Dark academia is more popular than ever before — a blend of literary fiction and genre fiction, gothic and grounded. Dark academia books come in many styles, but they all share the theme of, well, dark academia.
Putting a firm definition of dark academia can be tricky but it generally involves places of higher education, gothic aesthetics, strange goings-on, and the implementation of magic is entirely optional.
Essential Dark Academia Books
As you’ll see here, some dark academia books can be fantastical, others science-inspired; some are very grounded and literary, others far from it.
We’ve added a wide range of dark academia books by classic and contemporary writers, some in English, and others in translation.
Note: Some readers might be expecting to find The Betrayals on this list. Due to Bridget Collins’ alleged transphobia, you won’t find The Betrayals on any of our lists.
Written when she was only 29 years old, Donna Tartt’s debut novel The Secret History is, for many of us, the definitive dark academia novel. It may not feature dark magic and witchcraft, but that’s what makes it so frightening.
The Secret History is a twisted yet grounded tale that, on the surface, is about cults and murder but, beneath it all, is an exploration of class privilege, youthful arrogance, and ordinary evils.
The Secret History follows Richard Papen, newly enrolled at a college in Vermont. Richard is originally from a small California town, poor and uninteresting, but talented at Greek.
He quickly falls into a little class of hideously pompous and broken students who, considering themselves the school’s elite, gather with their teacher to discuss the Greek language, philosophy, and other pretentious topics.
Slowly, this class reveals itself to be a mindless, murderous cult, projected forward by hedonism, carelessness, and arrogance.
The Secret History is a masterpiece among dark academia books; glued together by the internal social politics of its characters, their strained and toxic relationships, dangerous behaviours, and unpredictability.
Leigh Bardugo is a darling of YA fantasy fiction, beginning with her Shadow and Bone trilogy and really put on the map by the Six of Crows duology. The Ninth House, however, is considered her first foray into adult fantasy fiction.
Comparable to The Secret History, The Ninth House is a novel set on a college campus (this time Yale), follows a California girl from a rough background, and concerns itself with dangerous, cultish activity.
What sets The Ninth House apart from The Secret History — and, indeed, many other dark academia books — is its ties to reality. Bardugo went to Yale; she dabbled with the very real, very strange secret societies of that college. She knew this world.
The secret societies of Yale are known as houses, and there are eight. In this dark academia novel, Bardugo invents a ninth house, one that polices the other eight and the very real dark magic they toy with.
Our protagonist, Alex, is able to see ghosts. This is what got her into Yale in the first place. Other members of the ninth house can do the same, but only when properly prepared. Alex sees them all the time, and it tortures her.
Her curse has thrown her into some difficult responsibilities. She must contend with those, as well as the activities of Yale’s houses. The ghosts and the magic here are real, they are mysterious, and they are dangerous.
In many ways, The Atlas Six feels like he culmination of the genre; where all dark academia books were headed. An eccentric, loud, campy, and hilarious YA fantasy novel dripping with dark academic themes.
The Atlas Six is not for everyone, but any reader who loves exaggerated language, characters, and events is going to get such a kick out of this brilliant YA novel.
We begin with the knowledge that the works found in the Library of Alexandria are actually in safe hands, looked after by magical caretakers known as the aptly named Alexandrian Society.
In an alternate Earth, where some people are born with magical abilities and go to magical universities, the Alexandrian Society selects new initiates every ten years.
This year, we have six initiates, hand-picked by the titular Atlas Blakely. Six will enter, five will pass, one will fail. Along the way, there will be plenty of sex and fighting.
Magic, secret societies, subterfuge, backstabbing, the corrupting temptation of knowledge itself. The Atlas Six is about as much fun as dark academia books can be.
If you’re looking for more books like The Secret History, If We Were Villains is certainly going to scratch that itch more than any of the other dark academia books on this list.
When Oliver Marks is released from a decade of prison (for a murder he may not have even committed), he is immediately greeted by the detective who got him convicted. Now, the detective wants Marks’ truth from ten years back.
Marks is one of seven college students deeply entrenched in a love of The Bard. They are a small society of Shakespeare fanatics who live and breathe his works. They are also darkly obsessed with one another, shutting out the rest of the world.
When emotions run this high, however, it only takes a small glitch to throw their dynamic into catastrophe and, eventually, even death.
While If We Were Villains is very reminiscent of The Secret History, it is also more grounded than Tartt’s novel, with characters feeling a lot more human and less absurd. They are youthful and careless and emotive.
The Experience of reading If We Were Orphans will also be enhanced slightly for anyone with their own love for the works of Shakespeare. It’s not required, but it certainly helps.
One of the best Shakespeare-inspired murder-mystery dark academia books you’re likely to read any time soon.
Bunny is a novel that threads itself through multiple genres: horror, comedy, mystery, and dark academia books. It’s a dizzying narrative, of which you will often feel in no control of. You have to simply trust that Awad knows what she’s doing (she does).
This is another novel that falls into the “books like The Secret History” camp, especially given how it is set on a Vermont university campus, and features a scholarship student who is very much out of her depth.
Bunny is also reminiscent of the classic 80s movie Heathers, with a group of toxic, unlovable, rich girls who all call one another “Bunny”. Our protagonist, Samantha, is in a creative writing group with these girls and hates every one of them — until she doesn’t.
Gradually, Samantha falls into the Bunny clique, which includes off-campus cultish rituals known as “Workshops”. It’s dark to the point of being absurd and sometimes funny. It’s twisted, dizzying, and thrilling in equal measure.
For fans of The Secret History, Bunny is an absolute must-read in the genre of dark academia books.
As campus novels and dark academia books go, Catherine House manages to stand out as wholly original by the unique qualities of its protagonist — a young woman entirely dispassionate towards academia and social belonging.
Darkly gothic right down to its setting; Catherine House is a place located deep in the woods of rural Pennsylvania. It’s a school that selects very few students, and those lucky few go on to become brilliant thinkers, inventors, writers, and artists.
To guarantee this future for themselves, however, each student must sacrifice themself entirely to Catherine House. No family or friends, no hobbies, no contact with the outside world. Only the school.
Ines, however, is a young girl who (like Alex of The Ninth House) has come from a world of danger, drugs, and disaster. Now, Catherine House is her home but it is a dark place that she cannot trust, especially after what happens to her roommate.
Like Bunny and If We Were Villains, Catherine House is one of those perfect dark academia books like The Secret History set in a gothic world of education, mystery, and death.
These Violent Delights has been called The Secret History meets Call Me By Your Name. And while I haven’t read (or seen) Call Me By Your Name so I can’t comment, more dark academia books like The Secret History are never a bad thing.
Beginning in 1970s Pittsburgh, These Violent Delights follows the relationship of Paul and Julian. Paul is grieving, sensitive, artistic, and a mystery to his own family. Julian is at once arrestingly charming and violently cruel in a rich boy kind of way.
The friendship between Paul and Julian grows into an unhealthy kind of love. They are obsessed with one another, but their relationship is toxic and dangerous.
They are bad for one another but impossibly bound, and that is bad news for anyone who stumbles into their path.
Like many great gothic novels, the location, the building, the house itself is a character. This is true for Dalloway, the old college campus nestled in the hills of the Catskills. Dalloway is also a place said to be haunted by the ghosts of five witches.
While studying at Dalloway, Felicity Morrow suffered the tragic loss of her girlfriend. After a year away, she is back and ready to graduate. She even has her same room in the supposedly haunted halls of Dalloway. But then there’s the new girl.
This new girl is Ellis, a prodigal yong novelist who wishes to build a story around the ghosts of the Dalloway Five — the witches who are said to haunt the school — and she wants Felicity’s help in digging for clues.
This is a queer novel filled witch ghosts, witchcraft, death, and intrigue. One of those all-encompassing dark academia books that gives the reader everything they could possibly want.
The Maidens by Alex Michaeledis
Mariana was once a student at Cambridge University. Now a therapist, she gets a call from her niece Zoe, who herself is a Cambridge student. Zoe’s friend was a member of a secret society of all-female students known as The Maidens, and now she’s dead.
Caught up in her niece’s plight, and driven by an empathetic need to help, Mariana places her sights on the university’s professor of Greek Tragedy: Edward Fosca. He did it, she is sure of it. And soon another body will be found.
Unlike many other dark academia books, which are often set in the US, and also often in made-up academic spaces, The Maidens is set at Cambridge University: one of the most prestigious and beautiful universities on Earth.
This Cambridge setting adds both weight and character to the gothic mystery of this tale. What also helps is the compelling and building mystery at the heart of The Maidens.
Translated from the Russian by Julia Meitov Hersey
A clever subversion of the Harry Potter mythology and the classic hero narrative, Vita Nostra is a dark, twisted, and strange piece of dark academia. Written by Ukrainian couple Marina and Sergey Dyachenko, Vita Nostra is like nothing else.
Vita Nostra follows Sasha, a sixteen-year-old girl on a seaside vacation with her mother, who finds herself followed by a mysterious man with pale skin and dark glasses.
When this stranger finally confronts her, he entreats her to complete a shocking task: she must wake up at 4am, go to the beach, and swim out to a buoy and back.
Completing this task (and several others equally bizarre in nature) eventually gains Sasha admittance to the Institute of Special Technologies, a remote university whose classes are unlike anything Sasha has ever known.
The Harry Potter comparison lies not only in the magical boarding school setting, but in how utterly spellbinding this novel is. It sweeps the reader up into a setting much darker, stranger, and more menacing than Hogwarts — but every bit as enchanting for the right reader.
Naomi Novik has made a popular name for herself by using the fairy tale formula to create fantastical tales that are at once subversive and nostalgic.
With A Deadly Education, Novik turns her talents to the genre of dark academia books. Set at a magical school called Scholomance (also the series title), A Deadly Education blends the Harry Potter formula with the deadly, gothic themes present in dark academia.
Monsters lurk in the halls of Scholomance. Death is real and ever-present. Graduation is predicated on survival and, seemingly, little else.
Our protagonist is El, a young girl with incredible strength. She lacks allies but she, alone, has enough power to survive the trials and tortures that Scholomance promises each and every one of its students.
V.E. Schwab is one of the most popular and beloved authors of fantasy fiction in the world right now (The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue is a particular favourite of mine). Schwab explores the world of urban fantasy and magic realism with deftness and imagination.
In Vicious — the first books of the Villains series — she takes us to a college at which two boys, Victor and Eli, are roommates. Soon enough, after discovering a potential formula for superhuman powers, things turn… Vicious as they go from friends to… Villains.
Vicious has a story and tone inspired by both superhero comics and Shelley’s Frankenstein (possibly why one character is named Victor). It’s a story both thematically dense and campy, like any good gothic novel or superhero comic should be.
In the present, Victor has escaped prison and is on the hunt for Eli. In the past, Victor and Eli are young geniuses sharing their college experience as friends. We move between these periods as their feats and actions become clear, as do their consequences.
Ambitions, betrayal, hubris, jealousy — these dark emotions are at the thematic forefront of this brooding, scheming story. A tale of dark academia, gothic behaviour, and comic book tropes. Edgy, imaginative, and heaps of fun.
I’m sure this will be a controversial choice to some. Others might be nodding their heads in understanding. From where I’m standing, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein could easily be considered where dark academia books began (sorry Donna Tartt).
The titular Frankenstein is a young man, scarred and offended by the death of his mother. While studying natural philosophy at university, he takes it upon himself to invent a way to halt or reverse death itself.
Victor’s actions involve exhuming the pieces of various bodies from the local cemetery (a practice that universities have actually practised in the past). After stitching them together, Frankenstein gives life to his creature before fleeing and leaving it abandoned.
Frankenstein is my favourite novel; it represents the peak of gothic fiction for so many reasons. It is considered by many to be the first science fiction novel. It is also a true piece of dark academia, featuring a university student meddling with dark science.
Is Frankenstein where dark academia books began? Feel free to agree or disagree.
Translated from the Spanish by Katie Whittemore
Four by Four is a Spanish gothic novel, reminiscent of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. It is set in a boarding school, far removed from its nearby towns and cities, and the narrative subtly suggests that its story takes place as society is crumbling.
One nearby city has fallen to dust; the other has been consumed by violence and lawlessness. But this school remains intact.
The first part of Four by Four deals with a group of children as they attempt to escape the school. They are afraid and paranoid and claustrophobic. The gothic academic setting seems to be closing in on them.
In part two, the perspective shifts to that of a new teacher who is telling his story as a series of diary entries, and it’s here that we see how Sara Mesa is exploring themes of power and hierarchies in a darkly academic setting.
While Four by Four isn’t one of the most on-the-nose dark academia books, like The Ninth House, it instead makes academia itself feel dark through its gothic setting and themes of power manipulation. A brilliant Spanish novel.
Considered by many to be Kazuo Ishiguro’s masterpiece, Never Let Me Go is a piece of dark science fiction about the purpose of our lives as individuals, and as members of a larger society.
The novel also considers the value of knowledge, learning, and the schools in which we study, thus making it one of the smarter, subtler dark academia books.
Never Let Me Go begins with Kathy, a young woman who works as a carer — of whom and how, we don’t yet know. Kathy reminisces about her time at Hailsham: a boarding school our in the English countryside.
Hailsham was a perfect kind of place, where students were taught painting and mathematics, and they lived close to one another, forming tight bonds. But there is something awful going on beneath the surface that we don’t yet understand.
Never Let Me Go is about a lot of things: class and privilege, love and friendship, purpose and meaning, memory and narratives. It is also about the purpose of academic life; the purpose of the knowledge and skills we nurture as we grow.
The Promised Neverland is, without a doubt, one of the most captivating and original shonen manga to have been published in the last several years. Set in a suspicious paradise of a school, this manga takes frequent twists and turns to shock and terrify its readers.
Grace Field House is perfect. A big school that resembles an English stately home, full of happy children aged twelve and under, lorded over by the kind and jolly Isabella; a woman whom the kids all call mom.
Every day, the children take an exam to demonstrate their aptitude. They don’t know why; they just do it. They play, eat, clean, and sleep. They all have numbers tattooed on their necks and wear white all of the time.
At the very beginning, a young girl is selected to leave Grace Field House. She and all the others believe she is being adopted. When she leaves her favourite toy behind, our protagonists run to the gate to give it to her.
At the gate, they discover her body, lifeless and with a flower growing out of it. The things driving the truck that hides her body are not human at all; they are monstrous demons. Grace Field House is no school; it’s a farm.
The Promised Neverland is a lot of things: dystopia, science fiction, mystery, gothic fiction, and more. As dark academia books go, it only remains one for a little while before mutating into something else. Nevertheless, how could I resist adding a manga to a list of dark academia books.