Four college boys — Eli, the scholarly Jew; Timothy, the debauched WASP; Oliver, the ambitious Kansas farmboy; and Ned, the wanton homosexual — travel Arizona over Easter break to visit a mysterious monastery that promises the gift of eternal life. Such a gift can only come at a terrible price.
The first two-thirds of this book are a bit of a slog; the characters are all pretty despicable, with casual misogyny, homophobia, and anti-Semitism sprinkled through their alternating first-person narrative chapters. The trip from their unnamed prestigious East Coast school to Arizona, by way of New York City, Chicago, St. Louis, Oklahoma, and Phoenix, is a dull procession of sexual escapades and hours on the road, with bits of their personal histories told in flashback. Spending so much time inside the heads of these characters, particularly Timothy, is grueling.
Once at the House of Skulls, things pick up a bit. The monastery is indeed mysterious, and their days are spent learning to meditate, working in the fields that provide food to the isolated house, and listening to the history of the order, which may derive from some ancient Atlantean cult, or may simply be a mad undertaking by men whose brains have been addled by too much desert sun. The inevitable conclusion, which has been hinted at since the beginning, comes abruptly and violently, and the mysteries of the Book of Skulls remain mysterious.
There are certainly rich and intriguing ideas scattered throughout “The Book of Skulls,” though maybe not quite enough to sustain a novel with the kinds of characters we’re given. I’m happy to leave Eli, Timothy, Oliver, and Ned to their desert fates, having spent a bit too much time rattling around in their unremarkable heads.
On the eve of the First World War, a young man travels to an isolated Antarctic lighthouse to serve as a meteorologist. He discovers that the previous meteorologist died under mysterious circumstances, and that the lighthouse keeper with whom he will share the island is keeping a strange amphibious humanoid as a kind of pet/sex slave. Every night, hordes of the humanoids rise from the waves and attack the lighthouse, and the keeper and meteorologist must fight for their lives.
I expected something a little more like “Shadow Over Innsmouth,” but this feels a little more like “Avatar” (albeit quite a bit darker and gorier). There are some gorgeous scenes of the stark Antarctic island, and the underwater scenes are impressive, but the large-scale battles feel clunkily animated.
When Nancy entered a mysterious door in the basement, she found herself in the Halls of the Dead, where stillness and silence are valued above all else. Now returned to the noise and bustle of our world, she has been sent to Eleanor West’s school for children who were “lost” in various fairy lands, skeleton kingdoms, and realms of magic. All of the students (and their teachers) long to return “home” to those magical worlds, while struggling to learn to live in the mundane. As if that weren’t enough of a challenge, though, there’s also a killer stalking the school.
This is a short but rich novella, with a fascinating underlying theory of portal worlds, described along axes of Nonsense and Logic, Virtue and Wickedness. All of the characters traveled to different worlds, and are shaped by the experience in unique ways; their stories are only briefly sketched, but tantalizingly. And though the book is able to stand alone as the story of Nancy’s role in bringing an end to the murders at the Home for Wayward Children, it also launches a collection of stories exploring the other worlds that are hinted at here.