If you’ve done any online browsing lately, you may have noticed a new trend in teen fiction: the dark academia genre. What is this genre, exactly? Well, it’s hard to define, but certain novels tend to get classified as such. For example, The Secret History by Donna Tartt and A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara are considered dark academic books. We’d also add Educated by Tara Westover and Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro to that list.
These six novels tend to be the most popular picks for those who are trying to define the dark academia genre. If you want more details on what makes these books so compelling—and typical of dark academia—read on!
The list we’ve set up here is a very short one, however, but it does introduce the genre and a bit of college life. Not to mention these books might as well be a shortcut to some English help. This is because the authors generally take a very strong stance towards writing good English; it’s part of the intellectual (and snobbish) draw.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
The Secret History is a novel by Donna Tartt published in 1992. The story is about a murder that takes place in Hampden College, a small New England college where the main character Richard Papen lives with five friends who form the “Secret History Society” and worship a Greek god called Dionysus.
The novel won the prestigious Whitbread Book of the Year Award in Britain and was nominated for other awards, including the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and Orange Prize for Fiction.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Mary Shelley, the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, began writing Frankenstein at the age of 18. The novel was published in 1818 and has since become one of the most important works in dark academia.
The book is based on the story of Dr. Victor Frankenstein and his monster. Frankenstein creates a monster from body parts he finds in graveyards, but when he realizes that it has feelings like humans do (namely fear), he rejects him out of fear of what he might do if left to his own devices. This rejection sparks something inside his creation—the desire for revenge—and thus begins an epic tale that involves murder, destruction, and destruction some more!
Now, you might not consider Frankenstein a Dark Academia novel in the strictest sense, but Victor Frankenstein’s work on human biology is carried out largely during his time at college in Vienne. While it is the very first Science Fiction novel ever written, it might not be quite a stretch to consider it a precursor to the genre itself due to Frankenstein’s partial academic setting.
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
This is a Gothic novel that tells the story of a man’s moral decline. In this book, Wilde explores the duality in human nature and how we often live our lives for our vanity rather than for others or a greater purpose. This book does not end well for anyone involved, but it does make us think about what we could do differently with our own lives.
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
The Haunting of Hill House is arguably the best example of a haunted-house story ever written. In this novel, Shirley Jackson tells us the tale of a family that moves into an old house in New England and experiences strange occurrences there.
The ghostly happenings have some basis in reality but also appear to be connected by supernatural forces at work within the house itself. As such, readers are given a glimpse into both real-world events as well as what we might consider more “supernatural” phenomena (or nonsense).
The Haunting of Hill House is also one of many dark academia novels that see its narrator as someone who has experienced paranormal activity themselves; this allows them to bring their unique perspective to their writing—and it makes for compelling reading!
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
In A Little Life, Yanagihara charts the lives of four college friends who move to Boston and back again. The novel is about friendship and love and how our lives are shaped by trauma and loss. It’s also about severe abuse: The first third of the book deals with Jude St. Francis’ abuse at the hands of his older brother as a child; he suffers physical scars from it—and emotional ones too—throughout his life.
The book won critical acclaim for its depiction of this difficult subject matter; it was featured on several best-of-the-year lists when it came out in 2015 (including ours). “A Little Life is a big dark book that somehow feels both overwhelming and deeply absorbing,” wrote Roxane Gay in her review for the New York Times Book Review. “It is unflinching in its portrayal of suffering but also sustaining in its depiction of friendship among men who have endured similar trauma.”
The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin
This novel is a heartwarming story of an unlikely friendship, but it also has some dark elements. The first chapter begins with someone breaking into a bookshop and stealing a rare edition of Gulliver’s Travels.
The main character, A.J., is a grumpy bookseller who doesn’t want to be bothered by customers or anything else that might disrupt his life. But then, one day, he finds an abandoned baby on his doorstep—and he’s forced to care for her despite himself! The story follows A.J.’s adjustment to fatherhood (and motherhood), as well as the impact she has on his business and social life over time.
If you’re into dark fantasy, mystery, and suspense novels, these books are all great reads and a cornerstone in the Dark Academia genre. The stories are well-written, well-known, well-reviewed, and loved by many.
These are just a few of the many dark academic novels out there. They’re great for introducing you to this genre or for diving deeper into it if you’re already a fan. Whether you’re looking for a murder mystery in an Ivy League college or one about an ordinary student who just wants to learn without getting dragged into some kind of evil ritual, there’s bound to be something here that will satisfy your craving! Happy reading!