Dark Academia. I kept running across this genre designation and had no idea what it was. Being a librarian, I had to find a definition. Well, the answer is … not simple. For one, it’s a phrase that doesn’t just refer to a fiction genre, although it is that. And while there are many “classic literature” titles that could be called Dark Academia, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde is considered the “bible” of Dark Academia. Originally published in 1891, it’s a creepy gothic novel about a young man who sells his soul for youth and beauty. But it wasn’t called a Dark Academia title for another hundred or so years.
Because the first modern book that more or less created the Dark Academia genre is The Secret History by Donna Tartt, first published in 1992. It’s a twisty tale that has a murder, but is also an exploration of privilege and class, youthful hubris, and the banality of evil.
Dark Academia books are generally set in an elite school – think old and crumbling gothic architecture, dark libraries, eerie dormitories and common rooms – where students (probably in school uniforms!) discuss Art and Literature and Philosophy. There is usually one group of students who are set apart – by choice or through prejudice. They are more – more Artistic, more Literary, more Philosophical – perhaps even a bit eccentric and superior. Being part of the group is everything; leaving is not an option.
In Dark Academia fiction, these students might begin to exhibit morally questionable behavior, or perhaps they uncover evidence of others (former students, administration, teachers) who have done something illegal or objectionable. Criminal behavior – perhaps even death(s) – are uncovered or perpetrated.
As a genre, Dark academia has been criticized for being Eurocentric, lacking in diversity, and glamorizing unhealthy choices and lifestyles. And not just books, Dark Academia is also an aesthetic – think autumn chill, fog, moody, broody weather, flickering candlelight, cardigan sweaters with elbow patches, and leather book satchels. This is one of the critiques – that it’s a fetish of academic life, not actual intellectual rigor, but superficial and pretentious. Whichever side you take in the debate, there are plenty of books to choose from!
There are lots of new or newish books that have a Dark Academia vibe but that are also not quite so Eurocentric, and also more diverse and inclusive. Wrap yourself up in an oversized scarf, brew a cup of tea, and grab one of these titles:
Perhaps Dark Academia titles don’t fit your aesthetic, but it’s still that autumnal time of year where you want to enjoy some creepy, spooky, scary fiction. Well, alrighty then. Let’s try Gothic Fiction
Gothic refers to a specific type of European architecture from the Middle ages (think gargoyles, castle moats and drawbridges, towers, and more – mostly built with grey or dark stone). Wikipedia describes gothic fiction as “a loose literary aesthetic of fear and haunting”. There are so many titles that could be considered gothic! Try these booklists – all are newer titles, but they all have creepy gothic vibes! You’ve been warned!
Gothic Fiction – Contemporary
gothic vibes, but in contemporary settings
Gothic Fiction – Historical
fiction from the recent past, to the Victorian era, to settings shrouded in the mists of time – all with Gothic vibes
Gothic Fiction – Paranormal
haunted houses, ghosts, and other Things That Go Bump in the Night – all with Gothic vibes
Gothic Fiction – Scary Stories
rural, southern, isolated – lonely and sometimes terrifying stories best read with the lights on