The Quill is Slashier: the Ten Commandments of H:TLJ Slash
I've often been questioned by friends about my taste for slash fiction, but I've rarely been called upon to justify it, like it's somehow a "wrong" thing. When recently that exact situation arose, I found myself stepping back from the highly emotive arguments flying around, and wondering what exactly it is about this genre that appeals to me. I find myself focussing on Hercules slash, because, while I'd read an occasional slash story before, it was in this fandom that I first really *got* slash.
Let's start with some basic definitions. Slash fiction involves two of more fictional characters of the same sex in a sexual or romantic relationship. In general slash is written by women, for a primarily female, adult audience and contains references to (and frequently graphic descriptions of) same-sex sexual activity. Again, in general, the fictional characters concerned are drawn from television, and will have a cannonical close relationship that is non-sexual in nature. And they're usually men, though I suspect in a few years that will be less true. I know there are exceptions to all of the above, and I'm sure there are variations, but that's the definition I'm using for this article. Within that, there are dozens of sub-genres: first times, hurt/comfort, humour and satire, bdsm, rape-stories, PWPs, and too many more to list them all. (And, before anyone gets the wrong idea, I'm not discussing the "just for fun" type of slash where realism and plot aren't important to either the writer or the reader.)
I was always convinced I wouldn't like slash. The first HTLJ slash story I read, (based on someone's recommendation!) which I won't name here as the author is sort of a friend, served only to confirm my fear. The "plot" consisted of an argument between Hercules and Iolaus which twisted both characters into caricatures: Hercules the thoughtless bully, Iolaus a pathetic victim incapable of rescuing himself. During the argument, Hercules takes full responsibility for *everything* bad that's *ever* happened to his friend (I was just waiting for him to apologise for breaking the poor boy's Barbie-doll when they were six) and Iolaus grudgingly accepts the apology, then tops it all with a declaration of undying love. This improbable scene is followed by a graphic description of anal sex (anatomically accurate, but not in my perception, erotic), during which Iolaus insists on being "the strong one" for a change, and more grovelling apologies which apparently constituted a happy ending... I think that plot describes a lot of HTLJ slash stories, particularly during the period when the Iolausians got p*ssed off with Hercules for marrying Serena. Well, I figured I'd been most wise to leave stories of this questionable nature in a dark corner and resolved never to venture into such uncharted territory, ever, ever again.
Then I stumbled onto a story that I'm sure was labelled as slash somewhere, but thanks to the genius of search engines I'd skipped the disclaimers and warnings page. This one I'm happy to name: it was Queenie's Beware Greeks Bearing Gifts (http://freespace.virgin.net/susan.gamble/Slash/beware.html). A Hercules/Iolaus story of the PWP variety (PWP = 'Plot, What Plot?' for those not in the know). This one shocked me in a different way. Taken straight into what was clearly an established sexual relationship, Queenie's story is basically a sex-filled variation on the theme of "what do you buy the hero who has everything", and I'm telling you, I'll never look at a red ribbon in the same way again! While at the time I found the graphic sex a little over the top, in Queenie's story I could still easily recognise the characters I knew from onscreen. Iolaus' sense of humour and his slight hesitation at being "ordered" to do something. Hercules' obvious regard for his partner, his love of being in control, but willingness to surrender to trust. It was more than enough to convince me to give slash a second try.
I quickly read my way through every Hercules/Iolaus story I could find, and quickly came across all the clichés that plague slash fiction. Iolaus has been in love with Hercules since they were kids but is too scared to mention it. (Huh? They're friends for more than twenty years and he's scared?). He thinks Hercules is straight and will hurt him if the news offends him. (Double huh? Hercules wouldn't hurt Iolaus if Iolaus held a knife to his throat!). Iolaus "knows" his "desires" are "unnatural" and is afraid Hercules will be disgusted when he hears about it. (In ancient Greece?). In all cases, either Hercules is bewitched, or Iolaus is raped/gang raped/killed/taken into slavery/turned into a quivering mass of jelly by Ares or Hera/any or all of the above (select appropriate option), which leads to deep soul searching and tearful confessions of love/lust/blue balls (delete as appropriate) and the obligatory sex scene. This seems to be the general "first time" scenario in most fandoms, but I've rarely seen so many of the same story as I've found in HTLJ.
The trouble with that scenario, is it's not even remotely convincing in the HTLJ universe. In a twentieth century setting, with years of ingrained homophobia and fears of AIDS, it can work, if it's well written (though I still find "He's your best friend - why don't you just *trust* him?" is a tough hurdle. In the setting of Ancient Greece, regardless of the largely 1990s-America morality of the show, I simply don't see why Iolaus can't talk to Hercules about his feelings, or vice versa.
Having said that, there are stories out there that pull it off, and do so very well. Ghared's Hunters Heart (Ghared's homepage is at http://members.madasafish.com/~madghared but you have to search a bit to find the slash) uses absolutely all the clichés: the rape of Iolaus, the years of hidden desires, the secret fear of being rejected for a sexual preference. Yet somehow Ghared manages it without letting the reader spot that it's a cliché, and the slashy conclusion is as surprising as it is inevitable. Perhaps because, according to the author, the slash conclusion was as surprising to her as it is to the reader. The main focus of Ghared's story is Iolaus' relationship with Xena. Hercules is "off-stage" for most of the time (not your typical slash scenario) and the reader (or me, anyway) is fooled by the slash warning: when Iolaus was raped by Darphus early in the story, I figured that was the slash part over with, and happily read on...and was as blindsided as Iolaus by Hercules' declaration when it came. Now that's the way it should work.
Or, if masses of hurt for not much comfort isn't your style, how about Fay Russell's Love Is In The Air (http://www.geocities.com/WestHollywood/Village/3485/loveair.html). This one I read knowing it was slash, expecting the inevitable love scenes. But this story is the antithesis of all the clichés. A well-intentioned Aphrodite casts a spell which makes everyone declare the love they feel, regardless of the consequences. Ares abducts a not-unwilling Xena for a night of passion, a princess whose forthcoming marriage is intended to seal an alliance declares her undying love for a stablehand...and Hercules and Iolaus spend a day learning what olive oil is really for. When the spell begins to wear off, no one is happy. Hercules and Iolaus go through some embarrassing trials before they can get Aphrodite's attention long enough to persuade her to reverse the effects. Eventually she agrees that everyone who feels they were better off before the spell can be made to forget what's happened. And then there's the question of whether Iolaus will choose to forget. Light hearted and serious all at once, Fay's story is one of my favourite "first times" in Herc slash.
So, my own, personal ten commandments of HTLJ slash:
I. Thou shalt remain true to the characters shown onscreen.
In HTLJ, it's not even difficult. There's loads of slashy subtext to work with in the episodes. But that's not what I mean. Hercules isn't an insensitive prick. (For the Iolausians who are now shouting "Haven't you seen When A Man Loves A Woman?" the answer is, yes, I have. I saw a jealous Iolaus who, convinced his friend was going to get himself into trouble, preferred to walk away rather than stay and support him. And I saw a Hercules who was so carried away with the idea that he might, finally, have found love again that for one moment, he didn't listen. A single mistake does not make him the villain.) Iolaus isn't the great Golden Hunter who, in moral and ethical perfection is several rungs above the Lord Our God. He's human, he's flawed, he flirts with anything in a skirt and he makes mistakes. Sometimes big ones. And, Joxer isn't a Hellenic version of Clark Kent. He's a bumbling idiot with a good heart. I don't fundamentally object to Joxer slash, but it's got to be about Joxer, not some superhero with the same name (and that makes it tough to write without being annoying, I know. But it's possible.).
II. The villain shalt remain the villain even when slashed.
Ares isn't "a good guy, really". He wants Hercules dead. Maimed will do, but basically, dead. He loves violence, death, blood, anarchy - he's the god of War. What do you expect? He might be seriously lusting after his half-brother or the cute blonde sidekick, but that doesn't mean he's about to turn all sweetness and light just to get his rocks off! No, he'll do it nasty, like the Ares in JJ's Dangerous Liasons (http://www.sirensong.co.uk/Hercules/) or in Valentin's The Price (http://www.geocities.com/SoHo/Cafe/3040/price.html).That goes double for the Sovereign, by the way. And triple for Discord. Possibly the worst offenders against this 'commandment' are the Ares/Iphicles stories. Okay, I totally see the appeal of putting those two together, but I've yet to read a plotted A/Iph story I found convincing. Somehow, Ares always comes off either as wet or as the good guy.
III. The hero shalt remain the hero, especially when slashed.
Iolaus isn't a snivelling coward who can't take care of himself. (He took on Hephaetus' warriors single handed. He fought an army at Naxos, he stood up to Ares and Callisto, and newsflash! just occasionally, he's the one who does the rescuing. He doesn't cower in corners while Herc slays the big bad monster of the week. Find me one episode where he does that. Just one. I dare you.) So why write him that way?
IV. Thou shalt not impose redneck morals on the enlightened society of Ancient Greece.
Which doesn't mean there can't be people who disapprove of homosexuality. All I'm asking is that writers pay attention to the fact that this is a different society, with different rules. I don't want to read words like "gay" and "queer" in HTLJ slash. It doesn't fit. Martine's Mark of Hera (http://freespace.virgin.net/susan.gamble/Slash/hera.html) has its faults (it's another "how much can we hurt Iolaus" story), but as an example of how to deal with issues of homophobia without making the reader wonder which period we're in, it's a good piece of work.
V. Thou shalt not pretend season five never happened.
If it bothers you, set your story before season 5. If it's set during or after, deal with it. Maybe Iolaus' transformation into the baddest of bad guys isn't relevant to your story. But if it is, don't just pretend. [Special dispensation to break this rule is awarded to AUs, where anything can have not happened.]
VI. Thou shalt remember Hercules and Iolaus are friends.
And friends tell each other things. Friends who went to school together probably tussled in the hay at the Academy, and teased each other about early morning erections. They don't get shocked when the other shows a little skin, and they don't so completely fail to trust a friend that they'll keep an important secret for twenty years. Not unless there's an actual reason. I'm not writing this article to blow my own trumpet, but this was the point of my first H/I story: Deepest Wound (http://www.sirensong.co.uk/Hercules). The story is a combination of hurt/comfort clichés in the 'present' and a backstory which deals with Hercules' early sexual experiences with males. The point is the backstory gives Iolaus good reason to believe Hercules won't react well if Iolaus were to confess he wants him. So he hasn't. It takes the traumatic events of the 'present' storyline to bring the truth out of both of them. In that story, I was trying to take the clichés and make them work. I believe I succeeded, though that's for the reader, not the writer to judge.
VII. [Special rule for FSFI fics] Thou shalt remember that Iolaus is human.
[FSFI = Feeling Sorry For Iolaus]. I know HTLJ cannon sort of puts a brake on this rule, but, please: if you're dead, you're dead. A human man can't take being gang-raped, dragged through the countryside behind a galloping horse, whipped, drowned then crucified and live to tell the tale. (And that's an actual story I read!). Let's at least make it possible for him to survive, okay? [Special exceptions are not allowed if you bring in a benevolent god to do the healing: that's a cop-out. Exceptions will be considered for Highlander crossovers that wish to make Iolaus an Immortal. But you've got to explain the Dakok thing.]
VIII. [Special rule for D/S fics] Thou shalt allow Iolaus to talk back.
...Because he will, whether you like it or not. Iolaus as sexually submissive (and I mean submissive not merely perpetual bottom), isn't to everyone's taste. If it's to yours, by all means, but at least try to make it in character. Atara's stories (if they're still on the web, I don't know where to find them, to my eternal disappointment) manage this very well. Her Herc-as-total-dom stretches my imagination a bit, but her Iolaus is perfect. He squirms, he fights back, he makes Herc slap him down...and he loves it!
IX. Thou shalt not slash characters merely because "they'd be cute together".
By which I mean Iphicles/Autolycus, Iolaus/Cupid, Hercules/Iphicles (sorry - personal squick there), Ares/Jason etc. I'm not suggesting these and other pairings can't be slashed. But, please, make it convincing. Herc drops by to visit mom, Iphicles happens to be there, so mom's forgotten while they take time out for a quick one. Please. If the characters have no onscreen relationship, you have to work to convince the reader they're a slashable couple. It can be done, and with only a few words, too. But the no-explanation-just-sex thing only works if the subtext is already there.
X. Thou shalt not consider Iolaus and Twanky interchangeable.
Twankey is Michael Hurst in drag. She - get that, she - is not Iolaus. Hercules doesn't fancy Twanky, and Iolaus doesn't dress in feather boas. [Okay, I just stuck that one in as a personal thing...I have seen it done, once, fairly convincingly. But basically it's not going to do it for me. Granted, I cannot speak for anyone but myself in this.]
XI. [There's always an eleventh commandment!] Thou shalt feel free to break any and all of these rules if you can do so with originality.
...And that's the whole point, isn't it?