men keep vowing to end it—until the next time. Sometimes, in order to propel the story, such problems must be drawn out to considerable length.

In Heat Trace, something of the same thing is going on, although for the most part unrecognized by the characters. But Doyle does at one point tell Bodie that "I think this must be one of those abusive relationships." He is talking about exactly the pattern that M. Fae set up in " Snowbound or the Tale of Two Situations": Doyle makes Bodie angry (although this Doyle, unlike M. Fae's, does not invariably consider that his own fault); Bodie blows up at him (although this Bodie, unlike M. Fae's, does not physically strike him); and Doyle forgives him. Both Helen's and M. Fae's Doyles have disastrous self-images, although Helen's Doyle does not fully succumb to self-hatred until after he and Bodie break up. Both suffer and come back for more. At one point Helen's Doyle even wonders if he is fundamentally masochistic, and concludes that "he could face the idea. But if so then there must be better masters in London than Bodie."

"Snowbound or the Tale of Two Situations" was an extremely disturbing story because it brought the abusive pattern into the forefront of the story, rather than sublimating it, and because it left the characters still in that pattern at the story's end. Their relationship passes through rape to regular beatings, and what disturbs many readers is Doyle's contentment with the situation. Such an ending is unique in slash. The accepted pattern, in stories motivated by this kind of escalation of emotional hurt, is that a climactic, cathartic upheaval, an ultimate crisis, will serve as a sort of white-hot cleansing fire, from which the characters will emerge purified. The ultimate violence of their first and last forgiveness frees them from the cycle of mutual hurt, lets them descend from the emotional rollercoaster and stand, panting but free, on stable ground. M. Fae's innovation was to declare the rollercoaster stable in itself.

Heat Trace, unlike " Snowbound or the Tale of Two Situations," follows the traditional pattern. Helen signals that she is fully aware of this expectation early on; Doyle at first thinks that Bodies' recurring nightmares will be the catalyst for that last catharsis. "They'd get through them together. Maybe it would even bring them closer. Like the nightmare in the desert -- terrible, but leaving them entwined in a strange, exhausted peace." He tums out to be right, but not in the way that he expected. The problem with the slash story structured according to this pattern, of course, is that a scores or hundreds of pages establishing the pattern of hurt, forgiveness, and more is expected to believe that somehow the final fight, the worst of them all, can destroy that pattern instead of bolstering it as all the earlier ones did. The sadomasochistic dynamic, instead of reinforcing itself, suddenly destroys itself. Because this premise is understandably hard to swallow, authors are tempted to make that final crisis ever worse, this message that yes, any normal fight would only have been another phase in the cycle. But this -- this was no normal fight. This, implies the author, was something qualitatively different, something cleansing rather than muddying. We as slash readers know how to read for this.

Heat Trace follows this pattern scrupulously. The crisis, uniquely in my reading of slash is split into two parts: Doyle's breakup with Bodie and Bodie's immediate psychotic breakdown, followed by Doyle's slow descent into a similar condition. But the drastic nature of the crisis is enough to satisfy almost any reader. Both characters become incapable of function either socially or on the job. Both attempt suicide, Bodie passively, Doyle actively. As a cathartic destruction making way for a re-creation, it's hard to do a more thorough job.
But if we look more closely at their relationship the novel's last twenty-six pages, when they are together again, we discover something else. They have not completely left the sadomasochistic dynamic behind; they have to some extent only stabilized it by trading roles. This is where the function of the split crisis, of Bodie's breakdown being followed at a long remove by Doyle's, appears. When Bodie reappears in the novel, he is nearly recovered; he is functioning at work and socially, and he has reintegrated the split facets of his self-conception. He does not hate himself any more. Doyle, on the other hand, is in the depths. He is unable to function on the job. He has lost all his friends. He is thirty minutes from carefully-planned suicide when he phones Bodie. He hates and fears the world, and he loathes himself. In the happy denouement, it is Bodie who is the caretaker, and Doyle who is helpless and needy.
Their sexual activity at the story's end is revealing, as well. Sex is one of the most vital and multivocal symbols in slash writing. It frequently represents the entire relationship microcosm: when the sex works, the relationship works, and when the lovers are experiencing difficulty, their sex life is disrupted. Throughout Heat Trace, one of the things driving Bodie and Doyle apart was an enforced inequality in their sex lives; Bodie could fuck Doyle, but Doyle could not fuck Bodie. Every attempt to even out the difference, either by both being fucked or by neither being fucked, failed. At the novel's end, the problem is solved not by achieving equality, but by learning to accept an institutionalized inequality. Bodie can still fuck Doyle, but not vice versa; the difference is that they have learned to be happy that way. Doyle has learned not to want what he cannot get. Is this another rollercoaster that has been declared stable, rather than left behind?
Bodie and Doyle, at the novel's end, are still in a relationship of unequal power, and one possible reading of the novel is that that is how it should be. The necessary adjustment, according to this reading, was not to find a way to relate as equals, but to get the proper person—Bodie in the ascendancy. (Recall Doyle's musing, on p. 81, that maybe he just needed to a better master; perhaps, at the novel's end, he has found one in the transformed Bodie.) This contradicts, of course, the popular theory that slash is ideally about lovers relating as equals, that slash is at some fundamental level a search for love apart from power dynamics. I think that it is more true to say that slash is concerned with the interrelationship of love and power. Often, as here, they appear to be inseparable. Heat Trace does hold out some vague promise of an equal relationship in the future, beyond the story's end. Doyle is in the process of recovering from his breakdown, and what he will be when he is fully healed is unknown. The little that is hinted about their future lives is largely due to Doyle's impetus—their socializing in the gay community, Doyle's own work in computers—which may imply an equalization of power. But this is speculation. What we have as the story closes is a happy ending in which Doyle has finally achieved his wish of merging with the suffering he caused, and Bodie has thus been displaced into the role Doyle has vacated, the novel simultaneously presents a rhetoric of equality and a happy ending without it. The tension between the two is unresolved, perhaps unresolvable. Perhaps slash does not aim to resolve it, but to explore it.

Fan Comments

Re: yrcts to Shoshanna, from which I inferred that you think Glasgow's "Snowbound" is a hurt/comfort story? If that's what you meant, well...it isn't. It's a rape story. Domestic violence. A "domination for real" fantasy story. Your whole essay, in which you think you're addressing h/c, really seems to be addressing rape fantasy, domestic violence, etcera. And while I don't want to burst your bubble or anything, I loved "Snowbound". Viscerally. It (particularly "The Worst of Times", to which I'm most pointedly referring in my comments here) pushed the overwhelming majority of my kink buttons, and there was nothing intellectual about it. It was overpowering domination, complete objectification, unlimited power from Bodie's point of view; it was deserved punishment, from Doyle's, for being the "spoiled rotten brat that he was." Whatever happened, he felt that he somehow deserved it. He didn't want it, but he was compelled to suffer through it for other psychological reasons. Very sexy. Fantasy-wise, I get a rush off the concept that the 'object' or 'victim' has no choice whatsoever. I wrote a longish comment on the sexual appeal of rape fantasy and the kind of personality to whom it might appeal in response to some questions/comments of [N], in TNU # 11, or 12. I'd like to suggest that you go back and read it, if the subject might interest you. Additionally, I'd be glad to share with you my own theories about why I like this stuff.

Based on [L's] and M. Fae's tribs, I'm wondering if I'm confused. It's my understanding that there are rape stories, and there are h/c stories. Rape stories can be h/c stories, but they aren't h/c by definition. The only condition in which a rape story is also h/c is when, for example, Doyle gets gang-banged by L's camping bikers [2], and Bodie has to comfort him—when the rape is the "hurt". It's never a function of hurt/comfort stories, in my understanding, that the "hurt" portion come from one partner to the other. That's domestic violence, or rape, etc

With respect to your hypotheses about the enjoyment value of "Snowbound"...weli, since your premise is, I think, wrong, it's sort of pointless. I also noticed a level of real discomfort in reading your essay-like analysis, for a couple of reasons. One, it read like a class paper instead of your opinion. Two (and much more importantly in my eyes) I felt like you misrepresented my kink (and, by extension, me). You were analyzing a style of story like "Snowbound" and calling it h/c. First and foremost, I am nor a hurt-comfort pig and I think I resent being classified as one! I'm more twisted than h/c readers, and am the first to admit it. I like humiliation, domination, objectification, powerlessness, choicelessness, struggle. H/c doesn't really cover that stuff.

Additionally, you're making hypotheses about my character, my emotional-psychological make-up; I'm your "people who did enjoy 'Snowbound'," subject group, and I didn't like it. Sorry. I'd have much prefered hearing what you personally think (about rape fantasy, domestic violence, h/c, whatever), rather than what you imagined others think—or that you polled people who do like it and assessed their answers rather than thinking for them wrongly.

I've never seriously asked myself if I "have no trouble being sadistic". Nor have I seriously asked myself if I'm a masochist. I think part of why I'm offended is that you're implying I must be either or both to like rape or violent stories. Maybe a big part of my problem with your assumptions is how emotionally loaded words like "sadism" and "masochism" are. They bring "SM", and leather and whips and little cozy societal sex games, to mind. Decadence. Everybody getting what they want. I mean, in their broadest sense (the taking of sexual pleasure from being humiliated or hurt—yep, that's me; the taking of sexual pleasure from hurting someone else somehow—yep, that's me too, the archetypal sadomasochist then, I guess—a "real" sadomasochist—and only in fantasy) I guess the definition applies to me. Maybe I just don't like its connotations, I dunno. Am I completely off base to think that when the words "s&m", or "sadist" or "masochist" are used today, they tend to refer to leather scenes, consentual sex games and people doing what they want to do?

Consider for a moment another hypothesis, that the devaluing experience of objectification is a potentially "true" statement about the object's view of itself. In "Snowbound", Doyle really did feel he deserved what he got, that there was some intrinsic "badness" in him. I think there's a psychological difference (and probably it's only a shade of grey) between the masochist who wants to feel the pain, who's proud of what he can take (many of M. Fae's stories, & Shoshanna's), vs. the masochist who hates the pain but has an emotional experience of deserving the punishment, or being compelled to accept undeserved punishment for psychological reason. I don't know the answer to that one, so I'd love any information you have. Are both of those states of being just different sorts of masochism? How about the guy who doesn't give a damn about whether he's inflicting pain? I'm recalling Bodie in "Snowbound". His behavior is an appropriate response based on his world-view. Bodie doesn't even care; Doyle's problems are inconsequential to his demands that he be pleasured in whatever way is best. Doyle gagging makes Bodie's cock feel good, and that's all the value Doyle gagging has to Bodie. Total power. Is that the same as the guy (or girl) who sees the leather-clad masochist begging to be whipped and says 'sure, okay, I'll whip you because you want it'? I'm oversimplifying this, aren't I?

I don't know; I don't even know how to further address this. I'd love feedback on what I've confusedly written herein. Let's definitely talk about it more later.

Regarding your confusion of h/c and rape, violence, etc., at least one practical distinction I can make for you between stories like "Snowbound" and stories like "Mojave Crossing" (an archetypal SH h/c) is that the characters in h/c stories don't hurt each other. Accidents happen. Catastrophes. They get hurt by outside forces. Tests of their commitment to each other come from places considered beyond their own personal controls. It's an entirely different cup of tea, in my understanding. Fantasy rape stories aren't cathartic nearly as much as they are a statement about the establishment of absolute power, absolute objectification and absolute animal satisfaction from that domination (wouldn't be much point in having absolute power if you weren't sure you deserved it, and if you didn't enjoy it). Lezlie's trib last issue addressed this very well. [3]

References

  1. It was anonymous in 1992. The author has since been identified as Frankie.
  2. Possibly a reference to the fic Rough Ride.
  3. comments by Michelle Christian in Strange Bedfellows #3 (November 1993), quoted with permission