A rising genre of literature — “dark academia” — mixes the cozy fantasy of chummy, tweed-filled, fancy-school settings with violence and murder.
Think Harry Potter without the magic and more death.
Three authors who write in this genre will discuss the dark academia trend during a virtual event at Mystery to Me bookstore later this month.
Charlotte T. Martin, events manager at Mystery to Me, said a publicist suggested the idea of a dark academia panel, thinking customers “would love to take a deep dive into the mystery subgenre of school-set thrillers.”
“School, particularly boarding school, has always been a beloved setting for many a mystery author, and it’s curious to see so many of these stories popping up in the last couple of years,” Martin said in an email.
Authors who write dark academia say readers’ close connections to their school or college-day selves and ability to remember those emotional ups and downs are what draw people to the books.
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“Teenagers and young adults can be truly cruel when they’re jockeying for popularity and acceptance,” Siena Sterling, author of “Tell Us No Secrets,” said in an email.
“Reading books in the dark academia genre puts us back in those times. We identify with all the emotional upheaval and remember when the most popular person in class ignored us or we were horribly embarrassed by something we’d done, thinking we’d never live it down.”
Both Sterling, who lives in London, and author Ashley Winstead, who lives in Texas, say they didn’t set out to write dark academia thrillers.
“I did not realize I was writing a dark academia novel until I had written (‘In My Dreams I Hold a Knife’) and I looked around and I saw ‘Wow, there is such a boom in dark thrillers set on campus,’” said Winstead, one of the panel speakers.
“I wrote ‘Tell Us No Secrets’ without thinking of it as part of a genre other than the psychological thriller,” said Sterling, who also will be a panel speaker. “I do think dark academia is a great genre to write in because of the scope for characters and because academia is a sort of closed environment. There’s no escape, everyone is in it together, mixing with each other every day, in some cases every night.”
Plus, writers say there’s a link between fantasy and dark academia genres that readers find appealing.
“The boarding school novel, even ‘Harry Potter’ is classified (as a campus novel) and has held a universal appeal,” Winstead said. These novels offer readers “a world that you can disappear to.”
But part of the genre’s trend also could be the opportunity to take a more serious look at what happens on these seemingly picturesque campuses.
“This trend toward the dark version of that … I think in some ways reflects a desire to skewer and reveal the truth behind the idyllic university or campus setting,” Winstead said. Some argue the rise (in the genre) is because of COVID and the nostalgia about school, but the genre has been trending a longer than that, she said. “It has roots in our growing disillusion in education as an institution … how higher education perpetuates racism and classism.”
Winstead said the “dark campus aesthetic” also is trending on social media platforms, such as TikTok and Instagram, feeding interest in the genre.
“There’s something going on that’s drawing us to look at campus novels,” she said.
London-based author Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé, who also will be one of three guests on the Mystery to Me panel, said generally the genre is often associated with rigorous academic study, obsession with Greek, Latin and history. “Usually murder is involved in some way (and) usually a group of students is following an eccentric leader.”
Lately, Àbíké-Íyímídé said the definition has expanded, and now includes some critical examinations of historical institutions such as Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard and how they address issues like white supremacy.
But despite these heavy issues, the genre also includes novels for young adult readers, including Àbíké-Íyímídé’s “Ace of Spades.”
“I think it became mainstream because people really love the fantasy of it,” she said. However, “I think it’s very hard to hit all the elements of dark academia in YA because it can be very dark.”
Àbíké-Íyímídé said she avoided letting her story get too dark in part because she was 18 when she wrote the book. “There was only so much my brain could conceptualize about how dark things could get.”
When writing a young adult book “you learn the way to not sensationalize things and think about what is best for the person reading it,” she said.
Sterling said she drew on personal experience when writing “Tell Us No Secrets.”
“Looking back to my own school days, I was surprised, given the hothouse atmosphere of an all-girls boarding school, that nothing fatal actually happened,” she said. “My own experience of academia made me understand just how dark it could get and what a perfect setting it would be for a psychological thriller.”
Winstead agrees. “I love (the dark academia genre) because college for me was a really formative period in my life.” Setting a novel on campus is an opportunity to show readers characters who are figuring out their identity, she said. For many people, “college is the first time you are an adult in the world.”