Robert Silverberg's chilling and cynical The Book of Skulls is one of his most accomplished, if difficult to like, novels. It is the story of four pretentious, self-absorbed college students who undertake a road trip from New York to Arizona to locate a mystery cult called the Brotherhood of Skulls, whose sacred text — uncovered in the rare books collection of their university library by Eli, the studious, Jewish one — promises a ritual for physical immortality. There's a catch, naturally: four initiates must present themselves as a Receptacle, from which two must die (one by suicide, one killed by the remaining two) so the other two may live forever. All-American boy Timothy thinks it's all a crock, but goes along on the trip for the fun of it. Handsome midwestern farmboy Oliver takes it all perhaps a bit too seriously; filled with existential angst over the untimely death of his father, he'll do whatever it takes for a shot at life everlasting. Gay Ned is keen to believe as well.
Throughout their journey, Silverberg opens up the hearts and minds of his four pilgrims like a safecracker using gelignite. Not a one of these guys is particularly likable. They're egotists of the worst sort, their self-absorption a shield for the grim truths about their own natures they don't wish to face. With each chapter told in rotating first-person shifts, we are treated to some rambling internal dialogues on the nature of life, death, and reality that just make you want to slap the pompous son of a bitch silly. But on Silverberg's part, this is a tour de force of character development. I didn't like these guys, but I was compelled by them and their labyrinthine neuroses, because Silverberg made them breathe. I remember being pretty appallingly full of myself when I was 19-21. I hope I wasn't as bad as Eli, but being young means you go through these phases. And what's more, Silverberg uses these characters as a mirror of the turbulent times in which the book was written. Vietnam, the sexual revoultion, the cover of Time emblazoned with the question "Is God Dead?" In his four protagonists, Silverberg encapsulates an entire America caught in the throes of social and spiritual crisis, floundering, lost, and, worst of all, looking for the answer in all of the wrong places. It's some of the most powerful characterization you're likely to find in a contemporary fantasy.
Though I can't say for certain Silverberg intended this, one theme I derived from The Book of Skulls was that of the dangers of abandoning reason for blind faith in anything at all that makes promises too good to be true and hooks you in by exploiting the most vulnerable areas of your psyche. It isn't just the "two live, two die" rule that's the specific danger here. It's the overriding issue of faith vs. reason, and how, for most people, the former usually wins out — to their extreme detriment. While certain parts of the story resolve themselves in ways you can kind of easily predict — dark secrets buried deep, usually involving sexual issues — what I found immensely satisfying was the denouement, which suggests obliquely that our heroes may be just as lost, if not moreso, at the end of their journey than its beginning.
Some folks might bristle, thinking that Silverberg has led them all this way with little to no resolution at all. But I think that was entirely the point (and in any case, it isn't true that there's no resolution — there just isn't an easy one). The practice of faith, and the business of religion that capitalizes on it, has never been one about definite answers or provable claims. It's always more about the journey than actually reaching a destination. Because when you reach the destination, you usually find yourself in a desert. And as our characters finally ask themselves, "How certain are you that it's possible to have the thing you seek?", they are all too aware it's a question they can't answer. But they've gone too far to turn back. So onward they must go, on and on...