It’s not uncommon for writers of fiction to be influenced by poems. But in the following email interview, author Caroline Hardaker explains how her genre-mashing horror science fiction novel Composite Creatures (paperback, Kindle, audiobook) actually started out as a poem.
Photo Credit: Envela Castel
To begin, what is Composite Creatures about, and what kind of world does it take place in?
Composite Creatures is about the things we’d be willing to do to survive, and the sacrifices we make along the way. It takes place in a world very much like our own, but it’s struggling. Chemicals seep up from the soil and down from a lilac sky. Animals are disappearing, and people are being stricken down by “The Greying.”
Our narrator, Norah, joins one of the private health organizations that promises to help you thrive, but is perhaps unprepared for what comes next. Soon, from the cozy set-up at home with her new fiancé to the strange and alien creature that arrives to live in her attic — Norah’s world evolves until the reality of what she’s signed up for arrives like a bloody red dawn and changes everything.
Where did you get the idea for Composite Creatures, and how, if at all, did that initial idea change as you wrote this novel?
Composite Creatures actually started as a very random and probably terrible poem. I was asked to write several pieces for a science fiction magazine in Edinburgh, and was chugging out some ideas when the earliest version of the story appeared. At the time it was called “The Matter Cow,” and though the poem was a bit raw, I knew there was something there. At first, I thought it might be a short story, and then a novella. But as I started to write a very loose outline I realized that it might be something I could spin out into a full-length novel, and Composite Creatures was born.
The story hasn’t really changed since the initial outline, but the ending definitely did. The initial ending was completely the opposite to the ending in the final version (you’ll just have to imagine what that might be!) The only other thing that really changed was the world. It became a lot more colorful and multi-dimensional. Norah and Art’s story is now far more integrated into the state of the environment they live in. With every draft the world became richer, and that world became more real.
Composite Creatures sounds like it might be a horror story, albeit one that’s more creepy and freaky than bloody and gory. Is that how you’d describe it?
I’ve never really been able to pin it down, which is probably not what a publisher would ever want an author to say. Saying that, Angry Robot specialize in stories that flow between genres, so Composite Creatures has found its perfect home.
If I had to stick it on a bookshop shelf, the book could sit in the literary section, in the science fiction corner, or in the horror alcove. I generally feel like every day in our lives is a mix of genres — it might start out as a thriller as you sleep through your alarm, have moments of comedy, and end up a romance as you slip into bed — so why shouldn’t stories mirror this too?
Also — I do love to take readers along twisty paths where they don’t know what’s coming, so taking a story in unpredictable directions is something I can’t help but do! I’m tricksy like that.
As you mentioned, Composite Creatures started out as a poem, and it wouldn’t have been your first. You previously put out the poetry collections Bone Ovation in 2017 and Little Quakes Every Day in 2020. Do you think writing poetry influenced the prose you wrote in Composite Creatures?
Definitely. Honestly, reading and writing poetry is the best mental workout for any aspiring or professional novelist. It teaches you about rhythm, pacing, narration, and how to really experiment with language. In poetry, you need to avoid cliché at all costs, and must find totally original ways of describing everything:from the color of grass to the sensation as it tickles your feet. Training your mind to see the world from a new angle makes for truly imaginative and unique fiction, which can only be a good thing.
So, what poets do you think had the biggest influence on it?
It’s difficult to pick a single one. I read a lot of poetry, but very rarely stick to one poet. Though I would say that Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” has probably influenced my writing more than any other. The wordplay, the sing-song rhythm, the first-person narration, and the building sense of dread. It’s about what’s not said, just as much as what’s said, and it’s perfect.
How about prose; are there any prose writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on Composite Creatures but not on anything else you’ve written?
I wouldn’t say the story itself was influenced by anyone, but for a while I was influenced by the style of Japanese writers like Han Kang [The Vegetarian] and Takashi Hiraide [The Guest Cat]. There’s something so deep and slow about the pacing, and the poetry infused into descriptions of often mundane things like a garden fence or a chopped vegetable. On one level they read like folklore, and on another they sound just like everyday thoughts.
And how about non-literary influences; was Composite Creatures influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
I’m a big fan of the TV series Black Mirror, particularly the early episodes where it’s only a slight twist that turns the everyday into horror. It’s this level of reality that I tried to capture with Composite Creatures. While it’s technically science fiction, I wanted it to be as real as possible for the reader, so much so that you could forget that it’s fiction at all. Because for me, it’s only when things could legitimately happen in my lifetime that they become truly terrifying.
Along with writing novels and poems, you are also the writer in residence for the Newcastle Puppetry Festival. So I have to ask, how happy would you be if they made The Muppets Do Composite Creatures with Kermit and Ms. Piggy?
I would be overjoyed! I mean, I’d also be a bit shocked, and curious to see how Kermit in particular would handle a world where frogs are an endangered species, but I’m sure the crew would rock it. I think it’d be right up Jim Henson’s street.
I’ve actually already thought that Composite Creatures could work really well on stage if certain elements were animated with puppetry. (I’ll have to keep those secret until you’ve read the novel!) Not sure my husband would be thrilled to have such a terrifying puppet in the house, but I would be!
And how bummed were you when you first took the job and realized you misread their letterhead and that you hadn’t just become the writer in residence for the Newcastle Puppy Festival?
Well, once I’d returned the string of sausages and the “World’s Best Puppy Cuddler” t-shirt, I got over it pretty quickly. I whittled a marionette of a spaniel to help me through the pain.
Now, as you probably know, scary stories are sometimes stand-alone novels and sometimes they’re part of larger sagas. What is Composite Creatures?
It was written as a stand-alone novel, and I’m 99.9% certain that it’ll always be stand-alone. When readers read it, they’ll see why. I knew it’d be a story that balances itself out — like an ouroboros eating its own tail.
The 0.1% is because life is unpredictable and I kind of like that.
Earlier I asked if Composite Creatures had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But I want to flip things around and ask if you think Composite Creatures could work as a movie, show, or game?
You know, I spent a long time thinking Composite Creatures would be unfilmable. Part of the story’s mystery is that you’re forced to imagine things in your mind’s eye — things that might actually be different to how they’re presented to you. But as more people have talked about the story, I now think it’d make an amazing film, or two- or three-part series. It’d be tense, claustrophobic, and perfect for a Saturday night binge.
If someone wanted to adapt Composite Creatures into 2 or 3 movies, who would you want them to cast as Norah and Arthur and why them? Besides Kermit and Miss Piggy, of course.
It’s funny, but I always cast things that I write as I write them. I tend to visualize the story as a film, and create Pinterest cast lists like I’m an aspiring Nina Gold. I’ve always imagined Art as [The Lord Of The Rings‘] Elijah Wood — he has that frenetic energy and charm that Arthur oozes. Florence Pugh [Midsommar] would make a sincere and down to earth Norah, but teasing a dark undercurrent. She’s perfect in everything.
Finally, if someone enjoys Composite Creatures, what horror story of someone else’s would you suggest they read next?
I recently discovered Aliya Whiteley, and now despair that I hadn’t discovered her years ago. Her stuff dances between fantasy, science fiction, and folklore, but always with a foreboding sense of horror bubbling away beneath it all. Read The Beauty and be ready to be quite, quite disturbed. You’re welcome.