A growing genre of literature – “dark academy” – mixes cozy fantasy of a tight-knit, tweed-filled, quirky high school setting with violence and murder.
Think of Harry Potter without magic and death.
Three authors writing in the genre will discuss the dark academy trend during a virtual event at the Mystery to Me bookstore later this month.
Charlotte T. Martin, events manager for Mystery to Me, said that one of the publicists suggested the idea of a dark academic panel, believing that clients “will want to dive deep into the mystery subgenre of high school thrillers.”
“School, especially boarding school, has always been a favorite place for many mystery writers and it’s interesting to see how many such stories come up in the last couple of years,” Martin said in an email.
Dark academia writers say that readers’ close connection with their school or college days and the ability to remember those emotional ups and downs is what draws people to the books.
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“Teens and young adults can be really violent when they’re fighting for popularity and acceptance,” Sienna Sterling, author of Don’t Tell Us Secrets, wrote in an email.
“Reading dark academy books takes us back to those days. We identify with all the emotional turmoil and remember when the most popular person in the class ignored us or we were terribly embarrassed about what we did, thinking we would never get over it.”
Both Sterling, who lives in London, and writer Ashley Winstead, who lives in Texas, say they didn’t set out to write dark academic thrillers.
“I didn’t realize I was writing a dark academic novel until I wrote ‘In my dream I’m holding a knife’ and looked around and saw ‘Wow, what a boom of dark thrillers set on campus.’ said Winstead, one of the speakers on the panel.
“I wrote Tell No Secrets without thinking about it as part of a genre other than the psychological thriller,” said Sterling, who will also appear on the panel. “I really think dark academy is a great genre to write because of the possibilities for the characters and because the academy is kind of a closed environment. There is no way out, everyone is in it together, mixing with each other every day, and in some cases every night.
In addition, the writers say there is a connection between the fantasy and dark academia genres that readers find appealing.
“A boarding school novel, even Harry Potter, is classed (as a university novel) and is universally popular,” Winstead said. These novels offer readers “a world where you can disappear into”.
But part of the genre’s trend could also be the opportunity to take a more serious look at what’s happening on these seemingly picturesque campuses.
“This trend towards a darker version of that… I think in some ways it reflects a desire to reveal the truth about the idyllic setting of a university or campus,” Winstead said. Some argue that the rise (in this genre) is due to COVID and school nostalgia, but the genre has been trending for longer, she said. “This is rooted in our growing disillusionment with education as an institution…in the way higher education perpetuates racism and classism.”
Winstead said the “dark campus aesthetic” is also popular on social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram, fueling interest in the genre.
“Something is going on that makes us watch university novels,” she said.
London-based writer Farida Abike-Yimide, who will also be one of three guests on the Mystery to Me panel, said the genre in general is often associated with rigorous academic study, an obsession with Greek, Latin and history. “Usually the murder is implicated in some way (and) usually a group of students follow the eccentric leader.”
More recently, Abike-Yimide said that definition has expanded to include some critical examination of historical institutions like Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard and how they deal with issues like white supremacy.
But despite these hardships, the genre also includes novels for young adult readers, including Abike-Nyimide’s The Ace of Spades.
“I think it’s become mainstream because people really like his sci-fi,” she said. However, “I think it’s very difficult to hit all the dark academy elements in YA because it can be very dark.”
Abike-Yimide said she didn’t let her story get too dark in part because she was 18 when she wrote the book. “My brain couldn’t comprehend how dark things could be.”
When you write a book for young adults, “you learn not to sensationalize things and think about what is best for the person who is reading it,” she said.
Sterling said she drew on personal experience when she wrote Don’t Tell Us Secrets.
“Looking back at my high school years, I was surprised, given the hothouse atmosphere of a girls’ boarding school, that nothing really happened,” she said. “My own experience in academia helped me realize just how dark it can be and what the perfect setting would be for a psychological thriller.”
Winstead agrees. “I love (the dark academy genre) because college was a really formative period in my life for me.” According to her, the action of the novel on campus is an opportunity to show readers characters who find out their identity. For many people, “college is the first time you’re an adult in the world.”