That’s all it said. Whoever the previous owner of these books had been, they had scribbled their sales pitch across the cardboard box’s flap in permanent marker—TAKE ME—layering each letter in thick, overlapping script. No period necessary. The box itself didn’t have any markings. Just bland, brown cardboard, big enough to fit a toaster or a blender. By the time I peered in, the selection was pretty thin. The books had been pecked through from the looks of it, leaving behind a handful of hardbacks haphazardly stacked at the box’s bottom, their dust covers all tattered. I’d never heard of half these titles before. There was an outdated poli-sci textbook. Discussions on economic theory from the 70s. One bodice ripper, its yellowed pages curling out like a portabella paperback. Nothing very eye-catching.
This is a Brooklyn tradition: The cardboard box brought out to the front stoop like orphaned newborns abandoned on a church’s doorstep. There’s usually some simple missive scrawled along the lid: FREE. TAKE ME. NO BED BUGS. It’s the humane way to throw out your personal library. Rather than toss them straight into the trash, the previous owner offers their novels up to the city. Someone walking by takes a peek. One book, maybe two, catches their eye. They’ll grab it and the circle of literary life continues on for another cycle. Maybe they’ll read it, maybe they won’t, but an exchange has transpired.
The book passes hands.
I never spend a dime on novels during the summer. Why would I? The city provides. There’s a bounty of books just waiting for you along every sidewalk. You simply have to know where to look. Wander the streets of Carrol Gardens or Park Slope. Keep an eye out for boxes before the brownstones. Sift through and you’re nearly guaranteed a new novel every week. No library card necessary. No need to leave any money. It’s a completely guilt-free transaction.
I was about to give up on finding any worthwhile reading material in this particular cardboard coffer when, hold on, I noticed another hardback buried below the poli-sci primer. Nudging the heavy textbook aside, I spot a crimson eclipse suspended over the city skyline.
Butcher’s Moon by Henry Stark. Never heard of it before.
Never heard of him.
Don’t judge a book by its cover, they say, but this one caught my eye right away. All that red. The moon took up most of the front jacket, bleeding over the skyscrapers. The outline of the city rippled in monochromatic plasma. They don’t make covers like this anymore, harkening back to that bygone era of pulpy page-turners. A low-rent Saul Bass. I’d pin this book’s publication date somewhere around the early 70s. It was worth taking for the cover alone. Talk about a beaut. But you need to be careful. I once had a dumbshit roommate who thought he was getting a bargain when he bought a mattress off Craigslist for an absolute song. Wasn’t long before we all woke up with welts. I learned the hard way that bedbugs tuck themselves into books, having had to sacrifice most of my collection. It took years to rebuild my library, so when I plucked Butcher’s Moon out from the box, I made sure to open it spine-up, pages facing down, and give it a good shake. No stowaways were coming home with me today.
A mustiness rose up from its pages. Smelled like a library. A literary bouquet. Wet wood that’s slowly dried, the mildew absorbed into the stale paper. I welcomed that smell. Loved it, actually. It takes years for a book to ripen like this, its yellowed pages mellowing into that old tome aroma. Takes me back to all those afternoons spent in the library as a kid, decimating the Dewey Decimal system. Can’t get that from Barnes & Noble. Amazon’s got nothing on this.
In this city, sometimes you find the right book.
Sometimes the right book finds you.
Butcher’s Moon became the foundation for my to-read pile. There was no pressure to flip through. That’s the benefit of these curbside acquisitions. You read it or you don’t. It was there, waiting for me whenever I felt compelled to pick it up—if I ever got the itch. Other poached paperbacks ended up on top of the stack. I had found a copy of The Corrections that was practically untouched. Somebody had tossed a near vintage edition of Fortress of Solitude, first printing, with just a little wear-and-tear on the jacket. Picked up my fifth Everything is Illuminated to give as a gift whenever the next friend’s birthday came up. All of my Jonathans were now officially covered, thanks to Brooklyn.
That left Butcher’s Moon at the bottom. It lived there all summer, holding up the rest of my reading list. I forgot all about that red sky until one night, after having finally read through everything else, I found myself staring at that hemorrhaging celestial body suspended over the city, collecting dust on my nightstand table. First time I’d laid eyes on its cover in months. A bleeding Big Apple.
There were no review quotes on the book jacket. No blurbs from bigger name authors. All I had was a title. The writer.
Stark. Henry Stark.
Flipping to the back flap, I found his photograph. No bio. Just a black and white image of a dark haired individual with even thicker eyebrows. Ugly son of a gun. Acne scars pockmarked his face. He looked more like somebody dressed up for Halloween. A Bukowski costume. Is this guy for real? He’s not even looking at the camera, staring off elsewhere, as if writing weren’t a pleasurable experience for him. Whatever had his sullen attention, it certainly wasn’t the photographer. Poor sod. I suddenly felt a pang for Mr. Stark, one of the innumerable neglected novelists of his era, lost for all eternity. His existence had been consigned to a cardboard coffin, a pauper’s funeral for a forgotten author. He’d been abandoned before a brownstone. Lost in a literary tomb. All these pages had gone unread for decades. All that work, all those countless hours spent pounding at the typewriter, toiling in the dark—all for what? For nothing.
Nobody read Stark anymore.
But I had unearthed him. I’d dusted off his old bones after all these years, like some plucky, young tomb raider excavating a crumbling mummy. Who knew what treasures were buried in his book? Imagine the scarabs hidden within Butcher’s Moon. There was a story still in Stark, a curse preserved within these brittle, yellowed pages. The least I could do was read him. Bring his book back to life, even for just one night.
I cracked open the book. I could hear the strain in its spine, flexing for the first time in months, maybe even years.
I flipped past the title page, onto Chapter One. As I read the first sentence, The blood moon hung over the city, rich and red, heralding his arrival—
The letters fell out.
It happened so fast. The words I just read loosened from their placement on the page. They writhed, as if alive, working hard to unlatch their bodies from the paper they’d been printed on and slip off. I slammed the book shut and threw it as hard as I could. Butcher’s Moon landed on the floor with a musty thud while I swatted at the letters crawling across my lap. They blindly worked their way down my clothes, scuttling for any crevice they could find. Something about the light. They didn’t want to be exposed like this. They wanted to hide.
A word wriggled across my wrist. I could still read it: SLASH. The ‘A’ at its center lengthened itself, expanding and contracting like the thorax on some segmented insect. It reared up and peered back at me, just as aware of me as I was of it. The word squirmed between my thumb and forefinger when I pinched it, struggling to free itself. The ‘S’ flexed. For a moment, I had a fleeting thought: It looks like mandibles. Like the serrated jaws on some—
The ‘S’ bit down on the meat of my thumb.
Stung like a motherfucker. The barbs of the letter sank through my skin. Now the word wouldn’t let go. The tail-end flapped through the air as the rest of its letters burrowed in deep. I tried to pull it out, but the ‘SH’ slipped right through my fingers. The word was within me now.
I found myself in the shower before I even knew what I was doing. Cold water ran down my body. I felt a fever coming on fast, quicker than any rational thought. Tylenol wouldn’t break it. I spent the rest of the night sweating, aching all over. My skin didn’t feel like it fit anymore. Like a dust jacket.
I changed the sheets on my bed. I flipped the mattress over. Checking the crevices, running my fingers along the seams, I tried to see if I could find any signs of—of what, exactly?
Nothing. No black marks or tears in the stitching. Even so, I still couldn’t fall asleep. Resting in bed, I swear I felt them crawling all over me. The words. How many had I actually seen slip off? Had it only been the sentence I read? Had the other words remained in place?
I kept the lights on, just in case I might spot something. Sleep wasn’t coming easily. Not tonight. Not after what happened. What do I usually do when I can’t drift off in bed?
I read. Of course.
I suddenly felt the itch to pick up Butcher’s Moon.
No. Not Stark. Not happening.
I flipped through The Executioner’s Song for the fiftieth time, half-reading it. I couldn’t lock onto the words for some reason. My eyes would graze over a sentence, but it wouldn’t sink in. I may as well have been reading in a different language. Norman Mailer was one of my go-to’s, my comfort reads. I knew the book by heart but it was all getting lost in translation. My arm broke out into hives, as if I were having an allergic reaction to the book, so I put it down.
I couldn’t get rid of the itch.
I ended up sleeping on the couch. I didn’t want to be in my bed anymore. Look, either this happened—or it didn’t. Either I imagined it—or not. But one thing was for fucking certain: I wasn’t about to pick up Butcher’s Moon again. Fuck that book. It lay there on the floor, waiting for me the following morning, right next to my bed, that crimson eclipse staring back as soon as I wandered back into my room. I kicked it, sending the book skidding under my bed. Let it eat dust bunnies for all I care. I wasn’t touching it.
A red welt sprouted from my thumb. Itched like a son of a bitch. I knew I shouldn’t scratch at it, but I couldn’t help myself. I poured hydrogen peroxide over the bite, but it still hadn’t healed. If anything, it only got worse. Inflamed. A red moon right there on my fingertip.
Googling Stark came up with nothing. He wasn’t on Amazon. Not on Goodreads. No other books of his seemed to be in print—or out. Nothing at Powell’s or the Strand. It’s as if Henry Stark never existed. I couldn’t help but feel curious about cracking the book open. Just to see if there was anything to glean from the book itself. Not to read it. No, I promised myself I wasn’t going to read it. Not again. Not ever again. I just wanted to look at it. To see its cover.
I had to kneel before my bed. Peering under it, I realized Butcher’s Moon had slid all the way into the far corner on the other side of the mattress. That meant I had to lean in and reach. My neck cricked this way as my hand went that way, blindly sliding over all the dust and hair.
My fingers found the cover. I felt the fuzzed-over corner, worn down from scuffing.
The book inched forward. Toward me.
Every book has a birthmark. A copyright page. All the pertinent information on how this particular novel came to be would be printed at the front of the book.
But I couldn’t find anything. I was holding Stark’s one and only novel. Not just the only book—but the only copy—which is impossible. There was no publisher. No ISBN code. No copyright date. Everything that reared this book into existence was supposed to be right there on the edition notice. But there was nothing. Nothing at all. This wasn’t just a first edition.
It was the only edition.
Holding the book felt soothing. I hadn’t realized it up until then, but merely touching the dust jacket, running my fingers along the moon, was enough for me to forget my prickling skin.
Just imagine how I might feel if I crack it open, I thought. What if I read? Just a little bit? Just a few pages…
I dropped the book and went to the bathroom. Turned on the tap and washed my hands for I don’t know how long. Let the cold water run over my arms. I glanced at myself in the mirror, only to notice another word worming its way along my neck. I had to lean in to read my reflection, just to make sure my eyes weren’t playing tricks on me. Sure enough, right there, just under the surface of my skin, I saw the faintest trace of ink wriggling along my jawline—BLADE. The word was backwards in the mirror, but I could tell what it spelled. The letters moved slowly, flattening and expanding like a tapeworm patiently plunging down the depth of my neck, almost like a tattoo, the black hue of ink swimming through my skin before vanishing.
I had to resist picking the book up. Nothing in me wanted to read it. But there’s that itch, you see? I was consciously aware of how I felt about Butcher’s Moon, how I refused to read it, but at the same time there was an undertow churning its way through my head, a certain urge separate from the rest of myself, simmering in my skin. It kept nagging at me to crack the book open and pick up where I’d left off. It wanted me to keep reading.
No one saw him. His was an invisible existence, consigned to the shadows of alleys and darkened streets. He had a devil’s patience, always on the prowl for his next victim…
Jesus Christ—the prose was purple to the point of bruising. It was laughable, actually. This quasi-urban gothic posturing. Henry Stark wasn’t going to win any awards for his writing, that’s for fucking sure. But his words got under my skin. Once they took root, I couldn’t stop reading him. I could see these things so vividly, the images burning themselves into my brain.
Was Henry Stark even real? What if it was a pseudonym, a nom de plume for someone else? Who would author something like this? How could it come into being?
These are the kind of questions I’ve been having lately. Insane, I know, but they flit in and out of my head while I use a pair of a tweezers to pluck Stark’s words out from my skin.
I’ve caught a couple of them. I tugged GULLET out from my calf just the other night. I knew nobody would believe me, so I’ve left it in a jar on the nightstand. It kept trying to crawl away, flexing its letters as it reached for the lid. After a few nights, it stopped moving altogether. I was worried it might have died, so I decided to punch a few holes in the lid. Dumb decision on my part, I know. When I woke up the following morning, the word was gone.
I almost pulled EVICERATE out from my hip before it snapped in half, severed somewhere around the upper rung of the letter ‘R’. The front end burrowed in before I could grasp the rest of it. Persistent little bugger. Now I’m itching all over. My skin is crawling.
I can feel them. The words. Sentences tunnel through. I tried to cut them out, but I realize it’s better to let them alone. I’ve bled enough, sliced enough, to look like my skin is a lined writing tablet. The only time I don’t want to tear through my flesh is when I’m reading. Not just any book. It has to be Blood Moon. No other novel takes the pain away. I need to read it.
The inhabitants of this city were nothing but sheep to him. Every man and woman were his to pick and choose from… I burned through half the book in one night. Waking up the next morning, I found myself compelled to pick up where I’d left off. Didn’t I have a job to go to? Was there somewhere, anywhere, I’m supposed to be? It all felt trivial now, somehow. Not when there was reading to get done. The city belonged to him. Its citizens were blind to his movements, slipping inside their homes and exacting his cruelty…
I’ve been reading so much, I can’t see straight anymore. The letters keep moving right before my eyes. Words scurry across the page. Each letter wears a pair of wings, buzzing about the book. Stay still, goddamn it. At least long enough for me to read you. Suddenly, every letter takes flight, all of them soaring off the page, swarming around my head. Buzzing about. A word will land on my cheek, so I swat at it, smearing them all over my palm, the ink smudging across my skin. That’s when I realize they’re flies. I’ve been reading their wings, thinking they’re words. There are so many of them, clustering around something dead—or still dying, decomposing from the inside out. I can smell it, whatever it is. All rotten. The book will be blank by the time I’m done with it. The book will be in me, the words worming their way through my brain. Feeding.
I can’t put it down. I need to keep reading. I need to reach The End.
He made his way from one victim to the next, leaving behind an endless grave in his wake…
Novels are ignored. Authors are forgotten. There are just too many books out there, too many things to read. At some point, somewhere along the way in a book’s existence, there will come a day when there will be the final person to read it. Nobody will ever pick it up again. The book dies quietly, fading away. Nobody mourns these novels. They’re just lost. Their pages yellow. Their covers rip. The paper starts to molder. Crumble. They’ll never be opened again.
Butcher’s Moon doesn’t want to die. It wants to keep living. It’s impressively patient. Who knows how many hands Henry Stark has passed through, slipping inside their homes. I can’t help but think of the previous owner of the book. How long had they held on to it? Had it been on their shelves for years? Decades? How did the book find them? Had they wandered down the block, passing a cardboard box—TAKE ME written across the flap? Did they pick it up, letting their curiosity get the better of them? Were they lured in by the cover, too? The moon?
That’s how this book gets its hooks into you. How Henry Stark works his way from one victim to the next. He gets you to take him home. And with a devil’s patience, he waits. He waits with the grim determination of some insect that has existed for centuries, dormant but alive, embedded in the crevices of his book, biding his time until you open him up and read.
What’s the book the about? It’s better if I don’t tell you. It should be a surprise. You need to go in cold. Clean. Let the story take hold. Wash over you. Pull you in.
I’ve finally finished reading it. Now it’s your turn. I rummaged through the recycling until I found the right receptacle. A perfect box fit for Butcher’s Moon. I have to steady my hand as I write on the flap. My wrist keeps trembling, so the letters look a little shaky, but I press the Sharpie against the cardboard as hard as I can. I layer up the letters. All caps, nice and thick.
That’s all it said. Whoever the previous owner of these books had been, they had scribbled their sales pitch across the cardboard box’s flap in permanent marker…