The Book of Skulls – Robert Silverberg (1972)
‘Four students discover a manuscript, The Book of Skulls, which reveals the existence of a sect, now living in the Arizona Desert, whose members can offer immortality to those who can complete its initiation rite. To their surprise, they discover that the sect survives, and is willing to accept them as acolytes. But for each group of four who enter the rite, two must die in order for the others to succeed.’
Blurb from the 2001 Gollancz SF Masterworks edition.
Despite the fact that one could justifiably argue that this is borderline SF at best, it is undoubtedly one of Silverberg’s best works, and one which works on various levels.
Eli, a Jewish linguistics student, discovers a medieval document in the University archives, ‘The Book of Skulls’ and in translating it, finds that it offers the chance of immortality if four people undertake the trial. he and his three room-mates then travel from new York to Arizona to find The House of Skulls, all of them knowing that in order for two of them to achieve immortality the others will have to die.
It is written in a vibrant and poetic four-voice narrative with each of the boys taking alternate chapters to continue the narration, in which they occasionally provide contrasting and contradictory viewpoints.
Silverberg, as is pointed out briefly early in the narrative, casts the boys in the archetypes of Leader, Hunter, Shaman and Clown.
These were the four roles taken by members of hunting parties in primitive societies and can be expanded to define entire national communities today, divided into Government, Military, Church and Media, the organisations which effectively control society.
The leader is Timothy, a rich boy with an impeccable pedigree. The Hunter is Oliver, a muscular blonde attractive medical student whose background is from rural Kansas. The Clown is Ned, an openly gay student, and the Shaman is Eli; Jewish, awkward with women, and the unlikely initiator of the whole enterprise.
During their drive from New York to Arizona we come to know as much as they know about each other. They are close friends from being room-mates, but all have their secret fears and desires.
It is also a novel which says much about America of the early Nineteen Seventies. From New York through Chicago and into Arizona, the book is rich with atmospheric detail and intriguing transient characters, most of them female. Indeed, it is only Eli who briefly seems to show any real respect or feeling for a woman, but even he, under pressure from his friends, leaves her in New York and moves on with the boys.
Eventually, the quartet discover that the House of Skulls actually exists and they petition the Brotherhood to volunteer for The Trial.
The monks warn them that once they have sworn the Oath they will not be allowed to leave until the trial is complete. If one leaves, then the others must forfeit their lives.
Events then move on with a sense of doomed inevitability.
The boys are initiated into a strict regime of diet, exercise and meditation, and are even given lessons in sex by some compliant in-house women.
A turning point is reached however when the Head of the House informs the boys that each must confess his most terrible secret to the next in line, so that each of them will hold one secret of one other.
Ned confesses to Timothy that he had affairs with both halves of a gay couple and that his manipulation of their emotions drove them both to suicide.
Timothy confesses to Oliver that he raped his younger sister having been earlier rejected by a date.
Oliver confesses to Eli having had sex with his male cousin and enjoying it.
Eli, trying to evade confessing his secret, initially tells Ned of Oliver’s confession and then confesses that his betrayal of confidence is his crime. He then relents and tells Ned that his place in University was gained by stealing the research of a dead man.
The denouement is brilliantly Shakespearean and inevitable. Eli has gained strength and confidence from his time in the House while Timothy has perhaps, lost his status in a place where his money is powerless. Timothy attempts to escape but is caught by Eli, who crushes his skull with a boulder.
Meanwhile, Ned has seduced Oliver who, overcome with shame and self-disgust, has hung himself.
Thus, the terms of the Oath have been fulfilled.
It’s a complex and morally ambiguous conclusion, although it’s maybe significant that the Jew and the Gay man – the usual underdogs of society – have survived.