Bad Education: A Booklist for People who Love Dark Academia
Suspense and horror novels set in schools seem to be trendy these days. I hated every single second of school from kindergarten to graduate school so I'm on board. I totally buy the idea of crime-ridden, ghost-filled, dangerous schools.
The subgenre is commonly known as dark academia. These books are usually set at a school, often a boarding school or university where students may be separated from their families for the first time. The primary character is most often a student but sometimes it is a newcomer teacher or professor. A dark mystery involving the school may be revealed and the newcomer realizes that the school isn't as idyllic as they'd been led to believe. Toxic relationships are as common as creepy old buildings in dark academia. Secret societies and ancient rituals may also appear in the genre. Dark academia books may take the form of psychological thrillers, mysteries, horror, speculative fiction, coming-of-age novels, or a combination of them.
I can't really say what has inspired the revival of dark academia. Others have speculated that this genre is popular because the COVID-19 pandemic has made attending school in real-life challenging and we've become nostalgic for the old "normal" days of playing touch football on the quad, hanging out with friends at the campus pub and solving (or committing) murders.
These are some of the classics and some newer titles in the genre. If you haven't read dark academia before, you may want to start with Donna Tartt's influential and beloved book, The Secret History.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Richard Papen has recently transferred to Hampden College in Vermont to continue his study of classical Greek. He is selected by eccentric professor Julian Morrow to be part of an exclusive group that Morrow will teach and mentor. Under the professor's influence, the students begin to believe that they are superior beings who don't have to conform to the same rules as lesser people. Increasingly dangerous behaviour follows and soon the students are involved in a murder.
Ace of Spades by Farida Àbikê-Íyímídé
Most of the books on this list are for adults but I wanted to include this YA book because it is one of the only dark academia novels that addresses the issue of institutional racism in an academic setting. Ace of Spades is set at an elite high school with a predominantly white student body. Anonymous text messages disclosing the secrets of the school's two Black students begin circulating. Although Chiamaka and Devon have little in common -- she's rich and he's a scholarship student -- they decide to team up and find out who is responsible.
Bunny by Mona Awad
Although I prefer my dark academia to be free of supernatural elements, Bunny isn't and I loved it. Samantha is a scholarship student in an MFA writing program at Warren University in New England. She is both fascinated and repelled by a group of women in her writing seminar. The Bunnies are a clique of syrupy sweet women who do everything together. Samantha hates them but when they invite her to one of their "Smut Salon" parties, she goes. Deeply weird things happen and, before long, Samantha becomes one of them.
Ghosts of Harvard by Francesca Serritella
Cadence Archer's brilliant brother died by suicide after developing paranoid schizophrenia during his freshman year at Harvard University. Cady wants to learn everything she can about the end of his life, so armed with Eric's cryptic notebook, she enrolls at Harvard to retrace his steps. While investigating, Cady begins hearing voices. Does she share her brother's illness?
Good Girls Lie by J.T. Ellison
The Goode School is a bad school. Of course, to the world it's an elite boarding school catering to wealthy young women destined to move on to Ivy League colleges. Under the surface though the school's secret societies and traditions have turned toxic and one popular student is dead. Her death appears to be a suicide, but is there more to the story?
If We Were Villains by M. L. Rio
Seven drama students in their final year at the prestigious Dellecher Classical Conservatory find themselves in a real-life modern day version of a Shakespearean tragedy. The plot begins with Oliver Marks leaving prison after a decade. The detective responsible for his murder conviction has never been certain if Oliver is truly guilty, and so asks him to explain what really happened ten years earlier.
Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo
Alex Stern, a young woman whose ability to see ghosts has wreaked damage on her life, is given the chance to attend Yale on a full scholarship. The only catch is she must use her special skills to infiltrate and monitor the occult rituals of the university's secret societies. The powerful magic used in their rituals sometimes ends up creating ghosts. Ghosts are everywhere at Yale. Shortly after Alex arrives, there's a murder on campus -- a young woman stabbed by her boyfriend. Alex tries not to get involved but the victim reminds her of her old friends -- and of herself.
The Orchard by David Hopen
Seventeen-year-old Ari Eden has lived in a strict Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn all his life. When his father loses his job, the family relocates to a wealthy Miami suburb where Ari is an outsider both economically and culturally at his modern Orthodox school. Ari is befriended by the school's golden boy and is invited into a world of excess, indulgence and perhaps even danger.
Plain Bad Heroines by Emily Danforth
This very long (620 pages) book was nominated for several literary awards in 2020, including the Locus Award for Best Horror Novel and the Shirley Jackson Award.
In 1902, two students at Brookhants School for Girls become obsessed with the author of a controversial memoir and create a club called the Plain Bad Heroines Society in her honour. The girls die after being swarmed by wasps in a freak accident. After three more deaths, the school is closed. The legend of the cursed school has grown and now in the present day, the abandoned property is opened to a Hollywood film crew and famous actors making a movie about the history of the school. Then strange things begin happening again. Could the school really be haunted?
Trust Exercise by Susan Choi
A charismatic acting teacher has an indelible impact on the lives of David and Sarah, students at an exclusive and competitive performing arts high school. Winner of the 2019 National Book Award for Fiction.
Tell Me Everything by Cambria Brockman
Malin is an introvert who is a skilled observer. During the first week at an elite New England college, she becomes friends with five other freshmen and quickly looks beneath their public personas to see the cracks in their friendships, their secrets and their weaknesses.
They Never Learn by Layne Fargo
Two women, a professor and a student unite to combat sexual assault on campus. Scarlett Clark is a popular English professor -- she's also a murderer but only kills men who deserve it. Freshman Carly Schiller has finally escaped from her emotionally abusive father. When her roommate is sexually assaulted and the university doesn't take it seriously, she is determined to fight for justice.
The Truants by Kate Weinberg
When Jess Walker reads a book of literary criticism by Professor Lorna Clay, she is so impressed that she decides she wants to study with her. When she arrives at East Anglia University, Jess joins Clay's seminar on campus murder mysteries and falls in with a group of students who are similarly enthralled by the professor. After a tragedy, Jess and Lorna run away together to a remote location where Jess will learn the truth about Lorna.
If this isn't enough for you, check out this Dark Academia list.
Best wishes for a good school year -- whether or not you're a student!