The definition of “Dark Academia” is hardly concrete as it simply is a social construct mostly invented by instragam users to describe an aesthetic and tone. For me, I like the definition of Dark Academia that includes stories focused in & around higher education, the arts, poetry, writing, classic literature, tweed clothing, stone buildings, and of course, wire-framed spectacles. (Okay, I added that last part.)
Here’s a list of books, movies, and a playlist to get you into the Dark Academia mood just in time for the upcoming fall and spooky season.
Written by Mary Shelley
Often referred to as the first YA novel, Frankenstein is a uniquely special Classic. For starters, I actually find it quite readable – I’m one of those readers who gets lost in the language of classics … and not in a good way. If your perceptions of the story of Frankenstein are at all influenced by media and movies, I can guarantee the novel will shock you in its dissimilarities. Yes it is creepy, maybe sci-fi, maybe horror, but the underlying pulse of this story is a sorrowful tale of humanity, self loathing, and lost love. It’s haunting.
Written by V.E. Schwab
Published by Tor Books
In my opinion, as much as I love her, I still think Vicious is Schwab’s best book. Told in alternating timeline between main characters, Victor & Eli, and their time as college roommates and in modern time as mortal enemies. I liken this story to a combination of X-Men meets the movie Flatliners. As college roommates the brilliant pair are preoccupied with near death experiences and the supernatural, discovering that near death experiences can impart upon a person extradorinaiy abilities. But where Victor sees wonder, Eli sees abomination, and when an experiment goes horribly wrong Victor is sent to prison and Eli begins culling those with supernatural talents.
Written by Leigh Bardugo
Published by Flatiron Books
It doesn’t get more Dark Academia than Ninth House. Set within the walls of prestigious Yale University and the ghostly town of New Haven, Ninth House follows hard-as-nails Alex Stern: a runaway with a dark, tragic past and the ability to see the dead. After a terrible accident, Alex is given a second chance at a better life. In exchange for a full ride to Yale she will work for the secret society of Lethe, one of nine secret societies within Yale that deal in the magical, occult, and darkly supernatural. These societies are home to the powerful, the wealthy, the elite, and the famous as they damper within forbidden magic and prey upon the living. At times a bit pretentious, but there is no arguing Ninth House is pure Dark Academia and this dark world Bardugo has crafted is spellbinding.
Written by Susanna Clarke
Published by Bloomsbury Publishing
This is the odd little book that I love and for those of you who like your books completely original with a little dose of “what is even happening right now?” I highly recommend Piranesi. Why do I think its Dark Academia? Because once again we have scholarly types messing around with the confines of our realties, ideas of multiverses, and a whole big heaping of classic architecture and sculpture. I can’t say much about this one as anything really is to spoil it. Simply read it, wonder at it, and maybe listen to the audiobook as it helps make things a wee bit clearer.
Written by Maureen Johnson
Published by Katherine Tegen Books
This is such a fun, twisty YA murder mystery whodunnit trilogy that is delightfully readable. A special school for the individually gifted, Ellingham Academy is nestled deep within a secluded, forested location in the Vermont Mountains. Also home to a world famous murder mystery that occurred in 1936 in which founder Ellingham’s wife and young daughter were kidnapped and murdered. The only clue: a mysterious letter signed “Truly Devious”. Years later, true crime detective aficionado Stevie Bell lands a spot at this prestigious private school to work on the case. Upon her arrival, strange things start happening – it appears Truly Devious may have returned! If you’re a fan of old mysteries, private schools, Vermont in the fall, whodunnit and the game of Clue … you’ll want to pick up this YA.
Written by Marina & Sergey Dyachenko
Published by Harper Voyager
This translated from Russian work takes those charming schools of magic stories and gives them a weird, twisted bend. After meeting the strange, mysterious Farit Kozhennikov on summer vacation, Sasha Samokhina finds herself accepted to the Insititue of Special Technologies – a strange school where books and lessons are impossible to read, understand or memorize and the punishment for failure is directed at the student’s families. But the rewards are great and defy matter, time, logic and science … magic. Not going to lie, this is a heavy read and many, many times I had no clue what was happening. The authors like to meander a little too far into the metaphysical and corporal reality discussions … but there was something so compulsively dark, sinister, and “need to know what happens next” about this story that I was completely captivated. Audiobook is also excellent.
The Starless Sea
Written by Erin Morgenstern
Published by Doubleday Books
“Far beneath the surface of the earth, upon the shores of the Starless Sea, there is a labyrinthine collection of tunnels and rooms filled with stories” — What else is this if not Dark Academia? This book is wickedly enchanting and reads more like a collection of little stories that Erin Morgenstern gently, gradually weaves into one whole story over 500 pages. For some that could seem tedious, but if you’re a lover of stories that have a touch of whimsy and magic, The Starless Sea is for you. Follow Zachary Ezra Rawlins and his quest to find a magical door to this fantastic underground library and the captivating characters and world he discovers there full of mystique, wonderment, and danger.
If We Were Villains
Written by M.L. Rio
Published by Flatiron Books
Oliver is one of seven Shakespearean students at the Dellecher Classical Conservatory, a school home to intense competitions, intelligence and beautiful books. Oliver and his classmates play the same roles on-stage of off: villain, tyrant, temptress, ingenue, and extras. But in their fourth year rivalries and violence turn real, deadly and Oliver ends up in prison after a tragedy. Now ten years on, Oliver is ready to tell his story about what really happened.
Written by Bridget Collins
Published by William Morrow & Company
If we go solely on the themes of books and dark gothic, then The Binding fits right into Dark Academia, even without an actual school setting per se … there’s an apprenticeship that I argue is a school setting, but it lacks brick and mortar and classmates. We’ve got books, ancient books, an alternate 18th Century London, high brow aristocratic scholars in tweed doing dark deeds and trying to cover it up … and a boy learning the process of book making and binding memories into said books. I say it fits. If you like lush, atmospheric prose and stories that take their time, this spellbinding story is for you.
I usually avoid trigger warnings. My intention is never to dissuade someone away from a good book, as has happened to me, but nonetheless I’d feel remiss to not mention a couple trigger warnings here. Dark Academia often deals with, by its own namesake, dark material. These stories deal with some hefty subject matter. On that note if rape and sexual assault are triggers Ninth House and The Binding could be difficult. (I am very bothered by these topics and was able to handle both stories, but I do want to warn it is there.) If excess gore/violence/blood are problematic then Vicious and Truly Devious could have some upsetting scenes and content.
Here are some great movies to compliment the Dark Academia genre:
- Mary Shelley
- School Ties
- An Education
- Mona Lisa Smile
- Dickinson (TV Show)
- The Queen’s Gambit (TV Show)
- Sherlock Holmes
- The Imitation Game
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