Fiction has long employed the tantalizing tropes of forbidden knowledge and hidden secrets to draw the reader in, and what better setting for such tales than the often opaque and eccentric world of academia?
Books belonging to the dark academia genre are usually centered on a place of learning, and often feature secret societies or mysterious codes; they also overwhelmingly skew towards the Gothic, macabre, and bizarre. According to The New York Times, it’s a subculture with “a heavy emphasis on reading, writing, learning—and a look best described as traditional-academic-with-a-Gothic-edge; think slubby brown cardigans, vintage tweed pants, a worn leather satchel full of a stack of books, dark photos, brooding poetry and skulls lined up next to candles.”
Schools, universities, and religious retreats are all perfect settings for presenting unique micro-systems full of peculiar goings-on, where the intangible line between the safe and the scary can be crossed with terrifying ease. Down below are six of the best dark academia novels to help get you hooked on this fascinating genre.
1. The Secret History by Donna Tartt; $7
“Write what you know” is a piece of advice often given to aspiring authors, and that’s essentially what American novelist Donna Tartt did in her wildly successful debut. The four years that Tartt spent at Bennington College, a private liberal arts school in Vermont, were formative for the creation of The Secret History—even though Tartt has since denied that Hampden College, the fictional liberal arts institution in the book, is based off it.
The novel follows a group of six students whose lives are devastated by a murder. Tartt makes use of an unconventional narrative structure to add extra layers of intrigue, with the story told from a viewpoint dated years after the shocking event. This allows for reflection on both the aftermath of it and the social dynamics of the college. Despite several near-misses, The Secret History has yet to be adapted for film—a pity, as the evocative setting and intricate relationships captured in this tome would surely make for some rich cinema.
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2. Bunny by Mona Awad; $11
Mona Awad possesses an undeniable knack for taking her readers inside the minds of young women, particularly those who find themselves pushed to the fringes of society. Awad’s heroine in this story is Samantha, a lonely and insecure figure with a brooding imagination, who enrolls in a select graduate program at the fictional Warren University.
In Awad’s hands, what could easily have been a standard “outsider struggles to fit in” narrative becomes a gruesome—and unforgettable—folk horror tale of compelling stature. The title refers to the Bunnies, a clique of unbearably mawkish rich girls; when Samantha receives an unexpected invitation to the Bunnies’ secret Smut Salon, the stage is set for an increasingly disturbing story, as the protagonist finds herself gradually drawn into a world where reality becomes malleable, shocking, and dangerous. Plans to bring Awad’s bestseller to the big screen are currently underway, too.
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3. The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton; $6
The setting may not be academic, but G.K. Chesterton fills this tale with so much oblique lore and philosophy that it more than merits an inclusion in this roundup of dark academia novels. Born in London in 1874, Chesterton worked as a literary and art critic, and wrote several works on philosophy and theology, as well as many novels and short stories. His work often contains a fantastical element, perhaps none more so than this gem, written in 1908, in which Scotland Yard investigator Gabriel Syme dives deep undercover to infiltrate a mysterious organization of anarchists.
Syme discovers that the anarchist group is run by a central council of seven secretive figures that are each named after a day of the week and sets about penetrating their ranks. He manages to get himself elected to the position of “Thursday,” and from there on in, things become decidedly weird—like a bizarre hall of mirrors where nothing is quite what it seems. Chesterton’s metaphysical mystery has been adapted for radio and theatre several times, notably by the great Orson Welles in 1938, and was referenced in Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman.
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4. Ace of Spades by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé; $10
Born in Croydon, England, Àbíké-Íyímídé’s debut novel Ace of Spades is one of the few books to address issues of homophobia within the Black community. This young adult thriller takes its inspiration from the author’s own time at the University of Aberdeen, which proved a very different environment from her South London home. Ace of Spades earned itself the 2022 NAACP Award for Outstanding Literary Work (Youth/Teens category) and made the top 10 on The New York Times bestsellers list for the previous year.
The story charts the experiences of the only two Black students at an elite private school: straight-A pupil and Queen Bee, Chiamaka Adebayo, and Devon Richards, an unpopular geek. What begins as an exploration of social hierarchies, prejudice, and cyber-bullying later spirals into a startling conspiracy of terrifying intent. Àbíké-Íyímídé’s work draws favorable comparison with the cinematic adventures of Jordan Peele, whom she was inspired by. “[Jordan Peele's Get Out] was a big, big inspiration forAce of Spades, as well as Gossip Girl, because without Get Out, I wouldn’t have even thought of going down this road,” she told Nerdist in 2021.
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5. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco; $12
Published in 1980, The Name of the Rose is rightfully viewed as a towering work. It sits squarely in the dark academia genre, even inspiring academic papers dedicated to its labyrinthine plot and symbolism. For this striking murder-mystery tale, Umberto Eco drew upon his knowledge of medieval history and philosophy, situating the action in his native country of Italy, but focusing on the year 1327.
The protagonist is Franciscan friar William of Baskerville, whose name references both a fictional sleuth—Sherlock Holmes—and real-life Franciscan friar and philosopher William of Ockham. The action takes place within a Benedictine monastery that is home to a prestigious library, and revolves around the death of one of the order. As the bodies pile up, Baskerville becomes drawn into a cabal steeped in theological and philosophical intrigue. If you enjoy this novel, be sure to watch the 1986 film of the same name, directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud and starring a perfectly cast Sean Connery as Baskerville, alongside a very young Christian Slater.
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6. The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova; $12
Author Elizabeth Kostova struck big with her debut, the product of a decade’s worth of work. It eventually earned her a $2 million advance and set a record as the first debut to take the No. 1 spot on The New York Times bestseller list.
This cleverly constructed and intricate tale is woven across three separate narratives and told through letters and firsthand accounts, all connected to Vlad Tepes, a 15th-century prince of Wallachia (a region of Romania)—a historical figure who served as part-inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Kostova tells the story of Paul, a professor, and his young daughter, who are both trying to locate Vlad’s tomb in the 1950s, alternating with accounts from Paul’s mentor, 20 years earlier, and Paul’s daughter, 20 years later. The Historian combines elements of Gothic horror, crime, and detective fiction into an engaging, unpredictable novel that pulsates with a chilling eeriness. You can read about Kostova’s literary inspirations and writing in this enjoyable author Q&A.
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