232 pages, Del Rey
Review by Hereward L.M. Proops
I first read Robert Silverberg's “The Book of Skulls” as an undergraduate student over a decade ago. Given that the novel focuses around four undergraduate students one might think this the ideal age to read it. I recall enjoying it thoroughly and recommending it to anyone who would listen. There came a time, months later when, due to alcohol abuse or unspecified traumatic head injury, it slipped from my memory and became just another spine on my overloaded bookshelves. I can't tell you why I decided to pick it up again the other day but I can tell you how very glad I am that I did.
“The Book of Skulls” is a curious little novel. Marketed as science fiction (the edition I first read was published by Gollancz in their SF Masterworks series), the book is actually pretty hard to pin down. Part road-trip, part-thriller, part-mystery; Silverberg teases his readers with fantastic elements but never wholly commits to being all-out science fiction or fantasy. It's kind of like one of those strange episodes of “The Twilight Zone” or “The Outer Limits” where you are left unsure whether what you have just sat through was a straightforward drama or something that little bit weirder.
The novel follows a group of students on their spring break searching for a mysterious cult living in the Arizona desert. The cult promises initiates eternal life but for each group of four who enter the mysterious temple, two must die in order for the others to live forever. One must take his own life whilst the other has to be murdered by the remaining acolytes. This is such a great, tight little concept that I'm hard pressed to think of a writer who couldn't spin some kind of enjoyable yarn out of it. However, what makes this book all the more remarkable is the utterly fantastic characterisation that Silverberg brings to the narrative. The four central characters are each wonderful creations, any one of whom are capable of carrying the novel in their own right. There's neurotic Jew Eli, a fledgling academic whose social awkwardness is both comic and painfully believable. Eli is the brains behind the trip. He found the manuscript in the vaults of the university library that led the quartet to the discovery of the ancient cult. Eli's poor New York background contrasts with that of the rich, aloof Timothy. Born into a life of privilege, Timothy finances the road trip but is also the group's cynical voice of disbelief when it comes to unravelling the mysteries of the House of Skulls. Timothy's best friend Oliver is your typical American all-rounder. Intelligent, athletic, and highly driven, with devastating good looks and an easy-going charm. Oliver seems to have it all but as the novel progresses we learn more about his poor upbringing in the farmlands of the Midwest and how his inner drive comes from a desire to leave his redneck past behind him. Completing the quartet is Ned, a scrawny gay poet who occasionally contemplates suicide when he isn't daydreaming about Oliver's perfectly formed buttocks.
The nerd, the rich kid, the golden boy and the homosexual... don't these sound almost like the one-dimensional archetypes we'd see in a John Hughes movie from the 1980s? Well, don't panic, Silverberg doesn't allow his characters to fall into this trap. Read a few chapters and you realise that there is much more to each protagonist than initially meets the eye. Indeed, what makes “The Book of Skulls” so remarkable is the way in which each character is slowly unravelled as they go through the initiation rites in the sinister House of Skulls. As the dark secrets of their past begin to slip out of the shadows, we see the real personalities that Silverberg has so cleverly hidden behind the mask of cliché.
Each chapter in the novel is narrated by a different character and this enables Silverberg to share the inner thoughts and desires of his four protagonists far more effectively and believably than an omniscient narrator could ever hope to achieve. Each of the narrative voices is different from the next, not just in their attitudes and colloquialisms but also their more subtle expressions right down to the different rhythms of speech. The effect of this is initially disconcerting – our perception of situations shifting from one chapter to the next – our sympathies for the characters changing constantly – but once we get used to the style it enables us to enjoy the gripping story from four separate perspectives.
A tremendous sense of gloom hangs over the novel. We are told early on about the price of eternal life in the House of Skulls and so, like the characters themselves, we find ourselves constantly pondering who will die in order for the others to live. Which of the characters will take their own life? Who amongst the group is capable of killing another? This feeling of impending doom doesn't make the relatively short novel an easy read but there is enough energy and wit in the quartet's banter to prevent the book from wallowing in a pit of abject misery.
I mentioned earlier that my initial contact with the novel as a student came at the perfect time. With reflection this is only partly true. As a younger man I doubtless connected with the testosterone-charged sexual exploits of the quartet as they screw their way from their east coast university to Arizona, but I think the more subtle, philosophical aspects of the novel were only revealed to me this time around. “The Book of Skulls” is a magnificent novel which deserves to be read and re-read. Who knows what I'll discover the next time I pick it up?
Hereward L.M. Proops