Blog – Posted on Wednesday, Mar 16
The 30 Best Dark Academia Books of All Time
Given its rapid rise from internet subculture to literary phenomenon, you’ve probably heard of dark academia. But what is this new genre? Put simply, dark academia books handle all things literary, moody, and macabre. A love for classic literature, ancient art, and the pursuit of knowledge have combined to form a unique aesthetic that centers around elite universities, mysterious societies, and dark secrets.
But the best way to understand the concept of dark academia is by example. With that being said, here are 30 of the best dark academia books — best enjoyed while strolling through hushed cloisters or hiding in a shadowy corner of a library, bats fluttering behind you.
1) The Secret History by Donna Tartt
The book that launched an entire subculture, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History is quintessential dark academic reading. Following a group of six high-minded Classics students at an elite New England college, Tartt’s debut novel is a coming-of-age story with a twist. Over the course of the novel, we learn that pretentiousness isn’t the gang’s greatest crime; something far darker binds them to one another, a secret that threatens to destroy their insular world of learning and privilege. This tale of sex, death, and literature sets up the moody atmosphere and cultured allusions that have gone on to characterize dark academia books. If you’re looking for an entry point into the genre, look no further.
2) Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo
Alex Stern has the odds stacked against her. The high-school-dropout daughter of a dead-beat mom, she’s been crashing from precarious situation to even more precarious situation her entire life. After surviving a horrific and unsolved attack, Alex has finally reached breaking point — until an unexpected opportunity appears as she’s lying in a hospital bed. A mysterious benefactor sees something special in Alex, offering her a full-ride scholarship to Yale — but only if she agrees to use her unusual abilities to monitor occult activity on campus. A twisty tale of secret societies and the supernatural, Ninth House is a must-read dark academia book with a touch of the fantastical.
3) Bunny by Mona Awad
Bold, singular, and experimental, Mona Awad’s Bunny is as head-spinning as it is gripping. The novel tells the story of Samantha — MFA student, loner, and all round fish out of water — attempting to navigate life at a highly competitive university, surrounded by the kind of preppy rich girls she less-than-affectionately refers to as “Bunnies”. Despite her initial aversion to the gang, an invitation to their mysterious “Smut Salon” draws Samantha in despite herself. An unexpected world of grotesque ritual awaits, as the once bland Bunnies reveal themselves to be nothing of the sort. Caustic and subversive, Bunny is well worth the read.
4) Ace of Spades by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé
Aptly marketed as “Gossip Girl meets Get Out”, Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé’s explosive debut novel burst onto the YA fiction scene in 2021, and has been generating buzz among dark academia fans ever since. Ace of Spades follows the story of two students at Niveus Private Academy: high-achieving and ambitious head girl Chiamaka, and reclusive musician Devon. When an anonymous source begins leaking private information about the pair, they’re drawn into a high-stakes game of cat and mouse which threatens to destroy them both. In a genre that at times lacks BIPOC voices, Ace of Spades is a breath of fresh air, with its adept handling of complex issues like racism, classism, and homophobia — a not-to-be-missed new release.
5) The Atlas Six by Olivie Blake
Originally self-published before becoming a social media sensation and being snapped up by Macmillan, The Atlas Six tells the story of the Alexandrian Society, the foremost secret society of magical academicians across the world. Invitees gain access to knowledge from the most powerful ancient civilizations, supposedly lost to the people of today. Six magicians are recruited to vie for entry, and must contribute their findings to subjects ranging from space and time to luck and thought. Among the six recruits are earth-benders, mind-readers, and truth-seers. The catch? There are only five spots available. In a competition for not just prestige, but survival, all are faced with one question: what are you willing to risk for the honor of the Alexandrian Society?
📈Curious for more stories about self-published books that broke into the mainstream? Check out our list of self-publishing success stories.
6) Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
Charles Ryder and his noble-born companion Sebastian may attend Oxford, but not much studying happens in the pages of Brideshead Revisited. Instead, school’s out for the summer, and Charles makes a visit to Sebastian’s family home at Brideshead. The visit sets into motion a course of events that will change both of their lives forever. Moody and opulent, Evelyn Waugh’s classic novel contains the kind of esotericism and tragedy that dark academia fans are sure to love — and one counted as a major influence on Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.
7) If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio
If We Were Villains has the classic scholastic setting of dark academia, but with a twist: this time, we’re at drama school. A group of seven actors study the works of Shakespeare, while studying the off-stage drama of their peers. There are some attending this elite arts school who’ll do anything to get the part, so it's little surprise when one of them is found dead. If you’re interested in some amped-up theater kid drama, serious suspense, and a lot of Shakespeare quotes, give If We Were Villains a try.
8) How We Fall Apart by Katie Zhao
Nancy and Jamie are best friends — until Jamie unexpectedly goes missing, and is soon found dead. Shock turns to terror when Nancy and her friends become prime suspects in Jamie’s murder thanks to The Proctor, an anonymous user on their school’s social media app. The Proctor is steadily revealing secrets about Nancy and her friends, secrets that might cost Nancy her future college scholarship. Paranoia peppers the pages of this textbook dark academia novel, as a previously unbreakable bond of friendship is pushed to its limits. Punchy and thrilling, Katie Zhao’s work provides stark insight into the often overlooked issues facing many Asian-American students, and the tensions inherent in being a “model minority”, navigating a pressure-cooker environment that will be all too relatable to many.
9) These Violent Delights by Micah Nemerever
Micah Nemerever’s award-winning debut novel These Violent Delights begins with two university freshmen meeting in 1970s Pittsburgh. Paul is talented, sensitive, and deeply insecure; in other words, he feels like he belongs away from the world of his working class upbringing. Julian, on the other hand, has an easy charm and self-possessed magnetism that makes Paul both idolize him and see him as his sole creative equal. But beneath his golden-boy exterior, Julian hides a dark side. These Violent Delights will take you on a trip through love, obsession, and unforgivable violence. Can these men, these boys, confront the difficult truths at the core of their increasingly intimate relationship — or will they let their lives crumble?
10) Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas
Ines, a wild-child teenager, is accepted into Catherine House, the most prestigious boarding college in the country — one that turns recent high school graduates into prize-winning authors, artists, Supreme Court justices, and even presidents. Tuition, rooming, and living costs are all free for the lucky few who make it past the intensive admissions process. So, what’s the catch? Catherine House requires all students to come with nothing but the clothes on their back and spend three full years completely disconnected from the outside world. Ines’s dangerous rebellion gets her tangled in the school’s secret inner-circle of students — it turns out there’s a dark truth behind holding such high prestige.
11) The Maidens by Alex Michaelides
When a member of an all-female secret society turns up dead at the University of Cambridge, therapist Mariana becomes obsessed with bringing her killer to justice. And she’s convinced she knows who did it; Edward Fosca. Charismatic heartthrob Fosca is a lecturer in Greek tragedy, whose fixation on Persephone’s journey to the underworld begins to trouble Mariana. As the bodies begin to pile up, Mariana’s conviction grows, and she decides it’s her job alone to stop Fosca before it’s too late. Deliciously dark and atmospheric, The Maidens is the kind of classicising dark academia book that fans of The Secret History will love. Claim your hipster points by reading the source material before you watch the TV adaptation.
12) Vicious by V.E. Schwab
Superpowers do not a hero make, as senior year college students Victor and Eli learn the hard way after their research project goes terribly wrong. The two share a burning interest in studying adrenaline, near-death experiences, and supernatural events. When their research moves into the practicum phase, they learn that under the right circumstances, average humans can develop superhuman powers. Consequences are catastrophic, landing both men in serious trouble. Ten years on, Victor is breaking free from prison, with vengeance on his mind. He’s on a manhunt for Eli, who’s on a mission of his own: to destroy anyone with superhuman powers. When the former allies finally reconnect, who will survive? Vicious reads like a graphic novel in prose, and asks what we’re willing to give up to become extraordinary.
13) A Lesson in Vengeance by Victoria Lee
For a queer take on dark academia, try this one out for size. In A Lesson in Vengeance, protagonist Felicity is returning to Dalloway to finish her senior year, following a year’s absence after the death of her girlfriend. All she wants is to move on, but it turns out the past will refuse to stay in the past. Enter Ellis, a freshman at Dalloway and a prodigy-novelist researching her next book. She’s at Dalloway because of its supernatural history, specifically the story of the Dalloway Five: five women who died mysteriously one after the other on school grounds, all of whom were suspected of witchcraft. Ellis approaches Felicity for her research — given what happened to her girlfriend, she’s the perfect resource. And while Felicity wants nothing to do with the school’s occult underbelly, Ellis proves difficult to resist…
14) Plain Bad Heroines: A Novel by Emily M. Danforth
Flo and Clara attend The Brookhants School for Girls in 1902, where they become completely obsessed with daring young writer Mary McLane’s scandalous memoir. They form The Plain Bad Heroine Society, meeting at the orchard to discuss McLane. Fast forward, and the girls are found dead, with only McLane’s book between them. After further mysterious deaths, the school closes its doors for good — until a century later, when it becomes a movie set for a film based on Flo and Clara’s story. The past and present become indistinguishable when the set feels the wrath of whatever haunts the school grounds. As history begins to repeat, this book’s version of dark academia with a twist delivers a sharp warning not to mess with what we can’t understand.
15) Vita Nostra by Marina & Sergey Dyachenko
Ukrainian husband-and-wife duo Marina and Sergey Dyachenko are a prolific writing team, with dozens of novels, novellas, and short stories to their name. One of their biggest international hits is Vita Nostra, the story of a young girl, her domineering mentor, and a mysterious education at the “Institute of Special Technologies”. A brilliant work of speculative fantasy fiction, Vita Nostra takes fantasy, philosophy, and metaphysics in its stride as its protagonist Sasha becomes more and more deeply entrenched in the Institute and its shadowy practices. It’s a strange and enchanting story — Harry Potter with a sting in the tail.
16) People Like Us by Dana Mele
Marketed as the literary lovechild of Gossip Girl and Pretty Little Liars, People Like Us is a dark, character-driven thriller about Kay — a girl with a troubled past who's trying hard to reinvent herself. She’s done a pretty good job so far: nowadays, she’s the centerpiece of a mega-popular friend group, and the star of her school soccer team. Or, at least, she was... until a dead girl’s body appears in the lake. The deceased girl left behind a series of computer-coded clues which implicate numerous suspects in the murder — Kay being one of them. As her intricately crafted life starts to crumble, Kay finds out that she’s not the only one who’s been hiding behind a mask. The twists, turns, and distorted dynamics in this boarding-school mystery will keep you guessing until the end.
17) Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
Narrated retrospectively by Kathy, a now 31-year old former student of Hailsham boarding school, the Booker Prize winning Never Let Me Go feels like a slow descent into madness. The school she once attended is inhabited exclusively by students with a ‘special purpose’, and their ‘education’ is more like a process of conditioning, aligning them with their specific destiny. You might not find anything too outwardly ominous in the first pages of this dystopian story. But as the years pass, the relationship between Kathy and her friends shift from teenage competition and affection to painful realization about a sinister subcurrent stemming from Hailsham that is slowly brought to life.
18) Lessons by Naomi Alderman
Need your fix of elite, rich, and poorly-adjusted Oxford students with undesirable secrets? Then Naomi Alderman’s The Lessons is for you. The protagonist James Stieff is a physics student in the city of dreaming spires, but who, like many freshmen, has trouble coming to terms with the loneliness of university — and the reality of no longer being the only rising star around.Enter a very impressionable circle of friends who orbit trust-fund baby Mark Winters. Mark lives an unconventional lifestyle in a worn-out Georgian mansion, where he’s happy to host his friends, including James. But when the reality that lurks behind Mark’s wealth begins to affect those around him, can James really trust what he sees? An earlier work from the author of award-winning feminist tome The Power, this one isn’t to be missed.
19) In My Dreams I Hold a Knife by Ashley Winstead
In Ashley Winstead’s debut novel, In My Dreams I Hold a Knife, protagonist Jessica returns to Duquette University for the first time for a ten-year reunion. She’s confident, successful, and living a life polar opposite to her college days. However, many of her peers haven’t left college behind so thrivingly, rocked still by the unsolved murder of their friend and classmate, Heather. When the reunion brings everyone together, they are forced to confront every lingering secret and mystery from the past ten years. There are those who want to solve Heather’s murder, and those who would do anything to keep their secrets safe. Told in dual timelines, this captivating whodunit explores the dark limits of friendship and shared trauma.
20) Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson
Truly Devious is set in the seemingly idyllic Ellingham Academy — a peculiarly laid-back private school situated in the remote Vermont mountains, attended exclusively by gifted pupils. Founded by Albert Ellingham in the early 20th century, the school’s unconventional, relaxed approach to education is overshadowed by the mysterious fate of the Ellingham family. Ellingham’s wife and daughter had both gone missing — and the body of the latter was never found. Ellingham himself died in suspicious circumstances shortly after, leaving behind the school as his only legacy. Given all this mystery, it’s only fitting that our true crime loving protagonist, Stevie Bell, picks Criminal Investigation as her subject of choice upon joining the academy. If anyone is able to solve the Agatha Christie-esque riddle that lies at the heart of Ellingham, it’s Stevie.
21) The Truants by Kate Weinberg
If you’re craving an untrustworthy cast of characters, numerous intertwined mysteries, and strong dark academia vibes — this novel is the one for you. Our protagonist, Jess Walker, is nineteen and heading off to college for her first flash of adult ‘freedom’. However, things soon become complicated as Jess encounters roadblocks in the form of her charismatic lead professor and idol, Lorna Clay, and an exiled journalist with a fatal attraction to women. Equally forbidden for different reasons, Jess’ romances with these two unfold into a story filled to the brim with longing, obsession, and unstable characters.
22) Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
While technically a gothic classic, some consider Frankenstein the original dark academia book, and we’re here to tell you why. The novel chronicles Victor Frankenstein’s childhood, leading up to his young adulthood as a dark, moody, and deeply curious scientist at the University of Ingolstadt in Germany. The loss of a loved one sends him spiraling into experimentation — first to cope with the grief, but ultimately leading to a lapse in sanity. You might already have an idea of what happens next, but The Creature birthed from Victor’s scientific aberration isn’t as monstrous as he looks. Beyond potentially marking the birth of dark academia, this novel will have you questioning your conceptions of morality and personhood.
23) The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
Ever heard of a little indie book called Dracula? Well, Elizabeth Kostova’s debut novel The Historian is a (much lauded) tribute to that. The story follows a hereditary quest to find Vladimir Țepeș’s (A.K.A. Dracula’s) tomb, a quest which spans the lifetime of a mentor, a student, and his daughter — the latter being the primary narrator throughout the story. Told through a series of letters and conversations between father, daughter, and tutor, The Historian is a gripping slow-burn of a tale that would entice even those new to the genre. If you’re interested in paranormal history, and especially vampire mythology, this is worth a try.
24) Sleepwalking by Meg Wolitzer
What’s more dark academia-esque than three students who share an obsession with poetry and death? The students in question are known by the collective nickname “the death girls”, dress from head to toe in black, and each have a singular, all-consuming obsession with the psychology and suicide of a poet. The story focuses on one “death girl” in particular: Claire. She is dealing with inner turmoil caused by the successive deaths of her favorite poet and her brother, her world falling apart. But, despite their morbid exterior, the “death girls” might just be her saviors.
25) A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallaro
After failing to protest his estranged father and reject his rugby scholarship, Jamie Watson is shipped off to a Connecticut boarding school. Like any eccentric school, Sherringford Prep counts a number of fascinating characters among its students, none more captivating than Charlotte Holmes, the brilliant, mysterious, and kind of crabby granddaughter of Sherlock Holmes — yes, that Sherlock Holmes. The two don’t get off to the best start, and it seems Jamie should just keep his distance. That is, until the pair are framed for murder. Will they be able to track down their accuser and clear their names? Or will their suspicion begin to turn inwards? You’ll have to pick up A Study in Charlotte to find out.
26) Confessions by Kanae Minato
Yuko Moriguchi teaches middle school, has a four-year old daughter, and has just broken off her engagement after an earth-shattering revelation. To add to the turbulence, in the wake of an accident on school grounds involving her own daughter, Yuko is forced to resign. But, before she goes, she delivers one last lecture to her students and reveals shocking information about two of their peers. This plot of maniacal revenge told from alternating points of view twists and turns from one revelation to the next, all while exploring heavy themes of despair, punishment, and tragic love. Not for the faint of heart, Confessions is definitely on the darker side, even in a genre with “dark” in the title.
27) They Wish They Were Us by Jessica Goodman
Jill’s a Player. No, she’s not taking names and breaking hearts — she’s a member of her Long Island prep school’s much-admired secret society, The Players. She’s trying to enjoy this social privilege in her senior year, but has been haunted by the murder of her bestfriend her boyfriend during their freshman year. The case closed three years ago when Graham confessed on a dark night at the beach; but now, Jill hears whispers of information that would suggest he’s innocent. Jill wants to ensure that the right man is behind bars, but the more she digs into the mystery, the more her friendships and future are in jeopardy. Suspenseful and sharp, you’ll find a lot dwelling under the glossy surface of this high-school story.
28) Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
Like Frankenstein, this novel is considered an OG of dark academia. Tortured intellectuals, outcasts, lovers, dark British moors, and human monsters — though it’s not set in a school, Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights has it all. The novel opens as a man rents Thrushcross Grange manor in the Yorkshire moors, meets his grumpy landlord, and becomes intrigued by his story. He teases the tale of the Lintons and the Earnshaws — two families of landed gentry who both have tempestuous relationships with the latter’s adopted son — out of the housekeeper This son, Heathcliff, and Catherine Linton are soulmates, but their love is a poison that pollutes everyone around them. This is a story you need to read before you die, especially if you fancy sitting in a moody low-light library on a rainy day.
29) The Mary Shelley Club by Goldy Moldavsky
Rachel is the new girl at Manhattan Prep, and to make matters worse, she’s one of the few scholarship students walking its fancy hallways. Inevitably, she ends up caught in a prank gone wrong with the school’s secret society, The Mary Shelley Club, whose goal is to orchestrate pranks that elicit real fear in its victims. But when a trickster’s war breaks out and the competition turns cut-throat, each outcome becomes less of a laughing matter. Rachel must find the real monster living among her classmates, even if it means confronting her own dark secrets. The Mary Shelley Club is a Scream-like horror story cum fight for power, and a tale of rich kids with too much time on their hands.
30) Real Life by Brandon Taylor
Despite only being released in 2020, Brandon Taylor’s debut novel Real Life has already made its way onto our list of must-read books by black authors — and for good reason. Based in part on Taylor’s own experiences in academia, the novel is an exquisitely drawn and intimate portrait of Wallace, a black, queer PhD student navigating life at a predominantly white college. Over one transformative weekend, unspoken aggressions come to the surface and Wallace is forced to confront the realities of how his white colleagues view him. A stunningly self-assured debut, Real Life will stay with you long after you turn the final page.
Looking for more moody reading recommendations? Why not check out the best mystery books of all time, or stay on the dark side with our guide to gothic literature.