“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.
Boy are you right. Comic books led me into reading adult books at the eleven (1961), starting with Edgar Rice Burroughs, John Norma, Kenneth Robertson, Science Fiction, and the Alistair MacLean, John D. MacDonald. Donald Hamilton, Edward S, Aarons, followed by Robert Ludlum, Frederick Forysthe, Ken Follet, and then Ira Levine, William Peter Blatty, and somebody by the name of Stephen King. Of all the great writers I’ve read over the last fifty-something years, King has changed my life the most and made me want to be a writer. Steve will never know how many thousands of readers his stories affected and changed for the better.
Awesome story Brian, Thank You for sharing it…
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We must be about the same age Brian. I, too, purchased all of these comics off the stands as they came out. And I was a total Man-Thing fan (still am!!!) as well. Horror comics both scared me and fascinated me as a young adult, and helped steer me into reading Stephen King in my teens. Thanks for sharing this.
Thanks, Brian! I join you (and a large fraternity of others, I’m sure) whose introduction to imaginative prose began with their colourful cousins. The parallels between your story and mine are uncanny, though my introduction to Steve started with ‘Salem’s Lot and then the Shining. I used to have that very edition of Night Shift (though Lord knows what happened to it in the years since – probably lent it to my older sister and it was never to be seen again). Comics also introduced me for the first time to a certain gentleman named Harlan Ellison, for which I am equally eternally grateful.
Parents who discouraged their children from buying and reading comics did not know what a disservice they did their kids. They were and are indeed a gateway drug to reading generally and to imaginative fiction specifically — opening up new worlds of possibility, which I have passed on to my own children. I may never have the privilege of being creative or talented enough to write such stories for others, but my life has surely been enriched by those who do, whether in graphic or verbal forms.
Your piece brings back some great memories Brian. Thanks for sharing.
Thanks for the essay, Brian! I really hope you do more of them for this website in the future because I know you’re a huge King fan!
Yes, thank you Brian. That was a wonderful essay. I grew up with comic books too. And, I have that book THE KEEP, and loved reading it.
I’m still behind in my reading of this site’s posts because I’ve been fighting Randall Flagg the past 3 weeks! This is a fantastic essay! I’m glad to know that someone else liked The Lawnmower Man!!! That story just “gets” me. I didn’t read it (and it was in Night Shift) until I was around 20 or so but that story stuck with me like a bad dream for a long time. It’s so exciting to read these essays by current authors and see that many of you were influenced by Stephen. For every one of you that have made it to the point of being published, there must be thousands of us that were influenced but don’t have the skill and/or imagination to put forth a good story. I have tried and failed many times. But you know, even the trying is fun!!
So, how much do you suppose that copy of Bizarre Adventures is worth??!! Wow, what a piece that would be to add to a collection!!
Max — believe it or not, it’s surprisingly affordable. I’ve seen copies in comic stores that sell back issues go for as little as $30.
Love Ted Sallis and remain a huge fan of issues of Man-Thing and Giant-Size Man-Thing. Just turned 50 and that joke never gets old. Enjoy your Defenders podcast. Were you a fan of the DC horror titles like Weird War Tales, House of Mystery, Ghosts, House of Secrets, etc?