Gloomy, meandering staircases; ancient, dark libraries; stories set in old colleges, universities with beautiful Gothic architecture and darkened hallways with a sinister twist; eccentric students—dark academia books are something you can’t miss.
But what is Dark Academia? A thriving subculture devoted mainly to the aesthetic of all things scholarly, dark academia began as a social media trend. It is all about romanticizing the everlasting pursuit of gaining knowledge. Besides, it is also an aesthetic appreciation for the overlap between Gothic horror and the ideals of academics. Thus, dark academia draws inspiration from the classic Greek arts, writing, and architecture. Moreover, it is deeply infused with Gothic atmosphere and concept of death.
Dark academia books usually have an academic setting with Gothic elements such as mystery, thrill and uncanny. These books explore darker urges and themes of love, friendship, and betrayal. The eccentric characters of dark academia books have to unveil dark secrets or crimes, and other sinister and speculative elements surrounding them. Although dark academia books tend to lend themselves more towards Gothic literature and Greek mythology, there are also plenty of modern trends to be found.
If you love dark academia books or in general anything that is creepy and dark, then look no further!
20 of the Best Dark Academia Books With Gripping Gothic Vibes
Here are some of the best and most famous dark academia books with gripping Gothic vibes. Ready to plunge into the sinister side of academia?
1. A Lesson in Vengeance by Victoria Lee
A dark, twisty thriller about a centuries-old eerie boarding school haunted by its history of witchcraft. The atmospheric setting, morally grey characters and uncertainty makes A Lesson in Vengeance a perfect read for dark academia fans. The story follows Felicity, a teen who returns to her eerie boarding school after the death of her best friend. Living with four other girls, including the mysterious yet charming Ellis, we follow a well structured story that explores friendship, mental health, murder and the school’s history with the occult.
With likeable characters, darkly witchy and Gothic vibes, and some precarious events, A Lesson in Vengeance is one of the most popular dark academia books of the year.
2. My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell
An incredibly well-written, vividly graphic and extremely realistic dark academia book. My Dark Venessa is the story of a 15-year-old girl who is groomed by her 42-year-old boarding school teacher. The narrative runs through dual perspectives: young girl’s perspective in 2000 when the grooming began and in 2017 when she’s an adult coming to terms with what happened to her as a child. The book covers difficult, but prevalent topics in a manner that doesn’t glorify or simplify their impacts on people. The author has explored all the themes in a really sensitive but honest way.
Above all, My Dark Venessa teaches the reader a lot about human psychology and how manipulation works.
3. In My Dreams I Hold a Knife by Ashley Winstead
A book featuring dark academia at its best, In My Dreams I Hold A Knife is a multi-perspective whodunit that alternates between past and present timelines. A college reunion turns tragic in this chilling and propulsive suspense novel. It is a story about six friends, one unsolved murder, and the dark secrets they’ve been hiding from each other—and themselves—for a decade. Moreover, the story unfolds in racing dual timelines with a dark campus setting. The interesting multi-dimensional characters and a darker look at themes of friendship, obsession, love, and ambition make the story truly dark academia.
Thus, a stellar debut thriller, In My Dreams I Hold A Knife is one of most addictive and propulsive dark academia books you won’t be able to put down.
4. Ace of Spades by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé
A dark academia masterpiece, Ace of Spades carries a powerful message and really shifts your perspective through the eyes of queer Black people. Set at a private academy full of rich students, among them Devon Richards and Chiamaka Adebayo trying to uncover who ‘Aces’—an anonymous texter bringing their heavy secrets to light—is. Revealing an enthralling tale, the book is a page turner for sure. It’s an unforgettable story about institutional and systemic racism. Besides, its full of suspense, mystery, compelling characters and an engaging plot that will leave you guessing until the very end.
Grounded in real world issues, Ace of Spades is one of highly recommended dark academia books.
5. Catherine House by Elizabeth Thomas
A seductive, Gothic-infused tale of literary suspense, Catherine House is the debut of a spectacular new voice. The book tells the story of Catherine House, an elite school that churns out some of the world’s most brilliant minds. Students accepted here gets free tuition, room and board. But the caveat is that they must isolate themselves at the school for three years, having no contact with the outside world. Why is there such a strange rule and what’s the school hiding from students?
Now a dangerously curious and rebellious young undergraduate can’t stop herself from uncovering a shocking secret and the dark truth beneath her school’s promise of prestige. Perfectly Gothic and mysterious, Catherine House is one of the must-read dark academia books indeed!
6. The Secret History by Donna Tartt
A quintessential dark academia book, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History is a modern-day Greek tragedy. At an elite New England college, a group of eccentric and clever misfits, under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, discovers a way of thinking and living in a world that is quite away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries. But when they go beyond the boundaries of normal morality, their lives change profoundly and forever. The book is intensely atmospheric and features gripping Gothic aesthetics. The writing is stunning, the story is beautiful, and the characters are highly intriguing and layered.
A defining tale, The Secret History is undoubtedly one of the most popular and widely read dark academia books.
7. Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo
A dark academia book with unique and solid premise, Ninth House is full of dark magic, ghosts, murder, secret societies, and mysterious disappearances. The story follows Alex Stern who, due to her ability to see ghosts, has been given a place at Yale. There she’ll have to work for an order that protects the rituals of the magic societies, at the same time keeping them in line as well. Soon, Alex teams up with her mentor Darlington. But when a girl from town turns up dead, she suspects foul play from the society. And when Darlington goes missing, it’s up to her to solve the mystery, and attempt to leave behind the trauma in California that forced her into a fresh start.
Ninth House is a must-read for those who want to enjoy ultimate dark academia vibes!
8. If We Were Villains by M. L. Rio
Sparkling, remarkable and extraordinary, If We Were Villains is a thriller worth all the admiration. The novel, an exponent of the dark academy genre, follows the lives of seven passionate Shakespearean impersonators focusing on their friendship and how it changes to leave room for murder. The story is structured in five acts, each divided into scenes, thus reporting to the plays from which it draws inspiration in a mimetic manner. The author beautifully captures with precision the different ways of intensity theatre people live with. The book is wonderfully dark, moody and full of Shakespeare and diction.
One of the most interesting coming of age novels, If We Were Villains is dark academia with a commentary on humanity’s animalistic nature.
9. Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth
Delightful, Sapphic and enthralling, Plain Bad Heroines is much like cluedo, a giant puzzle and the very spirit of dark academia—all mixed together with terrifying wasps and an eerie sense of ‘Other’. The book centers around the inhabitants of Brookhants School, a boarding school in New England. The story is told in dual timelines: one in 1902, following a string of violently mysterious deaths at the school, and the other in modern day, where a film is being made about the school and the deaths. As the story progresses the events of 1902, and the lives of the girls involved in the movie, start getting blurred.
A story within a haunted story, Plain Bad Heroines is a beautifully frightening dark academia masterpiece.
10. The Maidens by Alex Michaelides
A gripping, engrossing and suspenseful tale, The Maidens is dark academia meets Greek tragedy—and together they both meet modern murder mystery. The book follows Mariana, a therapist in London, who finds herself on the idyllic campus of Cambridge University after her niece Zoe’s closest friend, Tara, has been murdered. In this chilling murder mystery involving Ancient Greek rites, Mariana becomes determined to unmask the killer, even as she risks endangering herself. Despite the grandiose setting of Cambridge and the savants of the classics, the book is such an easy, fast-paced read.
One of the most enjoyable dark academia books of the year, The Maidens is a binge-worthy and must-read thriller!
11. The Atlas Six by Olivie Blake
Full of secrets, philosophical dialogue, and intense interactions, The Atlas Six is dark academia at its finest. It’s a masterpiece of intricacies, a profound gem. The Alexandrian Society chooses six most powerful magicians each decade to join them for a lifetime. The candidates have one year to compete with each other and prove their worth to the society. At the end, only five of them will be allowed in, and one of them will be eliminated. But, is society truly what it seems?
The Atlas Six is subtly impressive with an amazing writing style. It features academic rivals, dark magic, love, betrayal, the lost library of Alexandria, secrets, lies. What more could you want? One of highly engrossing dark academia books indeed!
12. The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern
Focusing heavily on Gothic aesthetics, The Starless Sea is one of the most unforgettable dark academia books. The story follows Zachary when he finds an old book in the library with no author. Inside the book are stories about lovelorn prisoners, key collectors and an event from his childhood that he never told anyone about. Mystified by this he follows clues (a bee, a key and a sword) to make sense of why his story is in this book. What he discovers is an ancient library hidden deep underground with its own secrets and stories.
The book escorts us into a world full of love for stories. The visually descriptive writing, the adventure and the beautifully unfolding world of The Starless Sea is something you must have to experience.
13. Confessions by Kanae Minato
Immensely dark and thrilling, Confessions is an incredibly visceral examination of fractured minds and cruel obsessions. Minato’s writing is profound, straightforward and propulsive in a quietly haunting way. A high school in Japan takes on a dark, noir vibe when a single mother and teacher reveals a horrific truth to her class on the last day of school. Her four-year-old daughter didn’t die accidently, but two of her students killed her. This revelation is only the beginning in a tangled web of revenge from more than just a heartbroken mother. The story unfolds through the perspectives of her students as the pieces of this disturbing puzzle come together.
Definitely one of the must-read dark academia books, Confessions tells a story that is chilling to the bone!
14. They Wish They Were Us by Jessica Goodman
A bingeable YA thriller, They Wish They Were Us is filled with secrets, interesting characters, dark academia aesthetics, lies and teenage drama that’s taken a very dark turn. The story is set in Long Island and our protagonist is astronomy lover Jill who attends an elite private school. She is also a Player—a member of Gold Coast Prep’s secret society. During her freshman year, her best friend Shaila is killed by her boyfriend Graham. When she starts getting texts proclaiming Graham is innocent she has to find out what really happened. The book has been compared to ‘Gossip Girl’ mixed with ‘One of Us Is Lying’ with a dash of ‘The Secret History’.
A great comment on privilege and perfection, They Wish They Were Us won’t disappoint dark academia fans.
15. The Devil Makes Three by Tori Bovalino
Extremely fascinating and deliciously chilling, The Devil Makes Three is a fast-paced YA horror. It takes place in one of the most magical dark academia settings—a library—infused with a Gothic atmosphere, sense of danger and intrigue in its every hidden corner. When a student working in the library and her least favorite patron discover and open an ancient, hidden book, they accidently release a demon who will do anything to remain free. What ensues is a battle of wills, between a force with horrifying powers and influence, and two teenagers who are determined to win and protect those they love.
With its dark academia vibes and skin-tingling suspense, The Devil Makes Three is perfect for fans of dark academia books!
16. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
An absolute dark academia classic, The Picture of Dorian Gray is a tour de force highlighting the debauchery and rampant decadence of late Victorian society of the time. With homoerotic undertones, the book presents a deep character study. The painter, Basil Hallward, creates a masterpiece when makes a portrait of the young and exceptionally beautiful Dorian Gray. Under the influence of Sir Henry Wotton, Dorian has a desire to retain his youthful looks forever. He makes a wish with unforeseeable consequences and sells his soul to the devil in order to have eternal youth.
An intellectually stimulating read on human vices, The Picture of Dorian Gray is one of highly recommended classic dark academia books!
17. Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey
A blend of magic, murder mystery and complex relationships, Magic For Liars is one of fantastic dark academia books. Ivy Gamble is a private investigator, her work mainly brings her to uncover cheating spouses and petty rivalries. Thus, she does nothing of much excitement until she receives an assignment to investigate a gruesome murder at a magic high school where her mage sister teaches. Ivy is quite bitter about not being a mage and has avoided her sister as much as possible. But now she can’t resist the urge to enter into the magic world if it means investigating a real murder.
Magic For Liars is a crazy roller coaster of mystery with a bit of romance and a deep cast of characters.
18. These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong
A definitely unique and enjoyable read, These Violent Delights is dark fantasy meets fascinating historical fiction. It’s a retelling of Romeo and Juliet in 1920s Shanghai that is run by gangs and being ravaged by a mysterious monster. A blood feud between two gangs overrun the streets as a monstrous contagion emerges. When enemies turn to each other for help, what would happen when feelings spiral from hatred to something else? Can they solve this case? The book is mysterious, twisty dark academia and has that ‘fear of the unknown’ factor throughout.
An extremely well crafted reimagining, These Violent Delights is a fantastic book with amazing plot twists and dark academia aesthetic.
19. Bunny by Mona Awad
Bizarre and unsettling, Bunny by Mona Awad is a stunning and scathing dark academia book. The story follows Samantha, an outsider at a very conceptual liberal arts college. The insiders are four girls, who have individual names but are collectively known as Bunny. Samantha hates them, yet yearns to be one of them. One day, she gets an invitation to join Bunny’s inner circle of hair braids and pastel dresses. But with the Bunnies there is more than meets the eye. As Samantha plunges deeper into their sinister yet saccharine world, she begins to lose her solo identity and grasp on reality.
Mona Awad’s Bunny takes you on a weird ride and offers commentary about loneliness, friendships and the need to belong in the most interesting of ways.
20. A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik
Dark academia with a heavy dose of paranormal, A Deadly Education is perfect for the fans of Harry Potter and the Hunger Games series. The book tells the story of Scholomance, a deadliest magic school where the only way out is graduating or dying. El, a teenage sorceress, is trying to make it to graduation from the Scholomance, while avoiding murderous monsters and her own maleficent destiny. There are no teachers, no school breaks and no going home. Demons are everywhere, ready to prey on anyone who lets their guard down. El’s determined to show off her incredible powers, but this proves difficult when classmate Orion keeps trying to save her.
The wonderful mix of quirky characters, intriguing setting and exhilarating pacing, A Deadly Education is a must-read for dark academia fans. The book has an equally stunning sequel, The Last Graduate.
Hope you’ll enjoy our list of some of the best and most popular dark academia books. If you are a beginner to the genre and haven’t read any of the above-mentioned dark academia books, I’ll suggest you begin with The Secret History by Donna Tartt. You’ll surely fall in love with the dark academia vibes the book brings out.
Happy reading, bookworms!