The plot concerns four college students who discover a manuscript, The Book of Skulls , dealing with an order of monks living in a monastery in the Arizona desert, whose members claim the power to bestow immortality on those who complete their bizarre initiation rite. The boys travel to the monastery, where they are accepted as a "Receptacle," and told that for each group of four who agree to undergo the ritual, two must die in order for the others to succeed - one must sacrifice himself, and the other must be sacrificed at one or more of the others' hands.
The narrative switches back and forth between the viewpoints of the four students as each confronts his personal demons on the way to completing the ritual. Ned, who is openly homosexual, must face his guilt over the tragic aftermath of one of his affairs; Eli, the gifted (but socially inept) young man who discovered the manuscript, makes a confession that could destroy his academic career; Timothy, star athlete and prodigal son of a wealthy family, confronts a terrible sin from his past involving his younger sister; and Oliver, the handsome, over-motivated farm kid from the wrong side of the tracks, comes face to face with his own true innermost nature.
The Book of Skulls has been republished as part of the series SF Masterworks.