"The Sounds That Come After Screaming" by Ian Creasey — story background

The chair stank of piss.  So many fighters had contributed that no superficial wipe would ever clean it.  I reckoned that if a fire broke out, my chair was the safest place to be: surely it couldn't burn.  There would be no chance of escape, of beating the crowd's stampede to the exit.  Promoters of underground sports don't bother with safety regs, just as they don't bother with clean fittings.  The grimy table, the smelly chairs, the strata of stains on the stage were all heritage, the instant tradition of a sport nearly five years old.  Only the rig was new.  The buttons take so much punishment during bouts that they rarely last a tournament.

The same, of course, applies to the combatants.  As always, I didn't look at my opponent.  Only the crowd's jeers at the other chair told me it was occupied.  Today, I was their favourite.

This is a dark story.

It centres on a device that induces pain.  I don't remember how I got the idea, but I assume it ultimately derived from a memorable scene in Dune, where the protagonist has to put his hand into a box that creates agony through electrical stimulation of the nerves.  My twist on the concept was to turn the endurance of pain into a competition.  I imagined a seedy, underground sport with the atmosphere of boxing, but stripped of all physicality and reduced to the ultimate macho essence of inflicting and withstanding pain.

This idea lurked in my files for some time, while I tried to figure out how to write it.  My default assumption was of a near-future setting where contests occurred in the back rooms of pubs, with shady promoters charging admission, and punters betting on bouts between psychos and thrill-seekers.  The problem with this scenario was that it felt like stale warmed-over cyberpunk.  In particular, I kept thinking of "Dogfight" by Michael Swanwick and William Gibson, a classic cyberpunk story about a new plugged-in sport played in a seedy near-future setting.  I didn't want to write something that might feel like a pale pastiche.  I also had in mind Bob Shaw's "Dream Fighter", another superb story about mental combat in a dark future.  In a territory crowded with precedents, I had to find some way of staking out my own ground.

At this time, while mainly concentrating on short stories, I was also making notes for a novel I hoped one day to write.  I was sick of reading clichéd fantasy novels with generic medieval settings; I kept wondering why those societies apparently had such long histories, such advantages of magic and whatnot, and yet never seemed to progress.  I wanted to write about societies advancing and developing, thereby encountering new issues that might be somewhat fresher than the standard quest to find a mystical artefact or destroy a Dark Lord.  I imagined a world going through the Industrial Revolution, but with magic instead of science.  After all, the corollary of Clarke's Third Law is that any sufficiently successful magic is indistinguishable from technology.

I originally came up with the concept for this novel in 1990, but put it on hold for several years while I occupied myself with music.  Then in the late 1990s, after abandoning music in favour of writing, I started sketching out characters and background.  And I wondered whether my idea about pain-duelling could perhaps be set in this world.  It was the proverbial light-bulb moment, as if I'd finally found the right soil in which to plant the seed.  Suddenly the entire story unfolded in my head, the plot and characters springing to life.  With the weight of a whole imagined world behind it, the story felt fresh and solid, completely different to the cyberpunk pastiche I'd instinctively shied away from.

However, the plot outline contained torture and rape.  I was heading into dark territory.  Could I handle it?  I'd only know if I tried.  I wasn't especially comfortable with the material — as a reader, I'm not a fan of horror or crime or any kind of dark fiction — but I figured that a writer's job is to tell his story as well as he can.  I therefore wrote the scenes that the story needed, providing the necessary detail without being gratuitous about it.

After completing the story, I was reasonably pleased with the job I'd done.  Nevertheless, I still didn't feel at home with the material.  Since then, I've never written a story with that level of darkness.  Although I'd proved to myself that I could do it, I didn't feel any need to do it again.

Because the story originated with an SF idea, then acquired a Fantasy background and veered into Horror territory, I wasn't sure where to submit it for publication.  I had four rejections — one of which complained about the ambiguous genre — before I tried On Spec, a Canadian magazine.  Many months later, they sent me an email saying that they loved it and wanted to buy it.

They suggested a couple of very minor textual changes (just a few words), and also asked if I'd consider changing the title.  Now, titles are something of a weak spot for me as a writer.  I often struggle with them, and sometimes settling on a functional but uninspired title is the final stage of the writing process, because I need to put something at the top of the manuscript before I can print and submit it.  But sometimes I have what I think is the perfect title in mind all along.  This story was conceived and submitted as "Mistress of the Corridors, Mistress of the Dials".  The phrase "mistress of the..." was a running motif in the narrative.

The editor asked if I'd change the title to "The Sounds That Come After Screaming".  This didn't come out of thin air: it was an excerpt from the text, taken from a sentence toward the end of the story.  When writing those words, I hadn't thought anything of it.  Maybe I'd be better at coming up with titles if I could recognise them when I typed them....

At the time, I wasn't especially happy with the proposed title change, but this was only my second sale, and I wasn't about to jeopardise it by being overly precious.  I agreed, and the new title appeared as the lead story in the Spring 2002 issue of On Spec.

One point I've learned about being a writer is that things which seemed important at the time don't always matter so much when you look back on them.  With the perspective of a few years, I'm not bothered about the title.  I can appreciate that the published version is just as good as — perhaps better than — my original effort.

Although this was the second of my stories to be accepted, a delay in publication meant that it was the third to actually appear in print.  It did, however, mark the first time that I got reviewed.  Greg Beatty, reviewing the magazine in Tangent Online, said, "This issue starts strong; I am definitely going to be looking for more work by Ian Creasey," and made some complimentary comments.  Reviews of short stories don't count for a lot in the greater scheme of things.  But it felt good that my first ever review was a positive one.

As for the novel, I still haven't written it, but I have written two other stories that draw upon the same background: "Heart of the Forest" and "Memories of the Knacker's Yard".

Page last updated: 23 May 2015