Dark academia is more than sepia-toned filters and gothic table props, because this subculture has an obvious connection to scholarly pursuits. Its aesthetic-heavy visuals and fashion (think vintage tweed, moody layers, tan satchels, plaid skirts — whatever you would wear on the cloudiest day) helped the subculture find a footing with contemporary readers.
Though dark academia blew up on Tik Tok over the pandemic (what with digital fashion mood boards and the boom of old-timey hobbies like flower-pressing or letter-writing), pop culture has been steadily making room for dark re-tellings or adaptations set in the academic world, be it Riverdale, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina or even the first season of You. Does that mean Harry Potter, Dead Poets Society, Gossip Girl, Pretty Little Liars and Cruel Intentions can also belong in the dark academia subculture? In a way, yes! Dark academia isn’t just restricted to hardcore murder mysteries or campus horrors, it’s fluid and full of possibilities.
If you’re still looking for a way to explore this moody and complex subculture, here are some books that can help:
‘The Secret History’: Dona Tartt
The 30-year-old novel about murderous classics students found renewed popularity as the dark academia trend took off. Though there are plenty of similar modern campus novels by American authors, some contemporary readers believe Tartt’s novel can be a gateway to understanding the popular sub-culture. The book has a lot going for it, vis-a-vis the dark academia aesthetic — an elite college in Vermont, an enigmatic classics professor, a toxic clique of students, a working-class outsider, drunken bacchanals and a lot of secrets and blackmailing.
Despite its popularity with the younger pop culture enthusiasts, dark academia has seen plenty of criticism for promoting unhealthy behaviour (usually among minors) and its lack of diversity. Tartt’s novel — despite its success — plays right into these tropes. However, if you’re keen on exploring dark literary reads, but don’t want to start your reading list with a YA title, this one could be a good pick.
Similar books: Black Chalk by Christopher Yates and The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley
‘People Like Us’: Dana Mele
A good boarding school mystery is also a great way to start your journey into dark academia. Mele’s debut novel is witty, and acerbic at times (“Dance like no one is watching; email like it may one day be read aloud in a deposition”). The novel follows Kay — a star soccer player in an all-girls boarding school — who is pulled into a mysterious scavenger hunt to fulfil a dead classmate’s revenge plot. Think Pretty Little Liars, but brainier.
The novel is designed like a psychological thriller and is quite surprising when it oscillates between poignance and frivolity. If you’re a fan of gothic-inspired modern mysteries with Sapphic elements, this is right up your alley.
Similar Books: Good Girls Lie by J.T. Ellison
‘The Maidens’: Alex Michaelides
Secret societies make for fetching dark academia storylines. The story spotlights a Greek tragedy professor at Cambridge University, named Edward Fosca, who is widely loved — particularly by an all-female secret society called The Maidens. Fosca becomes a point of interest for group therapist Mariana Andros when her niece’s friend is found murdered in Cambridge.
The Maidens isn’t exactly a campus novel, it’s a murder mystery set in a college. There’s a sprinkling of Greek mythology and classic allegories and a nuanced look at how predatory behaviour is often enabled in academic institutions. It’s not a perfect read and may even come off as predictable in certain places. But, for classic lovers trying to connect the dark academia hype with their literary preferences, this novel could be a good find.
Similar books: The Latinist by Mark Prins
‘Ace of Spades’: Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé
Dark academia has often been deemed ‘too white’ or too Euro-centric in its appeal. Modern dark academia novels are too often feeding a world which doesn’t make room for BIPOC voices or is centred around old money families and white elites. Ace of Spades, by 21-year-old author Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé, attempts to disrupt this pattern.
The thriller delves deep into institutionalised racism. It is set in a fictional school titled Niveus Private Academy, where an anonymous texter named Aces (quite similar to Gossip Girl) is bringing two students’ secrets to the fore. Musician Devon and head girl Chiamaka are plagued by attacks from this anonymous bully and attempt to fight back.
The novel also explores how homophobia, classicism and discrimination are normalised in elite institutions.
“I hope that in reading this story, you see that despite the darkness we are plagued with, which often feels inescapable, that not only are happy endings possible for Black people, but we deserve them,” Àbíké-Íyímídé writes in her notes.
Similar books: I Wish You All the Best by Mason Deaver
‘Bunny’: Mona Awad
Though many readers believe that Bunny can’t be categorised under dark academia, this award-winning novel managed to open up many possibilities for what this genre could become. The book is Awad’s follow-up to her 2016 debut novel, 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, and balances satire with horror.
Samantha Heather Mackey is a scholarship student at New England’s Warren University. A loner and a cynic, Samantha finds the all-girls clique named Bunny to be vapid and pretentious. However, things change when Samantha receives an invitation to the Bunnies’ fabled Smut Salon.
Samantha’s journey down the rabbit hole brings her face-to-face with dark rituals and eerie off-campus ‘workshops.’ Awad created some great antagonists who are believable and the author also has a refreshing take on modern cults. Expect some snarky humour and unsettling twists and also expect a TV adaptation to drop any minute.
Similar books: A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik
‘Banquet for the Damned’: Adam Nevill
A campus novel steeped in gothic horror, this Adam Nevill title manages to bridge the gap between paranormal fiction and academia. If you’re looking for a dark, slow-burning supernatural horror, this one could be a perfect weekend read. Set in the university town of St. Andrews, the story follows two struggling musicians named Dante and Tom who get an opportunity to work for philosopher and professor Eliot Coldwell, the author of Dante’s favourite book — an occult study titled Banquet for the Damned.
The book pulls you in from the get-go as Coldwell grows more and more mysterious with each chapter and the author eases readers into occult traditions from around the world which play a role in the narrative. Nevill, who also wrote the popular horror novel, The Ritual, is a pro with paranormal narratives.
There is more than one subplot, but they’re all engaging and it’s easy to see that they’re all moving in the same direction.
Similar books: Burnt Offerings by Robert Marasco