The Book of Skulls
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 exists, 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.
From 1967 to 1972, Robert Silverberg had a burst of extraordinary creativity during which he wrote most of his finest novels. The Book of Skulls (1972) is one of these. Following the cryptic manuscript which provides the title, four young men cross America in search of a forgotten Shangri-La in the cactus-ridden desert north of Phoenix, Arizona—a monastery whose adepts hold the keys of immortality and supposedly follow a tradition handed down since Atlantis.
Candidates for eternal life must present themselves at the “Skullhouse” as a foursome. The brothers are happy to provide training in their secrets (including tantric sex)—but there’s a price. The Ninth Mystery in the Book of Skulls states: “Two of thee we undertake to admit to our fold. Two must go into darkness”. One of those four college students must willingly commit suicide. One is fated to be murdered by his own friends.
The narrative shuttles between their viewpoints, each distinct and sharply characterised. Rich, handsome, upper-class Timothy doesn’t believe in immortality and is just going along with the gag. Eli the Jewish intellectual believes passionately. Ned, who is openly gay, has his own agenda involving Oliver, a Midwestern farm boy with tortured depths who says the Skullhouse is his only hope. Each in turn undergoes an ordeal of dreadful self-knowledge, after which the impossible choice of who wins and who loses seems natural, even inevitable.
Though only marginally SF, The Book of Skulls is a fine, scarifying novel of character. Unforgettable.—David Langford