Robert Silverberg, The Book of Skulls (Scribner, 1972; Del Rey, 2006)
Four Harvard roomates spend their spring break driving across the United States in search of immortality. Eli is the self-loathing philologist who organizes the trip; Ned is the gay poet who has already decided to volunteer for the suicide, on two conditions; Oliver is the "corn-fed pre-med" Kansas farmboy whose interest in medicine springs from his fear of death; and Timothy is the rich unbeliever, only tagging along for the better weather, but pretty much funding the trip.
The Book of Skulls is also the title of the ancient volume found in the university library and translated by Eli. He discovers that the book tells of a vague location in Arizona where one can go to find eternal life via the Keepers of the Skulls (also known as the Brotherhood). But there is a caveat: four must go (to form what is called a Receptacle) but only two will achieve immortality; the other two must die as payment for the others -- one a voluntary suicide, one murdered by his friends.
This suspenseful piece of the plot grabbed me from the beginning. The reader spends a lot of time getting to know these characters as they drive across the country, and knowing that two of them would be dead by the end of the book, but not which two or when, makes for a very tense reading experience.
The story is told entirely in the first-person, with the chapters alternating between the points of view of the four protagonists as they comment on the action in mostly chronological order. These narrations rarely overlap, so that one person's experience of each event is generally the only one we're given.
The actual trip to Arizona takes up a good portion of the novel; in fact, it's nearly halfway through before the quartet arrive at their destination. This could have been frustrating, given how they need to get there for the real story to begin, and that we are merely waiting for this to happen. But Silverberg deftly uses this time to build his characters into fully-developed individuals. We learn as much about them from the observations of the others as we do from themselves.
The Book of Skulls is a novel from a sure hand. Though it was written over thirty years ago, Silverberg had already been a published author for fifteen years when he wrote this "nightmare novel" (as Harlan Ellison terms it). He is fully confident both in his leisurely pacing, and in his unconventional sentence structure, and he has a natural, flowing style that cries to be read aloud.
Silverberg is best known for his science fiction works (check around the site for other reviews), but there is some debate as to whether The Book of Skulls is science fiction. That depends, he writes in the Afterword, on whether you accept the option of immortality, as presented in the book, as a real possibility. In every other way, The Book of Skulls resembles nothing so much as a horror or dark suspense tale. It was nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula for that year, though, so several people seem to disagree with me.
Either way, The Book of Skulls is a stunning piece of work. It is inspired, fully of its time (dig the post-hippie slang!), and filled with four remarkable characterizations (by the end, you will know more about Eli, Ned, Timothy, and Oliver than you do about your own grandmother). It also offers a completely plausible and surprisingly organic answer to the suspenseful question of who will be chosen for what. All of this combines to make an experience destined to stick with me long after the upcoming movie (which is utterly misguided, since there is no way that it can capture what makes this novel great and still be entertaining cinema) has been forgotten. Pick up a copy and form your own Receptacle of friends who know what good writing is -- however you choose to categorize it.
Learn more about this book and others from the same publisher at Del Rey Online.