I was 16 when I found the Book of Skulls in a used book store. The cover blurb talking about four young men on a quest to find a mysterious cult and obtain immortality. I’d read some of Silverberg’s short fiction in both Galaxy magazine and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and had generally enjoyed it. Plus it had a cool cover.
The novel is told in rotating first-person viewpoint from each of the four characters: Eli, the Jewish bookworm; Ned, the flaming homosexual; Timothy, the rich boy; and Oliver, the farmboy/jock. They are students at the same college who have formed somewhat unlikely friendships. Eli, who has a gift for languages, found and translated a book about the mysterious Brotherhood of the Skull and their secret of immortality. The book says that four people must present themselves together, and work together to endure the trials of the Brotherhood. Even if they succeed, only two will gain mortality. The other two lives are forfeit: one must willingly commit suicide, and the other must be sacrificed by his fellows…
Eli becomes convinced that the Brotherhood is real, and has been moving around the world over the centuries. He believes that they are now occupying an obscure monastery in Arizona. Somehow he has convinced the other three to take a road trip to find the Brotherhood. Eli truly believes. Ned seems to think it is all a big joke, and wants to see what the punchline is. Timothy is skeptical, but thinks that having the story to tell of his crazy road trip with a Jew, a Queer, and a Farmboy will be an asset in his future; Oliver is skeptical, but he wants to believe.
The first part of the book details their road trip, which is full of drugs, a few dumb decisions, and a lot of sex. As each character takes a turn telling the tale, we learn a little more about their true motives. Part of the brilliance of the book is that Silverberg writes each character in turn not just with distinct voices, perspectives, language, but even distinctive rhythms of language. The first person narrative puts the reader inside the head of each character in a more convincing way than a third-person omniscient viewpoint would. It also allows each character to slowly betray his own secrets by little slips and hints that feel very natural.
By rotating the viewpoints, Silverberg also keeps the tension alive. If the whole tale had been told as only one character’s narrative, the reader would assume that if anyone is going to die, it won’t be the narrator, right?
About midway through the book they find the monastery, are accepted into the trials, and things get really interesting.
Reading the book was a strange experience. Early in the story I was really sympathetic with Eli and Oliver. I wanted to like Ned, but he was so catty that it was really hard to. Oliver quickly became unlikeable, and I found myself starting to sympathize with Timothy and Ned more as the middle of the book progressed. Then Eli’s obsessive tendencies got on my nerves. And so on. Silverberg did a great job of making you love and hate different aspects of each character, without ever making any of them unbelievable.
The ending is not quite what I expected. I mean, as each character’s fate came to fruition it was a surprise, but soon as it had happened, you had the realization that it was the inevitable end of all the decisions you had seen the character make along the way.
That first time I read the book happened when I was just becoming deeply involved in an evangelical teen choir. So I had to be careful who I talked about the book with. My family had moved to a medium-sized town that was bigger than any of the small towns we’d ever lived it, so it was the first place I’d lived where I found not only a group of guys my own age who were as enthusiastic about sci fi and fantasy, there were multiple such groups. One of the groups was part of the teen choir, but it was there was often a bit of a tension with stories that wandered into areas of questionable morality.
And this story definitely did that. By the end, I realized that book wasn’t really about the quest for immortality, it was about the struggle between faith and reason, but not as some crude metaphor. Each character wrestled with their own skepticism and their hope in very real ways. While a lot of interesting and sometimes soap opera-ish things happened in the plot, the subtext was extremely philosophical.
And Silverberg brings it to a resolution. He doesn’t just leave you hanging with one of those endings where you’re supposed to argue with yourself about what happened. He leaves you, instead, arguing with yourself about whether you think the ending is how it ought to have gone? And how do you define “ought”?
The Book of Skulls left me thinking and questioning a lot. There was a moment near the end where I felt as if I had an epiphany. But then later I couldn’t explain what it was. One of the upshots was that for the next many years I would, when constructing long roleplaying game scenarios or writing fantasy stories, find ways to slip either the Book of Skulls or the Brotherhood of Skulls into the background as a bit of flavor.
When I was about 20, my best friend borrowed my copy. He enjoyed the book, but also thought it was deeply immoral; particularly at what he perceived as a positive portrayal of Ned’s homosexuality. I argued. For one, I had felt that the homosexuality had been treated as not so much positive, but merely no more negative than some of the imperfections of the other characters. And I thought that all of both the good and bad things that happened in the plot were necessary to exploring the questions at hand.
After arguing about it, I read the book again. I still enjoyed it, and still thought that it was a good exploration of important philosophical questions. On that later read (and being a bit further along in my own still-closeted understanding of my own sexual orientation), I realized that the conflict the story explores isn’t really about faith so much as it is about belief, which isn’t quite the same thing. It’s about what people will do because of what they believe to be true; it’s about how our acceptance of something as a fact at one point in our life restricts the scope of what we’re willing and able to perceive as true and reasonable afterward.
I don’t know if that’s the epiphany I briefly grasped and then lost at sixteen. But this book did portray Ned’s gay sexual activities as being no more or less moral than any of the sexual exploits of the other characters. Which I realize is why my friend saw it as a positive portrayal. And it was yet another reinforcement of the notion (which I was still struggling to accept) that maybe being a queer kid wasn’t a disastrous curse.
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