Published by Del Rey
Paperback, February 2006 (original publication 1972)
Four young men travel across the United States in search of immortality promised in an ancient text. Robert Silverberg uses this premise to explore the depths of young men’s passions and fears in his classic novel, The Book of Skulls. Even though the book was written over thirty years ago, a lot of what these young men experience, and how they tell their story can just as easily fit into today’s time.
Silverberg uses a very interesting device to tell his story, which really drives the pace of the narrative very well - first person narrative from each of the four protagonists. This is just one area where Silverberg’s skills should be highly commended - in managing to capture four distinct voices for Eli, Timothy, Ned, and Oliver. Each of their stories segues into the other very smoothly and their narrative voices are unique. Eli is the studious young Jew who discovered the manuscript, which spurred their journey. Ned is the homosexual, Timothy is the rich kid, and Oliver is the smart jock. As we learn more about each of these young men, they flourish beyond the mold initially set by Silverberg.
This isn’t a straight-up fantasy, nor does it explicitly fall into horror, and has many elements in common with a thriller. The framework of the plot is quite similar to that of Stephen King’s coming of age masterpiece, The Body, the inspiration for the film Stand By Me. Where King eschews supernatural in favor of a straight-up tale of boys becoming men, Silverberg leaves just enough of the supernatural on the edges to allow the reader to decide themselves the true underpinnings of the Book of Skulls.
The front cover of the edition I reviewed proclaims, "Soon to be a major motion picture!" As Silverberg states in the author’s note following the story, Hollywood has been interested in filming this story for many years. These things are difficult to pin down; however, any such impetus to make available this nearly perfect story to today’s readers is worthy.
This is a strong story that touches on belief and the emotional consequences of long-buried feelings and actions. The clear fluid prose is very refreshing and helps to build the emotional resonance throughout the story. This is a very slim volume, tallying in at just under two-hundred-and-fifty pages. However, the depth with which Silverberg plumbs the soul of each of these characters belies the brevity of the novel, illustrating how powerful the emotions select few words can evoke.
I would recommend this to readers across the board, fans of suspense, fans of dark fantasy, fans of coming-of-age stories, or just simply fans who love a great story. Readers who enjoyed Graham Joyce’s The Tooth Fairy and Dark Sister, the aforementioned King novella or some of his other books along that vein would do themselves a service by picking up Robert Silverberg’s The Book of Skulls.
© 2006 Rob H. Bedford