There’s something about universities and schools that lend themselves so well to books with a darker tone. The settings themselves, usually Ivy League or similar, along with the smart-arse full of themselves characters that authors tend to conjure to populate the hallowed halls, mingle so well. From secret societies to posh kids gone wild, to straight up supernatural horror and the terrors of real life, dark academic books deal with them all.
College is a time of high emotion. For many it’s the first time they’re away from home and let loose on the world. You’re dealing with study stress, friend stress, relationship stress, work stress, homesickness and then whatever the author decides to pile on top of all that. It tends to make for highly emotive, character led books with really interesting psychological slants.
Now that time of life is over for me I love to indulge in the darkest and most twisted of academia-centred tales. I thought I would pull together a list of five of the best places to start if you want to jump into this delicious sub-genre with me.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
This is where to start. The Secret History is hands down the quintessential dark academic read. Set at a small, elite Liberal Arts college in Vermont (based on Bennington College), it’s a murder mystery in reverse narrated by one of a group of six students involved in the murder of Bunny.
This band of six Classics students, along with their obsessions and social isolation, make for a masterclass in character. Tightly plotted with not a word out of place this is the perfect introduction to the genre and of Tartt’s writing if you’ve never read her work before.
The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
Only partially set in universities, but with a hell of a lot of libraries, The Historian is the story of a family of academics. A supernatural mystery at its core we follow the narrator on a journey across continents and history as she tries to find out what happened to her parents.
Tying in with the Dracula myth this story has tons of twists, shady characters and, my favourite thing in a book, letters. Kostova’s second book, The Swan Thieves has more of a traditional academic setting in part – take it as a bonus but not vital read I think because it’s not quite as special as The Historian.
These Violent Delights by Micah Nemerever
These Violent Delights is the third debut on the list – must be something in that? Writers = studious types = writing about uni? And another of my favourite books of all time – and I only just read it at the weekend! It tells the story of two teenage high achievers, Paul and Julian, who fall in a toxic, twisted co-dependant type of love.
Inspired by the true story of Leopold and Loeb this book gets darker with every turn as it touches on aspects of queer history, psychology, grief and nature. It’s a truly remarkable book that I can’t shut up about.
The Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo
The Ninth House is Bardugo’s adult debut but still has a bunch of YA elements – a mysterious boy, a kick ass heroine, it’s fantasy wrapped up in magical realism with a save the day plot. And I FREAKIN’ LOVED IT. Set at Yale university this is the book for you if you love ghosts and secret societies – if you don’t what you doin’ here?
It’s the start of a series too so there will be much more to look forward to hopefully. It’s not as serious as the previous three books but probably with more “fun” among the darkness if that’s what you’re looking for.
The Harrowing by Alexandra Sokoloff
It wouldn’t be me if I didn’t include a work of outright horror and The Harrowing nicely fits the bill. This ghost story follows five students who stayed behind at their halls of residence during a holiday and, in usual horror movie style, get haunted by a sixth, deeply unwelcome party.
Have you read any of these books or have any favourite dark academic books you want to shout about? Drop me a comment below.