My Secret Life as a Slasher

So, my dirty little secret is finally out in the open. A few weeks ago, I did a podcast interview for Emma Grant at Slashcast about slash fan fiction and spoke openly about the fact that I have one published story out there in a relatively obscure little zine called Not What You Think. As a gift to all of my readers out there in LJ-Land, I figured, now that the cat is out of the bag, that I would share some excerpts from the story itself and for the rest of you, I figured I might use this to offer some reflections on the nature of slash as a form of critical commentary, an issue which I raised here in the blog a few weeks ago.

The story is called “Golden Idol.” It was published, if you can call it that, in 1998 and promptly disappeared into obscurity. Here’s how the story starts:

‘Another Idol has displaced me,’ the fair young girl in the mourning dress exclaimed, her eyes misted with tears. ‘If it can cheer and comfort you in time to come, as I would have tried to do, I have no just cause to grief.’

He gasped, stung by her sudden revelation. She knew! Nancy had found out the secret that he hadn’t uttered aloud even in private, and if she knew, who else might know? Did he? He trembled at the thought and then tried to mask his discomfort with a half-felt denial.

‘What idol has displaced you?’

He wanted to probe, hungered for an answer, and yet feared to find out how much she knew. He was certain in any case that she would not be able to put what she knew into words. His secret, as he had always known, was unspeakable and so her language was circumspect. She hinted at things without saying them directly.

But how could she know? He had always acted the part of the perfect gentleman with her, since that day long ago when they first spoke of marriage and began to imagine a future together. He had taken her to dances and let her show off her new beau to her blushing friends. He had brought her flowers and had dinner at her house. As time passed, they had moved from speculations of marriage to treating it as something that would happen someday, then soon, then in a matter of months, whenever he got his affairs in order, whenever he was sure he would be able to support them. He was eager to believe that things could work out between them, that they were in love, even if he often had trouble finding those feelings inside himself, even if his emotions towards her lacked the intensity with which romantic love was described in books or songs.

He danced the dance — did it matter so much that he didn’t really quite hear the music? He held her hand, on occasions when it was deemed appropriate, and stroked it softly, admiring her slender digits, running his fingers ever so gently along her wrist. He kissed her playfully on the ear when that was appropriate, uncertain if this was too much of an advance for someone in their position or not enough of one. He always played the part, always aware of an audience that included her but also many others. He tried to convince her (not to mention himself) that all of this came naturally, spontaneously, grew from honest emotions (which he was increasingly doubtful that anyone in his position really felt.)

Note: Not What You Expect is now back in circulation if you wish to order it and read the entire story, you can do so here.

Yet somehow he knew he was lying, and more to the point, somehow she knew he was lying. That much was certain. The sham was unveiled, and with its demise had ended his hopes of settling comfortably, easily, respectably, into married life. Perhaps she had known even before he had known himself. But that only increased his guilt since this meant that perhaps she knew him better than anyone else and had come to understand his emotions, his thoughts — even his desires? — from the inside out.

The seconds seemed to linger in the air, and she was not responding to his question. She looked at him with hurt, perhaps a little anger, though less than he would have expected under the circumstances. Did he imagine a little pity in her eyes, or was it dread? He waited and she waited and then he asked again, “What idol has displaced you?”…

“A golden one,” she said, again speaking ambiguously, telling only what was necessary to extract both of them from their painful circumstances, moving forward with a dignity that was mixed with more than a little denial.

A golden one. How tangled that one remark seemed to him at that moment, for there were two economies at stake in this discussion. There was the economy of business, of profits and loss, of red ink and black ink, of ledgers and columns; and there was the economy of desire, of things saved and spent, of things consumed and yet remained to be consumed. There was the gold, silver and copper that he could hold in his hands and count, and there was the gold, silver, and copper that he desired and yet could never touch — the gold of Jacob’s wild shock of hair pulled up in a tail, the silver of his eyes so keen and shrewd, and the copper of his glistening skin flushed with sweat. And there was the gold that passed between them, the coins that had touched the skin he dared not touch and that passed into his own hands still warm from Jacob’s body.

He tried to pretend that they were speaking only of crowns and shillings and so protested that the world was unjust in issuing almost as much reproach to those who worked hard for their money, who labored and earned and saved and counted and stored away their money, as they did to the poor and worthless, lazy and lame. Perhaps she was, after all, simply protesting the many hours he spent at his work, the hours he neglected her to earn money. Yet he knew he could not extract himself that simply.

The time he spent earning money was not only time he had not spent with her; it was time he had spent with Jacob. He always found excuses to prolong it. They worked side by side in silence, often for hours on end, so close to each other that he could feel his partner’s breath on the back of his neck. He would lose count, counting instead the ebb and flow of his partner’s breathing, straining to hear the sound of his heart beating, to be aware of his body, until Jacob would speak, jarring him back to consciousness, pulling him back to the world of bargains and investments. Jacob never rebuked him for his dreaminess, for his inattention to the hard facts of the matter at hand but laughed softly, a gleam in his eyes.

If the hour was late and the day’s work had been sufficiently profitable, they would close the big leather books and walk out into the streets together, stopping at their private club for a few drinks. Those who knew them rarely saw one without the other, and after a while, many of them had trouble remembering which was which. They had been partners in business for a little over a year at that point. Still he had trouble remembering when it had started since those arrangements had become so comfortable that it was harder and harder to imagine when they had not been together. He had already forgotten what it was like to be alone — to be without a partner, to be without a fiancée, to be working for old Fezziweg as a clerk, to be away from the warm glow of Jacob Marley.

Part of the pleasure of publishing the story for the first time in the context of a multimedia zine was to let people slowly discover for themselves who this story was about. I got the idea for writing a Scrooge/Marley slash story while listening to a tape of Patrick Stewart’s one man show version of the Christmas Carol. Suddenly, for the first time, the scene when Scrooge breaks up with his finance Nancy had popped out at me. It was one of the few times in the entire novel that we hear from someone who can see inside Scrooge and really understands what he is thinking. Normally what characters say about Scrooge is projected onto him from a more distanced perspective. I was intrigued by this phrase, “a Golden Idol,” and the way that she presents this “idol” as if it were a flesh and blood rival for his affections. She most likely is referring to his workaholic tendencies and to his greed, those traits we most associate with Scrooge, yet what if she wasn’t? What if there really were a secret rival who stood between Scrooge and his intended bride?

Every line in this scene comes directly from the novel. What I was doing here was recontextualizing Dicken’s original language to offer up an alternative interpretation of what the characters might have been thinking — this integration of original dialogue and internal monologue is a common literary device in fan fiction. I was rewriting it for the purpose of critical commentary and in the process, I was trying to include as many elements from the original novel as possible while offering explanations for the character issues which have long concerned literary critics writing about the book. Even the idea that the partnership between Scrooge and Marley might have a homosocial/homoerotic undertone would not seem radical in the era of queer literary criticism. (For more on this point, see the slash chapter in Textual Poachers). But from an academic perspective, the fact that I used a fictional form rather than an analytic essay to construct this argument might have seen nonconventional.

The Victorians had been very interested in using economic vocabularies to talk about the expenditure of bodily fluids that took place through sexual encounters and so I played with this to describe the relations between the two men.

Let me continue further with the scene we started:

He had met Marley years before when they had been schoolboys, he an upperclassman who tried hard to teach the young Jacob his proper place but instead had been charmed by the lad, captivated by his quick wit and warm smile, fascinated by the workings of his mind, and stirred by his developing body. They had enjoyed a closeness then that no adult could know, become intimates in every sense of the word, sharing everything, withholding nothing, until the whole school was atalk about their crush, until the threat of scandal had loomed large on the horizon and begun to play upon even Scrooge’s mind. Then his father, perhaps hearing gossip, perhaps getting a report from the schoolmaster, withdrew him from that school, took him home and ‘made him a man.’ His father was harsh and unloving, knowing little of matters of the heart. His mother had died when he was young, so there was little to bring joy into that house. His young sister, sweet little Fan, had done her best to reconcile the two of them, not really ever understanding the differences that kept them apart. Inevitably, voices were raised, harsh words were uttered and neither man could find reconciliation. When he had been younger, after his mother died, the old man had beaten him, punching him in the ribs, slapping him in the face, until he ran away and hid. Yet when he had returned home to find a father who no longer drank and who had discovered religion and so had learned to contain his violent rage, Scrooge found that some things hurt even more than fists. His father prayed for him every night and made certain that he knew that he knew that he had fallen far short of the old man’s sense of what was proper, normal, respectable. His father’s harsh whispers, not able to confront the problem directly, not able to forget it either, bruised him with their intensity. His eyes, stone hard, merciless, unforgiving, cut into his flesh.

At last Scrooge left, seeking his fortune elsewhere, looking for some place where he could escape his forbidden feelings for Jacob and avoid his father’s wrath and judgment. He had gone to work at Fezziweg’s, starting as a young apprentice and gradually gaining more responsibilities. Scrooge found in the red-faced, round and jolly man a second father, one as kind-hearted and generous as his own father was bitter and brutal. Fezziweg trust him and through his trust, Scrooge had learned to trust himself again and had opened himself up to friendship, this time with a young man named Dick Wilkens….

Dicken’s novel includes surprisingly few elements, tell us relatively little about Scrooge. We are expected to see him from the outside — as a cranky old man — and not from the inside — as someone who is described as deeply lonely, even as a boy. I wanted to use this story to examine that loneliness and to use that loneliness to explain what happened between Scrooge and Marley.

Part of what interested me was the doubling that occurs in the book as we see Scrooge as an old man watching himself within scenes that occurred when he was a much younger man and the sense of powerlessness he must have felt reliving those moments without being able to change them. And this led me deeper and deeper into thoughts about being haunted by memories, about wanting to say things that had gone unsaid or do things that hadn’t been done. As I thought about what kind of slash story I could construct about Scrooge and Marley, I realized it needed not to be a love story per se but about the story of a romance that almost happened and that Scrooge, so much concerned by the judgment of the world, had backed away from. It became a story about how one internalizes homophobia and how it blocks one from the experience of one’s desires.

Scrooge, no an old man, his face hardened into a caricature of itself, had trouble remembering times in his life when he had not been alone, cut off from the others around him. As a young boy, crying in the school house rather than return home to his father, he watched through the window as a parade of mummers passed, bursting with Yuletide spirits. As a young man, having at last found his one true friend, he was forcefully removed from the boarding school by his father and isolated once again, this time in a suffocating realm of Bible verses and condemnations. As a young clerk working for Fezziweg, trying to play the part of the respectable adult, he learned that the illusion of friendship and community could be maintained only if one didn’t inspect it too closely or demand from it more than it was prepared to give. As a young suitor, he fumbled to convince the world that he was very much in love; as a young businessman sitting at night in the club by himself, he pretended not to care that no one invited him to join him for a drink.

My story contains very little sex in the end — this is unusual for slash but not unheard of. What interested me was the emotional life of the characters and that is certainly the driving force behind most slash. I have them make love one time in a burst of enthusiasm on Christmas eve and then have Scrooge, alone in the dark, feel shame and crawl away, never to speak of the experience again. The closeness they feel is shattered by their efforts to consummate their relationship sexually (the reverse of what happens in most slash). And this prepares us for the last phases of their life together.

In his later years, after that fateful night when everything had come apart for them, Scrooge and Marley became simply a business concern. The two old men worked side by side yet scarcely spoke as they pored over their books. Marley came to communicate with him only through his clerk, Bob Cratchet. In the years since Marley’s death, there was no more hope for them, no possibility of changing what had been said or finishing what had gone unsaid. Marley had died, and he had gone on living, though he had by that point become so paralyzed that he could scarcely be called alive. He went through life snarling at those who demanded form him what was no longer his to give, angry at those who enjoyed the happiness and good fellowship that he was denied, and harsh towards those who wanted what he had without being prepared to pay the brutal price.

I was fascinated that Marley returns from the dead to communicate with Scrooge and then shows him nothing of their life together, even though on other levels Dickens hints that this must have been the most defining relationship of Scrooge’s life. One reason why people initially struggle to imagine a Scrooge/Marley story is that we never see Marley in his prime, as a young man, and have only the image of the rotting corpse with the slack jaw and the chains. So, in the story, I have Scrooge trying to read through the lines, looking for the scenes that Marley doesn’t show him, and in the end, this is the level on which they communicate with each other.

He was confused. What was the meaning of any of these scenes that the Ghost had brought him to witness? Why these scenes, not others? What pattern was being slowly but surely developed form these fragments of time, bits of old memories, many of which he had long ago forgotten? It seemed to him that these choices missed the point somehow, did not fit within the narrative had had constructed to make sense of his own life, seemed to point consistently to a life he had not lived and the lies that he had tried to tell the world. But where was the truth? Perhaps some outside observer might look upon these as turning points in his life, but surely Marley, of all people, knew better.

Marley had returned from the dead — for that was certain, Marley was dead, dead as a doornail, dead as a coffin nail, dead. Yet he had come back to him, at no small cost he was certain. To what purpose, what end?

Marley had sought to warn him about the cost of denying the world its due, about the price he had paid for hardening his heart and shutting out his feelings. He was prepared to learn that lesson as best he could and act upon it insofar as was appropriate.

But these were the wrong moments. Removed from context, they made little or no sense. He could witness the actions, hear the words, but he could not feel the emotions. The people around him meant even less to him than they had the first time. Could the truth of anyone’s life be summed up in a few scattered moments without looking at what had come before and after? Were the words that had been said so many years before adequate to the occasion when he was powerless, as a mere witness, to rewrite them, to modify them, to speak them again but try to convey their meaning more fully? What mattered ultimately, he feared, was not what he had said and done but what hadn’t happened, the silences rather than the utterances. What mattered were the gaps which fell between the scenes that the world chose to remember. That had always been the problem….

The Ghost had not offered him the chance, which he would gladly have taken, to relive that moment when he saw Jacob again at his club, that firm embrace, that happy reunion, or the time when they agreed to become partners, or those heady first days as a company when the two together gained the success that had been denied them both separately and they felt as if the world were out there waiting for them to pluck it like a bauble. The Ghost didn’t let him hear Marley’s laughter again or see his smile or watch the sparkle in his eyes. Instead he was forced to watch himself pretend a love he did not feel and try to accept the release Nancy was offering him with appropriate grace and appropriate regret.

None of that mattered. At that moment all that mattered was Marley and the time they had spent together and the scenes the Ghost was omitting from this journey down memory’s crooked pathways. It was as if Marley had never existed, had not been part of his life — the best part, the most important part, the only true and meaningful part. It was as if Marley was shoving him away with all of his might towards the life that might have been his if he had simply forsaken his unnatural love and conformed to what was normal and expected of him.

Everything in the next passage is there in Dicken’s novel. There’s a lot that seems psychologically odd about Scrooge’s relationship to Marley if we read the novel closely yet these are the passages that get skipped over in the dramatization of the story. This is a good example of how slash writing requires the marshalling of evidence, the presentation of data, which supports the slash interpretation — again, like other forms of critical commentary. The actions I describe are in the book; the motives I ascribe to them come from my analysis of the book through the slash interpretation.

Scrooge could not bring himself to paint out Marley’s name on their sign, so he still went by Scrooge and Marley some seven years later, and people still came there looking for Marley and settling for Scrooge. He could not bring himself to fire Cratchet, even though his very presence was painful to him, since it reminded him of the times when he and his partner were unwilling or unable to speak to each other. He snarled at Cratchet and he punished Cratchet because he needed to strike out at someone and Cratchet was at his mercy. He wanted Cratchet to go away and take the memories of Marley with him, but he could not fire him, no matter how much he grumbled about giving him a day off at Christmas or using too much coal to light the wood stove. He couldn’t fire Cratchet because, for all of the sad memories he provoked, Marley had hired him, had trusted him, had valued his friendship, and he could not undo what Marley had done. Scrooge moved into Marley’s house to be close to him, to feel the presence of his spirit in the things the man had accumulated, and Scrooge slept, when he was able to do so, in Marley’s bed, the bed curtains still hanging there as they had that night. He grew to hate Christmas as he did no other day of the year because it had brought him nothing but misery and stood as a reminder of how out of favor he was with the world’s expectations.

In the end, I am impressed by the healing which Marley offers Scrooge in returning from the dead and offering him back memories of his life while it is still possible to change. Several writers have theorized that slash is a genre about nurturance, about men trying to heal each other of the pains caused by their repressed sexual and emotional lives, often in the forms of nursing each other back to physical or mental health. Seen through this lens, Marley’s return to Scrooge is a great romantic gesture — certainly embodying the idealized notion of romantic male friendship that many writers have found in slash.

Marley had come back from the dead to speak with him again, after all those years of silence, those years when the office had been like a tomb and those years when Marley had been buried in his tomb, as if it mattered, in the end, whether the silence between them was shared with a body that was living or dead. What must Marley have gone through to win that right denied so many other doomed souls, to return for even a moment to the world of the living, to intervene in the affairs of men and set them right again, to try to heal Scrooge before it was too late. But then Marley had always been a gifted negotiator and a good man for a bargain.

Marley had, miracle of miracles, come back for him, to him, still cared about him, still loved him above all men, still cared about what he did and what he felt and what fate befell him, still remembered the days and hours of his life and still lamented the times that they had not spent together or that, spent together, had come to nothing but painful silence.

So there you have it – a slashed up Christmas Carol, just in time for the holidays. I would offer the whole story but I no longer have it in an electronic form, only in hard copy. But I wanted to at least retype these bits to give you some sense of what the story was like and what it taught me about the nature of slash.

Comments

  1. A slasher after my own heart, Henry. A lot of my own fanfiction is explorations of various classics, and I moderate a community for such stories, as I believe I mentioned, so this is very interesting to me. Thanks for posting this – Laura and I had meant to ask you, after your visit, and I was curious!

  2. What a great idea for a story! I’ve never read the original; now I want to.

    Very brave of you to post this here. In return, I offer a link to my own fic, in all its dubious quality.

  3. Congratulations on “outing” yourself! Will you be terribly put out if I blog about this on my own site?

  4. I would love to see the entire original story myself, should you ever have the chance to retype or scan it all – ‘A Christmas Carol’ was one of my favorite books as a child, especially for its themes of redemption; this reinterpretation of loneliness and guilt is not one that occurred to my childhood self, but tickles the fancy of the present slasher. I daresay next time I read the book I’ll be considering it in a new light.

    I’ve always thought myself that fanfic is one of the most entertaining forms of literary criticism we have (slash and other; I was into gen fic long before slash. As a matter of fact ‘Textual Poachers’ was one of my first introductions to the nature of that particular beast!) As a fanfic author myself, I’ve always found one of the greatest compliments I can receive about a story is that it gave someone a new appreciation of the original canon – it’s a way to share my love for a work by shining a spotlight on those possibilities or potentials that excite me.

  5. I find it interesting that Patrick Stewart’s reading of Dickens’ novel unveiled a whole other dimension to your “reading.” It says a great deal about the power of an actor within a long-term (and beloved) franchise. My favourite Scrooge is George C. Scott, and I would never have thought of this element to the story if I only consumed the Scott version.

    Have you done any other genre studies like this? Have you ever done a take on femmeslash or crossovers?

  6. Henry Jenkins says:

    Maddy, the beauty of the blogosphere is that you don’t need my permission to blog about anything I write. If I was worried about people talking about this, I wouldn’t have put it on the blog. But it is sweet of you to ask.

    As it happens, I am also a big fan of the George C. Scott version — and yes, even the Mr. Magoo version, which is the one I grew up on. But somehow it was Patrick Stewart who gave me a glimpse of the younger man Scrooge once was and led me to ask what was really going on in his relations to Marley. It is also just the case that his version includes several passages from the book that get cut from most of the dramatizations.

  7. This story was the first on my new site!

  8. I think you’re right on point that slash is or can be a critical commentary on the original text. It is also often a critical commentary on other fanfic.

    I don’t think that’s only true of slash, however, although slash is most interesting to me because it directly interrogates gender. I wrote my dissertation on Star Trek culture, and (being an acafan before you invented the term — nice term!) part of my research for that included writing a Star Trek novel. I wanted to see the kind of work it took to generate an appropriate work. (And I wanted to write a Star Trek novel and read less rhetoric.) I took it quite seriously, as you did Carol, and as many ficwriters do.

    Especially with the internet, I think we have much easier access to bad fanfic. Word of mouth still is the best gatekeeper, but the values for what constitutes “good” have shifted a lot — from people oriented to style, plot, and character development to a much wider variety, at one end of which stands “RPS”, basically fantasies about the actors who play the characters of one’s favored canon, sort of a ghost slash.

    In short, while fanfic can and does function as critique, for a lot of the stories it’s necessary to squint. A story like the one I read a few days ago, where the protagonist is raped by his enemy, and now wonders if they’re going out, as of course they end up doing, challenges the canonical text, but hardly “requires the marshalling of evidence, the presentation of data, which supports the slash interpretation.”

    On the other hand, I suppose there’s a lot of bad critique in academia as well…

    –Regards, Kes

    PS I enjoyed the Xmas Carol slash.

  9. Very interesting (and very well done — reminds me of some of the very high quality literary offerings I see at Yuletide, actually) — many thanks for sharing! I was very intrigued after the Slashcast interview, and I’m glad you posted this. This might perhaps be the best way of introducing slash to someone who is completely unfamiliar with it that I’ve seen yet (certainly better than some of the flippant one-liners I’m prone to quoting…).

    I actually find it particularly interesting that you left any directly quoting reference to actual sex out of your reposted version. That, I think, speaks much more to sexuality studies than queer theory or popular culture. What it indicates to me is that although some aspects of the subversiveness of slash fandom can be accepted in a non-purely-fannish context (the idea of fannish works and the general idea of slashing, for instance), others still aren’t. We can be out of the closet as fen, we can be out of the closet as slashers, but to be out of the closet as connecting with what that all implicates — real sex — is still further outside what is acceptable in the mainstream. We’re more afraid of admitting sexuality than we are of tight connections to a popular text, or of gayness. You’d think it would be the uncommon things we’d be most afraid of. Oh, fandom (society).

  10. Henry Jenkins says:

    Kheha,

    There are several reasons why I decided not to post the sex scenes from the story here:

    1. I am not very good at writing sex scenes yet. They are really hard.

    2. This story is much more about the sex that didn’t happen than the sex that did. It is much more character study than erotica per se. There’s one brief and unsatisfying encounter followed by a good deal of shame and guilt and a shutting down of emotional intimacy. In part, this was a response to the convention in slash where having sex always opens up greater emotional intimacy between the characters. Perversely, I wanted to write a story where the characters recover from a bad sexual encounter rather than grow through a good one.

    3. The sex scene consequently is fairly long and so I didn’t want to try to reproduce the whole of it here and I found it didn’t work well in small excerpts.

    4. I have to confess, though, that to some degree you are right, and I am struggling to know how to deal with my writing on more sexually explicit themes in the context of a blog which is so public and so linked to my professional life and that doesn’t have a mechanism for insuring that it is only read by adults. This is an issue not just for the slash story but also for some of my academic writing on topics like pornography. I am still working through this issue.

  11. No, I completely understand. You’re much more open about anything fannish in real life than I would be, and I certainly didn’t mean my comment as any sort of rebuke — it was just an interesting observation that seemed surprising enough in my mind that I wanted to share. The rest of us, after all, do hide behind a cloud of anonymity, and your post brought that home in a way nothing else had.