“How I Got A Job Working The Night Shift” by Brian Keene
Like a lot of kids who grew up in the Seventies and early-Eighties, I was introduced to horror fiction not through prose, but via comic books. The mid-Seventies were an especially fertile period for horror comics—the era of ‘The Marvel Age of Comics’ and ‘The DC Explosion’, among others, fondly remembered now as the Bronze Age. Every week, I’d peddle my BMX Mongoose bike down to the newsstand and grab the latest issue of Werewolf by Night, The Witching Hour, Tomb of Dracula, House of Mystery, House of Secrets, and dozens more, including my personal favorite, Man-Thing (written by Steve Gerber).
It was Gerber’s work that first made me aware, at age eight, that writing was a job somebody could have when they grew up. And so, while every other kid my age wanted to be an astronaut or a police officer or The Six-Million Dollar Man, I was already planning on being a writer. I produced dozens of comic books, laboring over them with pencils and a box of crayons, scribbling them down on sheets of paper my father had brought home from his job at the paper mill, defective sheets with globs of pulp wood embedded in them. I invented monsters and superheroes of my own (including one in which an intelligent, amorphous blob from outer space attacks the Earth), but I did a number of pastiches, as well—writing (and less competently illustrating) new adventures of Captain America and the Falcon, Kamandi, The Defenders, Spider-Man, and more.
I don’t remember any of my early efforts being praised, or hung up on the refrigerator, or trotted out to show my grandparents when they came to visit. That’s probably because my parents considered comic books to be mere juvenilia. They didn’t discourage me from reading them. They always gave me money to buy them. Even if the mill was on strike and we were subsisting on government cheese and whatever wild game my father could shoot, they always made sure I could get something new to read. But they didn’t really see comic books as a notable, worthwhile thing, and they certainly didn’t understand their young son’s affixation with them, or with monsters and horror in particular. They’d try to convince me to read The Hardy Boys and similar things instead—real books—but those just didn’t do it for me. Maybe that was because Jack Kirby wasn’t drawing the covers to those books, or maybe it was because whenever The Hardy Boys solved a supernatural mystery, it never turned out to be supernatural after all. (I had the same problem with Scooby-Doo, as a kid).
Here’s one thing my parents didn’t know about comic books—they were a gateway drug, and it was comics that finally got me to read a grown-up book.
A few years later, on another weekly trip to the newsstand, I picked up the latest issue of Bizarre Adventures, a Marvel comic book that featured different stories and characters every issue (many of them horror-centric). According to the cover, this particular issue had an adaptation of Stephen King’s The Lawnmower Man. I didn’t know who Stephen King was, but this Lawnmower Man sounded like a cool comic book villain, albeit one that might have been better suited to appear in the pages of Howard the Duck. I took the comic home, and read it, and found out it was an adaptation of a short story by this King guy. And though I didn’t understand it entirely (I wouldn’t read Machen’s “The Great God Pan” until years later), it struck a chord in me. Something resonated deep down inside. The kid in me was delighted with the scene when the antagonist gobbles up the gopher, but what really intrigued me was the overall sense of menace—of ancient and inexplicable evil rubbing shoulders with a suburbia I was all too familiar with. Before this, the horror comics I’d read always took place in crumbling old castles or festering swamps or lonely mountaintops. But this story took place in a place I recognized, a location just like the one in which I lived.
I thought about, and re-read, that comic all week long, and seven days later, when I made the trek back to the newsstand, a book cover happened to catch my eye as I walked toward the comic book spinner rack. The cover showed a bandaged hand, like something you’d see on a mummy, and it was pockmarked with eyes. It was that artwork that got my attention, but it was the name on the cover that made me purchase my first “real” adult book.
That book was Stephen King’s Night Shift, a seminal, important, historic publication and it was full of places I recognized and people that I had known all my life. The blue collar guys slaving away at the factory and fighting mutant rats. The apathetic teenagers partying as the world ended. The cast of “Gray Matter” who could very well have been members of my family. And so many more, including “The Lawnmower Man.”
But perhaps even more importantly to young Brian, Night Shift also had a foreword by the author in which he talked about writing for a living. I read Night Shift from cover to cover, and then I read it again. But I read that foreword a third and fourth time. And soon after, instead of writing my own comic books, I started experimenting with writing stories.
On my next trip to the newsstand, I brought home a paperback of ‘Salem’s Lot. The Shining and F. Paul Wilson’s The Keep followed soon after. So did more attempts at writing.
And I’ve been reading grown up books, and writing stories, and working the night shift ever since.
Next you can read about the history of Night Shift or Richard Chizmar’s thoughts about revisiting the book. The complete list of the books we’ll be reading can be found on the Stephen King Books In Chronological Order For Stephen King Revisited Reading Lists page. To be notified of new posts and updates via email, please sign-up using the box on the right side or the bottom of this site.
Brian Keene is the best-selling author of over forty books, as well as numerous comic books and short stories. His 2003 novel, The Rising, is often credited (along with Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead comic and Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later film) with inspiring pop culture’s current interest in zombies. His numerous awards and honors include the World Horror Grand Master award, and a recognition from Whiteman A.F.B. (home of the B-2 Stealth Bomber) for his outreach to U.S. troops serving both overseas and abroad. A prolific public speaker, Keene has delivered talks at conventions, college campuses, theaters, and inside Central Intelligence Agency headquarters. The single father of two sons, Keene lives in rural Pennsylvania.