After several months of downtime I started reading again in November/December. Not just that. Incredibly I actually started finishing books – three of them.
They were good books, too. I might get around to writing up my thoughts about The Silent Land & Maigret Mystified at a later stage, but The Book of Skulls sort of screams out (soundlessly, in the desert sun) to be mulled over & written about & recommended to just about anyone. Well. Anyone over the age of sixteen who isn’t in the middle of a psychiatric crisis, & who isn’t a potential threat to themselves or others.
The Book of Skulls has more or less kicked this blog into life. This is ironic, given what it’s about.
I heard about this book through… I don’t know how I heard about this book. Online somewhere, I don’t know. The edition I tracked down is recent, a reprint through Gollancz’s “S F Masterworks” series. I don’t tend to read a lot of science fiction, & while this book was nominated for the Hugo, Nebula & Locus awards in 1972-1973 its genre status is open to interpretation. For me, this is clearly a metaphysical, existential type horror story. You’ll find others online arguing that it is sci fi in the true, pure sense – i.e. a fantastical/supernatural notion is being treated rationally within a credible real world setting. Does it matter? I don’t think these distinctions matter.
In the early 70s, four college room-mates are driving from New England to Arizona. The trip is happening in the present tense, & they’re taking turns narrating in stream of consciousness. Outside the car the Vietnam war is being fought, revolution & drug consciousness are sweeping through the campuses, sexual revolution is transforming America. Inside the car, there’s one thing on everyone’s mind, namely that Eli (the Jewish one) has found an old manuscript in the university library called the Book of Skulls, whose authors claim to hold the secret of immortality.
Maybe the document is genuine. Maybe the Keepers of the Skulls existed, or still exist – maybe Eli’s right & they have a monastery in the desert outside Phoenix. None of these kids are sure they believe it, in fact at least one definitely doesn’t believe. All the same, you have to take the chance.
According to the Book, the Keepers have conditions. Candidates must present themselves as a group of four (a Receptacle). One of the group must take their own life, & one other must be sacrificed by his friends, for the remainder of the Receptacle to attain immortality. So: one suicide + one murder = two live forever. That’s if the Book is for real.
That’s the pitch. (pause for effect) I know, right? Amazing. Everything I’ve just told you is conveyed in the first chapter, & the book takes off from there.
The covers of most editions of this book emphasise the desert setting, & maybe that’s another way of looking at this story – as a twisted sort of Western. Everything happens in sharp relief. The set-up is simple, there are a minimum number of characters, a mute sense of fate & confrontation looms overhead. The hidden passions, crimes, & inner deformities of its cast are dragged out into the open, life is weighed with death. Everything in the story happens for a reason. Or else everything that happens gradually gains significance, because at the heart of this situation there’s a terrible gravity.
Reading The Book of Skulls is a bit like watching a sports game. We meet the characters: some we like, others we don’t. To be honest, they’re each quite shitty in their own way. But they’re good characters & they're there to represent us, the readers. We watch them & bond with them, but we’ve been told what’s lurking up ahead for them, so… who’s it going to be? Who are you rooting for? That guy? You sure? OK well let’s see what happens…
By around 10 pages in I found that a weird, sick feeling was settling over me. The writing, the POV of the characters, is in no way melodramatic or ponderous – for the most part the tone is quite flippant, things play out naturally, it’s a smooth read – but all the same there’s an invisible thread stitched through it all, of anxiety, corruption… doom! I love this kind of thing. This book really got me thinking about mortality, morality, the boundaries of life. It’s a deceptively heavy (& increasingly uncomfortable) book.
There are a lot of ingredients going into this. Questions of faith, the relevance or defensibility of irrational thought in a rational, scientific world. Our need to try to extend life, the relevance or irrelevance of morality in pursuit of this goal. The inevitable traumas hidden inside us, the way these past moments create & define us. The philosophy which begins to emerge from all this, the philosophy of the Book of Skulls manuscript, is macabre (and cool): life can be attained by attuning oneself with death – the skull beneath the face, Death in Life, etc, a sort of morbid yoga. Past sins must be recalled, meditated on, confessed, but there is no call for penitence or forgiveness. The philosophy is cold, mechanical, amoral. This is not a situation where the good guy will necessarily come out on top. It’s a pragmatic & strangely credible process of self-transformation, & as readers we can only sit back & watch in horror (or fascination, or envy) as the change begins.
GOOD? Yes, definitely. It’s creepy, cool & intelligent. Unless you’re going through a depressive episode of something, you should read it.
FILE UNDER… Existential horror, western, dark side of the 60s revolution, morality play, New Age philosophy, yoga & self-improvement.
WOULD GO WELL WITH… Journal of the Dead, by Jason Kersten. Actually the film of JotD, “Gerry”, would have made a great double feature with the Book of Skulls film, had it ever been made. Turns out William Friedkin was going to make such a thing back in 2005/06, but it never happened. Shame.
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