Back to School & Back to Murder: 5 Dark Academia Books for Fall
Prepare for dusty shelves ... and death.
Previously only found on Pinterest boards and Tumblr blogs, dark academia noticeably permeated into the greater internet when Covid-19 began. Videos on Youtube and TikTok began to appear, showing the best looks for tweed and discussing books with central themes of acquiring knowledge.
The concept of dark academia means a few things, depending on who you ask. Generally, it is the aesthetic of a lifestyle dedicated to learning—especially the classics, literature, theater, and art. Because our visuals of “the academic” are very Eurocentric, the look often involves donning muted colors/textures, a long pant and formal coat. It gets bonus points if there’s an ivy-infested, (at least) centuries-old building to explore and well-manicured grounds to stroll. Wikipedia defines dark academia as “a social media aesthetic and subculture centered around higher education, writing/poetry, the arts, and classic Greek and Gothic architecture.”
Before the internet took the idea and ran with it, Donna Tartt’s 1992 novel The Secret History would lay the literary foundation for this aesthetic into a really loose idea of a genre. In addition to the old buildings and prep school attire, mystery, forbidden love, and murder became core elements of dark academia stories.
Like the aesthetic, dark academia in fiction is also loosely label and always in conversation. Similar to the term “young adult” (YA), people aren’t always in agreement with what does and doesn’t make the cut. In June, video essayist Rowan Ellis uploaded an in-depth and insightful video on the topic of dark academia and its criticism. These are issues of elitism, racism, and an overall lack of substance with those engaging with the aesthetic.
Here are some newer works of fiction that fit this aesthetic and, true to academia, also appear to confront the very issues of the aesthetic and its core audience in the novel’s themes:
- A Lesson in Vengeance by Victoria Lee
Debuting this month is Lee’s sapphic romance set in a boarding school with a history of occult activity. Within the first ten years of opening, the Dalloway School was the site of five gruesome deaths.
After the tragic death of her girlfriend, Felicity just wants to get through her senior year. A year in which she has to return to the dormitory rumored to be haunted by the spirits of the Dalloway Five. However, she is drawn to helping prodigy novelist and Dalloway freshmen Ellis research her second book about the original five deaths.
This paranormal thriller will have the past bleeding (literally) into the present.
- If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio
On the first public performance of their senior year at the Dellecher Classical Conservatory, seven young Shakespearean actors come face to face with real-life violence. The next day they must convince the police, each other, and themselves of their innocence. After a ten-year incarceration connected to that performance, one of the actors, Oliver, is ready to speak.
Perfect for fans of The Bard, Rio uses her real-life experiences as an actor and to craft this tale of rivalry and friendship. The 2017 murder mystery is Rio’s debut novel.
- Ace of Spades by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé
Two competitive students at the Niveus Private Academy, Devon and Chiamaka, have one goal: become valedictorian and get into a top university. Striving for perfection is a full-time job. After anonymous text messages from someone who goes by Aces start to reveal their secrets, the two must try and work together to save their reputations. Things escalate with Aces’ pranks becoming more deadly, and secrets within the academy begin to surface.
As a fan of Alyssa Cole’s When No One Is Watching, I am excited to dive into this social commentary thriller by debut author Àbíké-Íyímídé. The YA mystery is described as a mix of Gossip Girl, Get Out, and Pretty Little Liars.
- Plain Bad Heroines by Emily Danforth
Though the settings and themes of dark academia tend to be very serious, it doesn’t mean they can’t be funny. From the author of The Miseducation of Cameron Post comes the spooky, sapphic, satirical romance Plain Bad Heroines. The book starts with two young students obsessed with the scandalous writer Mary MacLanethe at Brookhants School for Girls. Then, the girls are found dead, covered in wasps. After 3 more mysterious deaths, the school shudders its doors.
Made famous by a best-selling novel published a century later, the story is set to be adapted into a movie. The controversial film will star the it-girl, Harper, and a former child star, Audry. Additionally, the film is set to be filmed on the very grounds of Brookhants.
At a thicc 600 pages, this tome also gives the reader illustrations (by artist Sara Lautman) and epistolary elements. Published right before Halloween in 2020, the book describes itself as a The Favourite meets The Haunting of Hill House.
- Bunny by Mona Awad
As a scholarship student at a selective grad program in New England’s Warren University, Samantha doesn’t feel like she fits in with the rest of the wealthy students. At first, she tries to convince herself that she doesn’t care about this Plastic-like (Mean Girls) group called the Bunnies. However, that changes when she gets an invitation to join the Bunnie’s Smut Salon.
In engaging with this sinister group, Samantha loses herself and her sense of reality as she ventures down the rabbit hole.
(feature image: Delacorte Press, Feiwel & Friends, and Penguin Books.)
The Mary Sue may earn an affiliate commission on products and services purchased through links.
The Mary Sue may have advertising partnerships with some of the publishers and titles on this list.
Want more stories like this? Become a subscriber and support the site!
—The Mary Sue has a strict comment policy that forbids, but is not limited to, personal insults toward anyone, hate speech, and trolling.—
Have a tip we should know? [email protected]