Horror author Jim Harberson joins Lauren Spear on the HorrorFam.com Podcast to talk about his newest anthology, Comorbidities (ENTER OUR FREE DRAWING TO WIN A SIGNED COPY!!). As you listen, you’ll learn more about Jim’s horror writing influences and why he thinks Michael Bay’s The Island is actually the most terrifyingly effective holocaust film ever made rather than just a glitzy remake of Parts: The Clonus Horror!Become a Patron!
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LAUREN SPEAR: Hi, Everyone! My name is Lauren Spear and you’re watching the HorrorFam.com Podcast!
Today, my guest is author Jim Harberson — how you doin’, Jim?
JIM HARBERSON: Good. How are you?
LAUREN: I’m doing all right, but it’s been a while since I’ve done this so I’m a little bit nervous… But I’m happy to have you on as the guest for Episode 21!
JIM: Thank you. Happy to be here.
LAUREN: And, Jim, you’re an author in the horror genre. Would you like to tell everyone a little bit about what you do? I know that you sent me Comorbidities and you’ve also done graphic novels and a whole bunch of other stuff. But I’m sure you can tell everyone better than I can!
JIM: Well, I write primarily horror though I’ve done some… I’ve done some comedy stuff.
I started out writing fiction in earnest about 11 years ago and I started out writing crime and comedy and moved into horror. I wrote several screenplays with a friend of mine and one of those ended up becoming my first published book — the graphic novel, Stay Alive.
And it’s, you know, it’s difficult for me to conceive of horror without some kind of comic tinge because the real world is a pretty horrifying place and sort of just… Just retelling horror without some kind of comedy relief doesn’t make sense to me.
JIM: Because it’s… you know…
LAUREN: I’m partial to horror comedies myself. [chuckles]
JIM: Right. So, what my… Stay Alive is a horror comedy. It’s very dark, but it’s a comedy. It’s about a… The premise is that there’s a new website called UKill.com that’s the most popular in the world and it allows anyone, anywhere, to nominate anyone, anywhere, to be murdered!
LAUREN SPEAR: Hmm.
JIM HARBERSON: And the purveyors of the website put every nominee to a popular vote and whoever wins they, in turn, murder that person.
JIM: And, so, this down on her luck starlet in Hollywood gets herself voted to the top of the list by spoiling a… the home run of a terminally ill kid with cancer at a professional baseball game. Like, tagging him out dressed as the opposing team’s mascot at home plate!
JIM: Y’know? It’s one of those things where they set up the home run so the kid can run the bases and everybody’s cheering [laughs] and she crashes the party…
LAUREN: [chuckles] Oops!
JIM: Anyway, she ends up starring in a reality show called Stay Alive where she tries to avoid being murdered by the UKill people.
JIM: And one of the people, to add to the mix of the people in charge of UKill, frees her stalker. I’m sure most… A lot of actors and actresses in Hollywood have stalkers! So, they free a stalker who has murdered — who was in prison for life for murdering two of her co-stars on her last film.
LAUREN: Mm. Mmhmm.
JIM: And so he’s in the background hunting her as well.
LAUREN: Okay. This seems to be kind of a theme with your work! I noticed that at least two of the stories in Comorbidities take place in Hollywood, so—
JIM: I’ve always been fascinated by celebrity and the culture that surrounds celebrity.
JIM: Because it’s… In some ways it’s also contrived but, at the same time, it’s also extremely expressive with really really fundamental human needs and desires.
JIM: And I’ve always been fascinated by the way people construct fake realities around other people and/or themselves.
JIM: And the willingness of people to participate in this and the desire of so many people to be at the center of it.
JIM: And, so, yeah. I go back to that idea again and again. This idea of personality as being, possibly, your own worst enemy. Right?
Because I’m a believer in the idea that if you give people exactly what they want, they’ll be miserable.
JIM: So, they can’t account… People are generally unable to account for things that they really want. Outside of, perhaps, at a really general level. Like most people want to be healthy. You know? They don’t want to be… They want to have a job, say, that isn’t absolutely horrifying.
JIM: But, outside of vagaries and sort of essential things like that, most people, I think, you know… They will choose something that occurs at the expense of a lot of other essential things. And so there’s a warping effect on the reality that you experience.
JIM: And that warping is, you know, increased by people who are helping you create an image of yourself.
JIM: And, so, I mean, we live in an age of images and soundbites and memes and, increasingly, alternate realities in social media and cyberspace. Think of all the people who post photos of themselves that are hopelessly filtered so that you can’t really tell who the person is! Right?
JIM: And it’s like a whole different reality and people increasingly are just retreating into this reality because it’s apparently preferable to the real world. The metaphysical is preferable to the physical.
LAUREN: Huh! [chuckles]
JIM: That in of—
LAUREN: That is, uh…
JIM: Sorry.Become a Patron!
LAUREN SPEAR: I’m feeling… You know, this is touching on a lot of things for me! Like, we had to keep pushing this interview back because I took on a very intense job to get the funds to get to get a webcam but then, because of the job, I didn’t have time to do the interview! [laughs] So, even though I had the equipment…
It was like, “I have exactly what I want, but no time to do it!” So, what you just said touched me in that way as well.
And, also, I’m wearing a wig right now so I’m a bit fake right now as well! So, it’s, you know, some relatable topics you touched on! [laughs]
JIM HARBERSON: Well, it’s ironic, right? I mean, so much of human existence is tinged with irony.
JIM: Because we’re limited in our ability to appreciate things.
And most people never want to admit that!
JIM: And it’s probably a survival instinct. You don’t want to admit when you’re wrong.
Part of it’s vanity. Part of it’s pride. But part of it is showing, you know, conceding that you’re wrong, let’s say, about something is a sign of weakness potentially. That people will seize upon even if you do it in good faith!
That’s why, for example, politicians, more-or-less, never admit they’re wrong.
JIM: They always try to, you know, spin something or blame something else and it’s…
I was talking to a friend of mine today who’s a lawyer…
I used to be a lawyer.
LAUREN: Oh, wow!
JIM: And we were talking about the ability… How people will reframe questions, issues, concepts to the point where it’s almost unrecognizable so that, pardon the expression, you turn a shit sandwich into a double cheeseburger.
JIM: Because you just… You find ways to parse the meaning of terms and ideas to a point where you introduce ambiguity even if there really isn’t ambiguity!
JIM: You know? And that’s how people function in our society. Especially in a society where people deal more in symbols and meta reality than in reality!
There’s this famous cultural critic named Greil Marcus. And I grew up in the age of MTV in the ’80s and he had this wonderful description of MTV, which was basically… It was wall-to-wall music videos for the most part! It’s not anymore.
LAUREN: It’s not; no.
JIM: But it was, from its inception and for about eight years… He described it as “the pornography of semiotics.”
JIM: Which was really interesting because, you know, if you think about it, it’s just symbols manipulated for — [coughs] excuse me! — entertainment and crass… to serve crass… Or, to appease crass desires.
And, so, when I look at horror, I look at people and their desires to do things that have power, for example, over other people. And I try to think of ways that, you know, this can be exploited into something horrifying. You know?
JIM: The idea of a maniac hunting people down, I mean… Yeah. It’s scary. But it’s been done to death, so to speak!
It’s much more interesting to me to see how people’s good intentions can become terrible things!
LAUREN: Mm! Mmhmm.
JIM: Or produce terrible things!
So, for example, one of my stories is more sci-fi horror than anything. At the end of my collection. It’s called… It’s called “Peak Bliss.”
And the premise is that it’s in the future and human beings’ lives are controlled completely by supposedly benevolent Artificial Intelligences. And their lives are so perfectly curated that they never interact with any other living being because that is an opportunity for distress. Right?
Like, they can’t even have PETS because pets will die!
JIM: So, they have AI pets.
JIM: And the story’s about a guy who’s quietly going mad because of this. And, finally, one day, he discovers that he’s dead to joy and resolves to kill himself.
JIM: And the AIs intervene and have a, you know, conversation with him and tell him that “It’s okay. He’s experiencing what’s called Peak Bliss.” Which means that the dopamine receptors or whatever in his brain that is responsible for pleasurable sensation have been burned out!
JIM: And all they have to do is blank his memory—
JIM: —and he’ll be able to experience pleasure again! Right?
LAUREN: Hmm! Well—
JIM: Which is, of course, insane!
JIM: But, it’s the idea of, you know, you take logical ideas or scientific ones and you extend them to… You extend them to a logical extreme that is abhorrent.
So, one of my favorite movies recently was Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
It’s the one in which it’s revealed that Hydra has taken over S.H.I.E.L.D. and Captain America is a fugitive from S.H.I.E.L.D. which is how—
LAUREN: Spoilers! [laughs]
But, there’s this wonderful scene in which Nick Fury, formerly the head of S.H.I.E.L.D.
JIM: He confronts Robert Redford. He’s the head of Hydra and so he’s also sort of the head of S.H.I.E.L.D. too…
JIM: And Robert Redford says, “Would you kill 20 million people to save a billion?”
JIM: Because it, you know, if you think in terms of “If your highest goal is protecting human life…”
JIM: And that’s above all other goals, then you could do it! If you could wipe out lots of potentially dangerous people, you could save a lot of lives!
But, at the same time: Think about what that represents.
And, so, Robert Redford’s character says, “I have the courage to do that. And the old Nick Fury would have the courage to do that too!” And Nick Fury replies, “Well, I have the courage NOT to do it.”
And, so, you take the idea of protecting human life, but you pervert it out of context with other equally important values and you end up guilty of mass murder! Right?
LAUREN: Yeah. [chuckles]
JIM: And that’s the kind of thing that interests me!
JIM: So, for example, my new… One of the stories in my collection of novellas — Comorbidities — is called “Cat Problem” and—
LAUREN: Yep! You got a lotta problems in this one! “Cat Problem,” “Ghost Problems”…!
JIM HARBERSON: Yeah.
LAUREN SPEAR: [laughs]
JIM: But the idea is: “What would happen if the military came up with an eco-friendly Weapon of Mass Destruction?”
JIM: And, in this case, what they do is they weaponize a bunch of feral cats with a special strain of rabies, contagious only to cats. And they use it… It turns the cats into killing machines! And they end up eating a small town in Colorado as a test.
And, yeah, I was just thinking that there are ways in which people will do terrible things to serve… In this case, the goal is to serve the Mastermind — the Pentagon official who’s the mastermind behind this. He wants to put a use to cats who would otherwise be disposable.
JIM: To make them less disposable, if only because they’re more useful.
JIM: To some end.
But, also, there’s sort of an environmental agenda. Right?
JIM: And nobody is, you know…
These are both, you know, GOOD INTENTIONS. Right?
JIM: To, you know, to, in one sense, save feral cats… I mean. I’m a vegan and I love animals so…
JIM: So, I am particularly attuned to issues like that.
But, you know, what are good… What are good justifications for your actions can become the premise for some… for TERRIBLE things!! Right?!
JIM: And so there’s a kind of irony built into there that you’re trying to protect human life or animal life — you’re trying to protect the earth — and you end up doing terrible things. Right?
JIM: There’s a, you know… There’s a famous political philosopher — a theologian — named Reinhold Niebuhr and he wrote this wonderful book called The Irony of American History and he talked about the fact… And I doubt that he was the first person to observe this! You know. That we developed nuclear weapons to protect ourselves and so we’re sitting on this massive arsenal of things that could eradicate all life on earth to, ironically, protect life on earth.
So, human beings — especially in the United States — are kind of allergic to irony. People would like to think that their motives are true and…
I mean, unless they’re just OPENLY corrupt! In which case… You know, I far prefer people who are openly corrupt to those who have deluded themselves into thinking that doing bad things is somehow the right thing to do.
JIM: And, so, you have this contradiction in which supposedly the good things people are doing…
Or — I’m sorry — the good people are doing things are reprehensible but, because the right people are doing them, it might be right!
Which, in some ways, is really horrific! That’s…HORROR! To me.
So what you do is you take things that are expected to be good or wholesome or decent and you produce terrible things with it!
JIM: And one of my stories — I think it’s “Me Again?” — in my second collection is about a super model who’s recovering from plastic surgery at some Swiss hospital. And she sees herself on television at the same time… LIVE!
JIM: Or recently. And it’s HER but, you know, it CAN’T be her because she’s recuperating from surgery!
LAUREN: Yeah. Hmm!
JIM: And it turns out, long story short, that this weirdo billionaire who is creeping on her bought her genetic profile and now she…
This is something a lot of people have their genetic profiles analyzed so that they can find out where they are or who their… Who they are, where they’re from, et cetera. Health issues…
JIM: And this is very useful information, but it’s also susceptible to abuses!
So, I was thinking, “What would happen if a billionaire bought your… Was perving on you and bought your genetic profile and was able to clone you?” Right?
JIM: So, what happens is this billionaire clones her a bunch of times but determines that the real thing is what he really wants and so he abducts her.
JIM: And I’ll leave the details to the reader, but…
JIM: You know! There’s this sense… People want to…
People want to live in a kind of romantic distance from reality. I think it’s the human condition. And I think that tendency is where I like to find horror.
JIM: Because it’s inevitable that bad things will happen!
JIM: It’s inevitable that things will be distorted! The only question is “how far, by whom, and to what end?”
So, um… [smacks lips]
LAUREN: Okay! So—
LAUREN: Oh. Sorry.
JIM: Go ahead.
LAUREN: [laughs]. So. Some of your influences were comic books and movies and you also mentioned your past career as a lawyer… Did that come into play at any point? Have you ever found yourself using your former life as a lawyer in your writing?
JIM: Well, my experience… I was a criminal defense and civil rights lawyer. So, I saw a lot of BAD things happening to people!
LAUREN: Oh my gosh!
JIM: People whom society… Society had sort of written off.
JIM: And they’re still human beings, but…
LAUREN: But they get treated like the feral cats.
Americans have a terrible tendency to write you off if you’re undesirable or — not even a criminal! — if you’re just ACCUSED of a crime! Right?
JIM: And I remember… I had a case once in which my client in jail awaiting trial. The deposition of his case. And he’d been bitten by a brown recluse spider!
LAUREN: Oh, wow.
JIM: And he also had a staph infection. He’d almost died, like, TWICE. In custody! And, so, I’d moved to have him released.
And I was telling… I mean, he came to court and he was bright red and he was feverish! It was horrifying! I saw the injury to his neck.
JIM: That’s where he’d been bitten. That’s where the staph infection was.
And I remember telling this really green Prosecutor about this. And, you know, this is a supposedly well-educated circumspect person.
LAUREN: So, you were…
JIM: Who has a—
LAUREN: You were Defense? Yes?
LAUREN: Like Phoenix Wright? [chuckles]
JIM: Yeah, I could never do anything besides Defense.
JIM: It’s just not in me to Prosecute people.
JIM: And I was telling this Junior Prosecutor. I think she was just really out of law school. And I told her that this was terrible! Right?
Response: “Well, that’s why you don’t go to jail.”
You know? And I was just like “What?!”
JIM: That…that… That it was almost ENSUANT! And I think that that typifies…
You know. It’s hard to blame her because I doubt she had that much life experience in the culture we were operating in. She was just lacking that culture.
But, you know, as soon as it becomes easy to put people in a box and forget about them, bad things start to happen.
JIM: And, you know, once you see that up close — unless you’re immune to empathy!
JIM: It can’t help but change you!
So, that and… You know. Seeing that really amplified my sensibilities about horror.
JIM: Like I said: I like slasher films!
JIM: But… Well. I used to. I’ve seen so many now that it’s sort of old hat for me. But, at the same time… They’re not that scary to me. The way…
Here’s a good example: There’s a movie that Michael Bay made that came out in 2005 called The Island.
LAUREN SPEAR: [laughs]
JIM HARBERSON: I don’t know if you saw it.
LAUREN: Yeah! [laughs]. Yeah. I did.
JIM: And I like to say it’s the best movie about the holocaust. The Nazi holocaust. Ever made.
LAUREN: Oh wow. [chuckles]
JIM: In some ways. Because the way the clones are treated in that. They’re abject to humanization. And the portrayal of that is, you know… It’s absolutely horrifying!
It’s as horrifying as any holocaust film you’d wanna see.
The two things that… The two things that come to mind: There’s a scene where this woman clone is being used as a surrogate mother for an infertile couple.
LAUREN: Hmm. Mmhmm.
JIM: And she gives birth to the baby and she wants to see it. And, what happens is, the baby is spirited away and handed to the couple that… that bought it, essentially!
JIM: And, in the meantime, the mother who’s crying out to see her child is quietly euthanized. Murdered, really!
LAUREN: Uh-huh. Yeah.
JIM: In a hospital bed. The nurse gives her a shot in her IV and kills her!
LAUREN: Oh. Wow.
JIM: You know? And this is juxtaposed with the parents loving their new child.
JIM: And there’s another scene! I think it’s…
Who’s the actor who was the… Who had the magical powers in The Green Mile? I’m trying to remember his name. He died young. It was very sad.
LAUREN: Oh! Um. Michael Clarke Duncan.
JIM: Yeah! He was a great actor! And there was this wonderful scene where, as a clone, he realizes he’s about to have his organs harvested and he’s fighting very hard not to be harvested and he fails.
LAUREN SPEAR: Hmm.
JIM HARBERSON: And you can see the horror in his eyes!
And what’s really interesting — the reason I say it’s the best, ONE of the best… MY favorite… Er… Favorite is a hard word… MOST EFFECTIVE movie that I’ve ever seen about the holocaust! I say that because it takes the essential horror of what happened — and what happens in any kind of mass murder genocide — and it makes it as pungent as it can possibly be. It decontextualizes it so that you’re seeing it again for the first time in a way. Right?
JIM: Because, if you see something enough, you become immune to it. It’s like there’s a theory in… There’s a theory in psychotherapy called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.
LAUREN: Yeah! [chuckles]
JIM: And the premise is that if you expose yourself to something you fear enough, your mind becomes deadened to it and you’re no longer afraid of it.
LAUREN: Yeah. I went through a lot of that when I was getting treated for PTSD. [laughs]
JIM: Okay. Okay…
JIM: Well, I hope it worked.
LAUREN: Yeah! …For the most part.
JIM: But, you know. So, if you see things… If you see violence, for example. Films of violence. Real violence even! Eventually you become, you know… Not immune to them. But the power… They lose their power over you.
JIM: But if you see the same terrible thing reframed in a way that has stripped away your ability to ignore it, then that is really, really powerful.
And, so, what I often try to do — and I try to do this with humor because otherwise it would just be too much! — I try to find ways of reexamining things that scare people. But in ways that are unexpected.
JIM: And to take assumptions people might make without really thinking, you know? Assumptions they’ll make, you know, often without even realizing they’re making an assumption. And use it as a way to bring the horror back to them in an essential and sort of unignorable way.
JIM: And that’s why I raised the story of The Island up.
JIM: Because it really, you know… It really had SUCH an effect on me! And that’s why I said it was such a great movie basically about the holocaust! Or Hotel Rwanda! Pick your terrible genocide horrible mass murder! You know?
It was SO effective, I think, in part because it took the same actions that you would see in the political context and put them in a depoliticized context. So you weren’t… You were startled by what it was! In a way.
JIM: You weren’t prepared for it. You know?
If you watch a movie about, say, the holocaust or Hotel Rwanda or… pick your poison. Any other terrible thing! Stalin’s purges. You’re prepared because you probably know about what you’re getting into.
JIM: You’re prepared for that! So, you’re prepared to see films of mass graves, let’s say, or other atrocities.
I wasn’t, at least, prepared when I saw The Island! And THAT’S why, in some ways, it was so effective. Because it decontextualized the same acts and made you see them in a raw way that made the horror they represent — or they constitute — more powerful, more effective than would presenting them in another context.
Do you understand what I’m saying?
LAUREN: Yeah. I… I was just thinking I’ll have to rewatch The Island. I haven’t seen it since it was in theaters!
And then, when it went to DVD, I was working at The Wherehouse and a woman asked me if it was appropriate for her teenager to watch. And she was like, “I don’t care about violence! But is there any SEX in it?” And I said, “Yes. But it’s kind of like the sex scene in Top Gun except it’s orange instead of blue.” [laughs]
LAUREN: And that’s basically what I remember! [laughs] So, it’s like… Jeez. The Island had a lot more going on than I thought. I should probably go rewatch that.
You take terrible things from history. And those are the things that scare me the most.
JIM: Political violence. The ability of mobs to justify terrible things to themselves. You know. And it happens… It’s happened throughout history!
JIM: There were reports of, during the Middle Ages, people… And there’s a scene like this in that Mel Gibson movie The Patriot where, during the Middle Ages in Europe, Christians would surround synagogues. Where the Jewish people were praying and having services inside and they would lock the doors and burn them down. Right?
JIM: And you think about that. What… What would cause a large group of people to be okay with that?
JIM: That’s all mostly interesting to me. I think there’s a tendency of people… It’s like the…
There’s a quote in The Federalist. The Federalist Papers by Madison about the mobs. He said that even if “every Athenian citizen been a Socrates…”
Socrates being, of course, the ultimate gadfly. The ultimate contrarian.
Every Athenian assembly would still be a mob. You know? If you get a critical mass of people together…
It’s like that wonderful quote from The Simpsons: “There’s no justice quite like mob justice.”
You get this weird moral unity and bad things happen. Right?
I went to parochial school growing up and I saw this idea that “Well, God’s on OUR side so you’re wrong. Even if you’re right! You’re wrong.” And it’s… It’s very strange and disturbing.
And it’s part of the human condition. Because people desperately want a sense of security. They want life to have meaning. They want a happy ending. And people who sincerely believe something different, they see as an existential threat to their own sense of reality, I think. And so they have to be destroyed! Right?
LAUREN: [takes a breath as if she’s about to speak]—
JIM: Because there’s no middle ground! There’s no harmony!
One of the great things about the modern world — and it gets a lot of flak — is that it teaches people tolerance and it teaches people the idea of living peaceably with people you might strongly disagree with for a larger goal and becomes that of…
It’s an attempt to repudiate things like wars of religion and other sectarian thinking, but I sometimes wonder if most people are capable of that! You know? That even the smartest, most well-educated people just… They need the world to make sense! They need the universe to have a purpose and, if it doesn’t, they can’t handle it. So they, you know… They find religion in one thing or another.
It may not be a traditional religious outlook. It might be a political thing. Or dedication to consumer brands. Or sports teams. But it’s a religion. Because it’s at some fundamental point insusceptible to reason. And reasonable conversation.
LAUREN: [clears throat] Just…
JIM: It’s “you either agree with me or you’re my enemy!” Right?
LAUREN: Just a sec…
JIM: And what do you do with that! Right?!
JIM: Sometimes I just like to have fun too! I wrote a story in…
“Cat Problems” is sort of like that.
But, I wrote another story where the… In Disgusting Supermarket of Death — my second book, it’s a collection of short stories. And, in it, it’s about this undertaker to the stars. This mortician who is preferred to take care of dead celebrities.
JIM HARBERSON (continuing): And, one night, he gets a visit from this weirdo lawyer who offers him $100,000 so his client can have his way with this beautiful dead celebrity who took too much, I don’t know, if it was like heroin and cocaine like a speedball.
And he says, “Okay. $100,000.” And the lawyer starts coming back to him with all of these other clients. And, you know, so this guy is now making all this money. [clears throat] Excuse me! And he’s cutting over people in and the middle scene involves essentially an orgy at the county morgue where all these rich weirdos come in to have their way with the dead skaters from a travelling themed skating show called Sparkling Sequins. And they end up murdering a couple of people who might otherwise not be able to be bribed! And force the mortician to clean the whole thing up!
And when the mortician protests, the lawyer says, “It’s not like you have clean hands! This whole thing is a disgusting supermarket of death and we’re paying you to deal with it. So just take the money and deal with it!” You know?
I’m not sure that there’s any grander, you know, rumination on ideas than that! I just thought it would be a fun story to tell! You know??
One of my influences… My ESSENTIAL influence, in many ways, were the EC Comics from the 1950s. The ones that came under fire and helped precipitate the Comics Code.
LAUREN: Yeah! Actually, I’ve got… Just a second!
[grabs a Haunt of Fear comic off the bed behind her, wiggles it in front of the camera, and laughs]
Love those too!
JIM: Yeah. Exactly. Tales from the Crypt, Weird Science, all that stuff. I read them when I was 14. I read the horror titles when I was about 14 and it was like a bomb went off in my head. 14 or 15… It was so great.
And it set the model for my writing of short stories where I try to tell a terrible tale humorously with a twist ending as much as possible.
And the story I’ve mentioned before… One of my favorites…
EC would do their own take on Grimm fairy tales.
JIM: And their take on Hansel and Gretel involved Hansel and Gretel actually getting eaten at the end of the story. They go into the oven and the witch looks at the reader and they break the Fourth Wall and says, “You didn’t think Hansel and Gretel were gonna escape, did you?!”
JIM: “This is an EC magazine!” You know?
JIM: Like “shame on you for thinking there’d be a happy ending! You knew what you were getting into!”
JIM: “You knew what this was!” to borrow an expression.
JIM: You know? Which is GREAT!
So, you know, obviously it was too much for… It was too much for the people in power in the early ’50s and it got… Comic books were essentially blamed for all… Well, not ALL… Juvenile delinquency!
JIM: And then the Red Scare got worked into it and, you know, I’m just glad they were able to get away with what they were doing for five years and that they were able to generate so much stuff.
LAUREN: There’s a LOT of EC Comics!
JIM: That and MAD Magazine!
MAD Magazine, which I read long before I read EC Comics, was an essential.
JIM: It was probably the most… It was probably more important to my education than almost all of my formal education! Because it taught me to view the world from a kind of cynical not depressed but, you know, kind of world weary way of… The world is a f**ked up place, pardon the expression. The best you can do is make jokes about it.
Or, as I like to say: Put on the…
Christian Saint Paul says “Put on the Armor of Light.” I like to say “Put on the Armor of Irony.”
JIM: Because the best… It’s a way to deal with the horrible vicissitudes of life. It gives you a distance. So, you know, it’s not TOO painful. You know? There’s a tendency…
I think a lot of people want the world to conform to their desires, you know? And it never will!! Not consistently enough! And, if it did, it would be like that Twilight Zone episode where the little… The twelve-year-old kid has an entire town hostage to his whims!
JIM: Because he can wish anything he wants!
JIM: Yeah. And, you know, that’s… Terrible things happen! Like I said, when the world can look like what you want it, terrible things happen.
So, it’s better to just seal yourself against it and not talk it personally. Because, if you do, the world will eat you alive! It really will!! If you take it personally? Forget it!
JIM: You’ll either go mad or you’ll become a tyrant. Seeking power to control the risk, even!
I think there was this Batman story that came out recently… I think the author’s name was Scott Synder and it was called “Last Knight on Earth.” And I hope I’m not… I hope I’m getting the story details straight. But, basically, what happens is the earth is…
Long story short, the earth is put in a post-apocalyptic posture. And one of the ways it’s being enslaved is by a clone of Bruce Wayne that Bruce Wayne created. He tried to create a Batman in perpetuity to protect people but it ends up being a terrible thing — a dictatorial presence that enslaves everyone to abolish all crime!
LAUREN: Because he doesn’t have the same life experiences that would make him empathetic. Right?
JIM: Right!! He’s not human! In a way.
JIM: So… Right! And so it’s… You’re right!!
It’s a perversion of a desire to, say, protect people.
JIM: That is taken out of context… That is taken out of context of other values and made the ONLY value.
JIM: It’s what… Saint Augustine referred to sin as disordered love! You take something that’s good and you pervert it so that it’s out of synch with the rest of… With other virtues.
JIM: Other virtues.
And another one of my favorite films — another essential influence on my work! — is A Clockwork Orange.
LAUREN: Mm? Mmhmm.
JIM: Stanley Kubrick’s movie! In which this horrible juvenile delinquent who’s guilty of homicide and all kinds of other crimes… Multiple homicides! At least two!
JIM: He’s put through this thing called the Ludovico Technique in which he’s forced to watch terrible films…
LAUREN: [chuckles] CBT.
JIM: Right! Exactly!
JIM: So, he’s given drugs so that any time he has either a sexual or a violent urge, he gets physically ill.
JIM: So, his own nervous system prevents him from acting on wrong urges.
JIM: And it’s funny because the only person who protests this is the Anglican cleric in the film who says “What about choice?” and the government poo-poos that and is like “We have to deal with… Choice is a LUXURY!” Right?
JIM: So, yeah! I mean, people set up ways of managing reality and if they become convinced… COMPELLED enough… You know? We just start doing terrible things! Right?
JIM: So, that, like I said, I’m kind of repeating myself. That is where I like to find horror.
There’s a story I wrote… There’s a story in my collection called “OCD” and it’s about a guy with OCD.
He lives as a recluse. And he’s constantly afraid people will think he’s committed crimes that he hasn’t committed. And, what happens is, one day, his mail carrier makes a joke that he has a mass grave in his basement.
So, the guy… He lives alone! He’s a product quality assurance tester. So he tests all kinds of products and gets all this mail all the time. That’s how he knows his letter carrier so well.
JIM: And the guy becomes convinced the letter carrier actually DOES think he’s got a mass grave in his basement! So, he murders the letter carrier!
JIM: And he already has, set up in his house, a means of disposing of the body. Because he realized someday he might have to murder somebody who thought he committed a crime that he didn’t commit.
LAUREN: Oh. Wow…
JIM: And, from there, it spirals out into a series of murders that the guy commits in order to cover up the murder that he committed to… Because he was afraid he was going to be accused of a murder he never committed.
JIM: So, it’s played for comic effect!
JIM: And the guy ends up murdering, I don’t know, five people or something?
JIM: And, at the end of the story, he’s driving around in the ice cream truck — whose driver he murdered in order to cover up ANOTHER murder — and he’s got all the bodies in the truck. Because it’s a freezer truck! Right?
JIM: And he’s serving ice cream to children and he’s finally gotten out. And he’s not a recluse anymore! He’s out driving around and dealing with the public…
And he calls this therapist! And his therapist is OVERJOYED that his client’s made this breakthrough!! Oh. But there’s a CATCH! Right? [laughs]
JIM: So, yeah! It’s like solving problems in the wrong way. Or doing the wrong thing for the right reason??
JIM: I’ve always loved those conundra! So…
Because it’s a moral confusion! And it’s a complicated thing for many people to deal with. So, you know.
Like I said: It presents and opportunity for people to do terrible things and think they’re doing the right thing.
LAUREN: Oh. Sorry.
JIM: Go ahead.
LAUREN: So, A Disgusting Supermarket of Death was your short story collection and Stay Alive was your… Was that your FIRST graphic novel? Or just one of your graphic novels…?
JIM: That was my first graphic novel!
LAUREN: And your—
JIM: My first—
JIM: Go ahead.
LAUREN: They were both nominated for Rondo awards, right?
JIM: Yes. Rondo Hatton Classic Horror awards!
JIM: Which I’m greatly appreciative of.
LAUREN: Yeah! That’s awesome!
JIM: So, my first… Actually, my first foray into publi… My first published horror piece was a web comic that you can find on my website: JamesHarberson.com
And it’s called Death Cat!
LAUREN SPEAR: Oh!! [laughs]
JIM HARBERSON: Yeah. It’s a cat thing.
LAUREN: It had… It had very similar to…! [holds cover artwork of Comorbidities up to the camera] To this! Right?
LAUREN: Did you—
LAUREN: Did you work with the same artist, or…?
JIM: Yeah. I’ve used the same artist for all the art done for my projects. His name’s Stephen Baskerville. And he’s a wonderfully talented guy.
LAUREN: Ah. Okay.
JIM: And he just… The Royal post office… He’s British and the Royal post office commissioned him and two other artists to produce stamps commemorating the… Hasbro’s Transformers.
LAUREN: Oh wow! [chuckles]
JIM: Yeah. So, he helped produce those stamps. They just got released on September 1st.
LAUREN: Oh! Well, congratulations to him!!
JIM: Yeah. He’s… He’s great.
And you can get to his site through… By clicking on his name on MY website.
JIM: And, so, my co-author, Frazer Rice, with whom I did the graphic novel — he was writing under a pseudonym at that time, Mackie Wildwood — we took a piece out of a screenplay we’d written. And it was… The idea came from this:
There was a… I guess people who are dying make a pheromone that are attractive to cats.
JIM: And, I don’t know what it is! If it’s ringing the dinner bell… Who knows!
But, somebody in some hospice… I can’t think Or a retirement home? in Rhode Island discovered that, “Hey! The palliative care cat is glomming onto the people who’re about to DIE!” You know?
JIM: “That’s kind of weird.” [laughs] And, so, I was thinking, “There’s gotta be a horror story here!!” Right?
JIM: A comedy horror story!
And, so, what we did was we put together this mini comic. This mini… An EC story!! Actually.
JIM: Called “Death Cat!”
JIM: And there’s a palliative care cat named Bingo and he’s notorious for glomming onto people about to die. And, so, the sick people in the home are terrified of him.
JIM: And, so, what the staff are doing… They take wagers on who he’ll pick and then they shut the cat in the sick room! And wait for him to pick a victim!
JIM: So, they’re betting on who Bingo’s going to foretell the death of!
JIM: So, I’ll leave it to the potential readers to follow through to the end, but, you know, that’s a good example of my sensibility! It’s like, “Let’s take something horrible and not take away the horror of it but make it palatable by making it funny.”
So, um, and, therefore, you can… You can deal with the horror without, you know, being utterly put off. It’s like “a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down.” Right?
JIM: Because there are plenty of horror films from around the ’70s, let’s say…
JIM: …that are absol— The grindhouse films? That…
In many ways, they’re better off being trailers.
You know how, during the… In 2006 or 7…? 6!! Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez came out with those Grindhouse films. Planet Terror and Death Proof.
LAUREN SPEAR: And the trailers in-between?
JIM HARBERSON: Right! The fake trailers!
JIM: Except one of them, Machete, became a real movie!
JIM: But, you know, a lot of these movies would be better off as these kinds of trailers because they’re just variations on a theme.
But, you know, there’s a movie called Blood Sucking Freaks an attorney I worked with said was designed to test the boundaries of the First Amendment!
JIM: That is an utterly… It’s just…
Or Cannibal… Cannibal… What is it?
LAUREN: Cannibal Holocaust.
LAUREN: Yeah, those were—
JIM: These movies are—
LAUREN: —both on the last season of Joe Bob’s Last Drive-In…
JIM: Yeah. They’re essentially pornographic. And it’s difficult to watch them because there’s no… There’s not a lot of redeeming artistic value.
JIM: I mean, just showing terrible things happening is…
LAUREN: It gets boring.
JIM: And, you know, add to that: In Cannibal Holocaust, the actual slaughter of the turtles!
LAUREN: Mmhmm. I couldn’t—
JIM: Which, you know…! They actually killed animals make a movie?! REALLY??
JIM: Are you kidding me?!
I think even Rob Zombie won’t watch that movie because of that! He’s a vegan, I think.
But, to me, you know, those movies in context were transgressive. And they were trying to be transgressive in the ’70s in order to fight the prevailing culture. But NOW??
LAUREN SPEAR: They’re what kids today would call “Try hard.” [laughs]
JIM HARBERSON: Yeah.
But, now, it’s not transgressive anymore. Right? So, you really have to be doing something else. It can’t just be about graphic violence because, you know…
I guess you can watch one of those movies once, but unless you have a literally a purian interest. [laughs] You know? It’s just not that interesting! So…
And I’m not advocating censorship or anything! I just don’t…
Artistically speaking, these movies don’t interest me!
JIM: So, in any event, well… SOME of them are guilty pleasures! Okay?
JIM: For example, I’m trying to think… The CLASSIC example of this is I Spit On Your Grave.
LAUREN: Mmhmm. Great title.
JIM: Which is… Yeah. A grotesque movie to watch! But, you can’t help but feel a visceral sense of satisfaction watching the victim — the protagonist in that movie — get her revenge on her attackers. Right?
So, I would actually argue that that movie is the most feminist movie ever made.
JIM: And, you know, it’s one of those movies where it takes it to the very edge of what’s acceptable while still being artistically redeeming.
LAUREN: Well, if you—
JIM: Some people will tell you it—
LAUREN: —ever want to write an article for HorrorFam.com why that’s so, I would love to read that.
JIM: Well, I think that… Thank you. But, I think that this isn’t an original idea.
JIM: I think that the director himself and other critics — because its attracted a lot of critical commentary — have said the same thing. It’s, you know…
It works, especially in context, because it’s a feminist film. That dimension redeems the gratui— It makes the violence somehow LESS gratuitous…?
LAUREN: Hm? Mmhmm?
JIM: Like the rape and the violence. Less gratuitous. I mean, still gratuitous. There’s no getting around that. You don’t have to show that level of detail! Though I’m sure the director would argue otherwise.
And it’s one of those things where it’s, you know. It’s debatable.
But simply showing things like those Faces of Death movies? Though, I guess, a lot of that’s fake. You know. It’s, you know. If you’re just watching it to be transgressive, that’s one thing. But if, outside of say… Doing something transgressive in order to call attention to a societal restriction on expression that you don’t like.
Outside of that context, it’s not very interesting! Like you said: It’s boring!
I saw this interview once with Suze Randall who’s a photog— I don’t know if she’s still! If she’s retired? I think she is.
Her daughter, Holly, is a… They’re boudoir… They’re adult filmmakers. Photographers.
And Suze Randall, I saw her in this documentary about Hustler, years ago. And she said she not only photographed her own she had her own explicit pictorial done! Which was really interesting! I mean… She’s willing to go there!! So, she’s not just photographing it — she’s willing to BE that and I salute her! That’s real commitment to your art form.
But the most striking thing she discussed though was that, as the trans — the transgressive war against moral standards — continued and they WON again and again and again, it became less interesting.
JIM: Until, finally, it wasn’t interesting at all because you could do whatever you wanted essentially.
And… who was it that said “Art dies without rules or…” Or without something to bite up… Back up against? I think there’s something to that! You have to have RULES! Otherwise it’s just not that interesting. Right?
I mean, modern art! Let’s say, Picasso or TS Elliot. The reason it works, when it does, is that the people who’re doing it are such geniuses that they’re able to come up with their own set of rules and follow them so that what they create is organic. And it speaks to you. It’s not, you know…
Shakespeare was a genius within the context of… Was it dactylic hexameters? No. Pentameter? I don’t know. I can’t remember the exact verse structure that he used. But, he played within that rule. Those rules.
JIM: And modernists abolish those rules.
And you can DO that if you’re a Picasso or you’re a TS Elliot. But, if you’re NOT that talented, you know… It’s a mess! It’s not that interesting! So… Because you don’t really have anything consistently that you’re pushing yourself against to define what you’re doing to be accountable to the process! Understand what I’m saying?
Well—! [starts to hold up Comorbidities…]
JIM: So, and that’s why, ultimately, horror movies and horror properties just aren’t interesting to me. Because there’s no, you know. It’s just showing terrible things happening to people! Even if they sort of have it coming, it isn’t that interesting. To me.
It might be interesting ONCE but, otherwise, after that, it’s like “Huh” You know? “Show me something more interesting!”
LAUREN: Well! Um. Speaking of rules, we’re going to be having a raffle because Jim Harberson has given us two signed copies of his latest book, Comorbidities. And you’ll be able to enter that raffle at the bottom of this podcast. At the bottom of the transcript! So, be sure to enter to win one of these two signed copies.
And we’re gonna ship that to anyone in the United States. And we’ll be taking entries until… Let’s see what that date is going to beeeeeeee… Untiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiillllllllllllllllllllllllllll… October 26th! [giggles]
JIM: Yeah. I’m glad! I hope that the people who win them enjoy them. Because, you know, this is…
You know, being able to… I’m so grateful to my publisher, Markosia! Being able to write. You know. CREATE stories and have them be published and appreciated by people is such a MAGNIFICENT… It’s MAGICAL in a way! I mean, that’s a trite expression, but it applies! Right?
So, you know, being able to reach people. Like, some people don’t get what I’m up to at all! And that’s fine. You know. It’s art. What can you do? But some people REALLY get it and it’s always so gratifying when people read what I’ve written and they really understand and they love it.
LAUREN: Yeah. And this JUST came out a—
JIM: June 1st!
LAUREN: —couple months ago.
JIM: Yeah. And…
LAUREN: Oh. Did you want to talk about what you’re working on now? Are you allowed to talk about what you’re working on now or…?
JIM: I’m trying to… I’m working on three novels right now.
JIM: One of them I have largely outlined and I’m in the process of writing it. One of them I’ve outlined, but I haven’t started writing it yet. The other one’s in the brainstorming phase.
JIM: The one I’m writing, I’m just going to say it’s about identity and the fracturing of identity.
JIM: Because I think that that is something that’s happening in our society right now. You know?
LAUREN: This goes—
JIM: People define themselves. Who they want to be! Right?
LAUREN: Yeah. It goes back to what you were saying earlier about people’s personas online and on social media versus what they’re really like and—
JIM: And I’m sure…! I think a lot of people — and this is also a part of the human condition!! — DON’T know who they are! And they’re LOOKING to find out who they are. And it’s something that everybody does. Right?
JIM: I mean, I’d actually be kind of scared of people who never asked who they were and tried to find themselves. Right?
JIM: Because they’ve been programmed, essentially.
And, so, but the thing is is that the ability of people to represent themselves in all kinds of ways they weren’t able to before…It’s interesting but, you know, it’s one of those things that could lend itself to horror! I mean, look at catfishing, for example!
JIM: And that’s been going on for a long time! People can manufacture whole identities and realities online that are completely fictitious and induce other people to get involved.
So, I mean, just check your Spam folder on Instagram or Twitter, right?! You know? I’m… you know. You get this thing like “I’m a beautiful so-and-so.” You know? “I will send you nude photos or whatever if you send me money.” You know? And it’s probably from some server farm or hacker farm in eastern Europe or something and people just make money doing this! Right?
JIM: And, to me, that’s really interesting because it takes the ability of people to be ambiguous about who they are. Or to completely falsify who they are. And to exploit other people with it. So…
LAUREN: Well. Speaking of social profiles and reality, how can we find the REAL Jim Harberson online?
JIM: Well, my… The clearing house is JamesHarberson.com That’s just J-A-M-E-S-H-A-R-B-E-R-S-O-N at dot com. And you can find links to all of my books, my socials, et cetera on there.
My books are available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, bookstores all over the world.
And, if you’re looking for me on socials, I’m on Instagram and I’m on Twitter as well. And you can access those through my website. I think it’s @StayAliveGN on Instagram and StayAliveGraphic… Actually, I don’t remember. I’ll have to look up the Twitter. Can you provide that in the…?
LAUREN: Oh, absolutely.
JIM: In the… There we go. Provide that in the in the notes?
LAUREN: Absolutely. And I actually have your Instagram on my phone here and it’s @StayAliveGN, which is what you said.
LAUREN: And then I’ll have to look up what your Twitter was because I don’t remember it either! [laughs]
JIM: Yeah. Instagram is probably the best way.
LAUREN: Yeah, it seems like that’s where you’re most active.
LAUREN: And that’s where I’ve mostly had contact with you. [laughs]
JIM: Yeah. Instagram is a lot of fun.
LAUREN: It’s the place to be! [laughs]
JIM: Yeah. I mean, I’m just… I’m there for the memes. There’s so much genius out there that finds expression now in ways that you couldn’t before.
There’s so many artists and people that I… Who I would never even meet! And they put their stuff on Instagram and it’s just endlessly amusing and refreshing.
JIM: Social media gets a lot of flak and some of it’s deserved but people don’t… People don’t understand that it really does connect people in utterly unforeseeable ways for the good.
JIM: That’s how I met YOU!
LAUREN: It is! [chuckles]
JIM: And I’m going to put in a plug for your logo!
JIM: With the ant wearing the 3D glasses. I think that’s one of the coolest things that I’ve ever seen!
LAUREN: Well, thank you!!
JIM: Props for that.
LAUREN: Yeah! My friend Heather Landry — Sandpaperdaisy — designed our logos and mascots. Be sure to check her out too! SandpaperDaisy.com!
JIM: So, well, like…
JIM: Go ahead. Sorry.
LAUREN: Oh. I was just going to ask if you had any final thoughts? You know… About your books…
JIM: First, I’d like to thank you for this opportunity to talk about my work.
LAUREN: Oh. Yeah? No problem!
JIM: And indulging me my long-windedness!
I guess that I’d just like to say that I’m grateful that I have a forum that I can talk to people that I can put out there my experiences, my ideas, and that… You know. I’m grateful that people have found them. And enjoyed them.
And, you know, it’s difficult to ask for…
I was talking about people getting what they want and I didn’t KNOW what I wanted growing up. And I’m finding that I really do like this. That I’m, you know, grateful that I’m able to communicate with people about things I love and reach them in a way that they enjoy and I enjoy so… You know!
Just thank you to YOU and thank you to my publisher and thank you to my fans!
JIM: I hope that I can continue to reach people with my work going forward.
LAUREN: Well, thank you for MY signed copy! And thank you for these two that are going to be raffled to HorrorFam.com readers or listeners!
And, yeah. Be sure that you sign up to get one of these!! And we’ll be choosing a winner on October 26th! [giggles]
Thank you so much for being on the show, Jim Harberson!
JIM: Thank you very much. And have a great evening.
LAUREN: Thank you. You too. Byeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!Become a Patron!
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Lauren Spear (née Tharp) is the owner of LittleZotz Writing, a super-respectable multiple award-winning website for freelance writers. She’s also the HorrorFam.com founder! Lauren grew up in the horror industry (her parents did practical special FX work for many of the horror movies you love from the ’80s and ’90s) and basically created this site so she could freely gas on about creepy stuff and stop having to pretend to be normal.