I’ve seen people I respect really hate the dark academia concept, and I get that as it out of context and/or romanticized ends up portraying academia in unpleasant ways. Both in being too good or too bad. But as book and movie genre goes, it really is about how obsessive a person and group can get when they’re all in the same place, under immense pressure following their passions, with the weird group dynamics that can create. Like cult-ish, or featuring too many mysteries for someone to not be keeping secrets.
Books I’ve Read
If We Were Villains by M. L. Rio: A typical dark academia book in that it’s very centered around a cast of characters (both friends and enemies) attending the same classes, performing greek plays, being in general theatric and dark. You can see how the characters are pushed to excell and that they know that themselves, before they start to unravel from guilt. It’s is ways similiar to the secret history, but I found this book missing in some aspects like the complexity of the characters.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt: I’ve read this book multiple times, it’s the perfect dark academia book. The synopsis says what it needs to; “Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries. But when they go beyond the boundaries of normal morality they slip gradually from obsession to corruption and betrayal, and at last – inexorably – into evil.“
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt: I’ve never written a full review of this book, and yet it is one of my favourites. It’s a deeply tragic story with many different acts or settings. It’s mostly about friendship, survival and loneliness, where the protagonist goes constantly from good situations falling apart to surviving the worst ones. It features a bomb in a museum killing the protagonist’s mother, a lost painting, rich families and abusive homes. And also a character Boris, pulling the protagonist into a deep friendship with some homoromantic subtext. As Rick Riordan put it “If nothing else, read this book to meet Boris“. He’s somewhat of a criminal genius. All throughout this book there’s some mystery and urgency in the survival.
They Never Learn by Layne Fargo: It’s different to a lot of the other books here, because the English professor protagonist is definite murderer, trying to avoid persecution while roaming around on the university campus. The other protagonist is a student, who brings a lot of obsessiveness in taking things into her own hands when her friend gets sexually assaulted. It definitely showcases the potentially worst sides of an (academic) institution with abuse of power from everyone in charge. Less about the group dynamics, and more about the individuals’ dark paths.
A Separate Peace by John Knowles: A boarding school of boys lives their life while a war is brewing outside in the world, constantly dripping into theirs. It fits with the dark academia concept because of that obsessiveness attached to the secluded group dynamic the boarding school brings. There’s a lot to say about this coming-of-age story, but personally the relationship between Gene and Phineas felt like those really destructive friendships that behave almost like romances (even if that was not the goal). The distant war and the situation is wearing the whole group down, with dramatic consequences.
Books On My TBR
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke: Filled with riddles and mystery, with the protagonist living in an endless labyrinth of “classical architecture stitched together” which he works to understand. There’s searches for knowledge and a debate for it being the good for humanity or for power.
Maurice by E. M. Forster: It’s a classic gay novel making a point to criticize the romanticization of the posh ivy league, it might not fit all the criterias, but that’s central.
Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M Danforth: A sapphic novel set in a school for girls spanning two different times; one which lead to the school closing as the girls died from a wasp incident, and one where it’s newly reopened and allegedly cursed.
Those Who Prey by Jennifer Moffett: It’s a lonely college freshman seduced into joining an exclusive cult, a trip to Italy, trying to escape and a mysterious death.
The Magus by John Fowles: I’m a bit unsure yet how dark academia this is, but it should have rich dudes, the protagonist getting a teaching position on a remote Greek Island and befriending a local millionaire, which turns into a deadly game with a lot of mental manipulation andn torture. All steeped in metaphor, symbolism, eroticism, mythology and shakespeare. Which sounds like it fits.
Peace Breaks Out by John Knowles: It’s less known than “A Separate Peace”, but in some way I hope it’s more of the same? It’s post-war and dealing with some weird consequences of relief and guilt, mostly told by the teacher of an all boys school. Can’t quite promise it’s dark academia, but will eventually get to it.
Ace of Spades by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé: A queer thriller set in a private school dealing with institutionalized racism.
Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia: Mixing elements of the supernatural with science and academia, with love stories, enormous wealth, debutante balls and gothic mysteries.
Update after reading mexican gothic: definitely dark and horror, less academia, except for character’s interest and knowledge of plants and mushrooms. Wouldn’t immediately say it’s dark academia.
Mona Lisa Smile by Deborah Chiel: The protagonist gets a teacher position at an all-girl school trying to get the girls to follow their passion in the 1950s. Described as “dead poets society” with girls.
A Lesson in Vengeance by Victoria Lee: An intense, sapphic novel with an unreliable narrator, obesessions and mysteries.
Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl: A dense novel where a smart protagonist is looking for similiar friends at a private school, with success, but also a drowning, a hanging and a lot of dealing with murder mystery.
The Lessons by Naomi Alderman: A naive narrator from a poor background enrolls in a prestigious university, meeting a close-knit intellectual and wealthy friendgroup (sounds a lot like The Secret History) featuring manipulation, intense romances and gay and bi characters.
This book was just a horrible attempt at dark academia;
Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo: You cannot just give your characters all this past and current, very explicit, trauma and then not play out the consequences in any shape or form. It is not the shortcut to “darker” or more “mature” content that this book was so heavily marketed as, it only brings up questions of what is for shock factor (and creates a unneccessarily long trigger warning list). Yale is the setting, which Bardugo attended, but there’s barely anything related to academia. There’s a powerful magical rich group of people (secret society style), the protagonist supposedly coming from a poor background. But the poor people are portrayed as sell-outs, they’re drug-dealers, murderers, something to leave behind. There’s racism that’s never confronted and the most badly written and handled sexual assault I’ve ever read (at which point I stopped reading it). That says something as I just read Philip Pullman’s take on a girl being nearly gang-raped on a train by soldiers the moment she enters his world’s equivalent of muslim land and told to cover up afterwards. WHO LETS THESE (until then good) AUTHORS WRITE THIS JUST BECAUSE THEY’RE FAMOUS AND SUPPOSEDLY CHANGING FROM YA BOOKS TO MORE MATURE?