I’ve always loved the darker side of academic elitism. Maybe because I grew up so far removed from that life. I never got to partake in secret societies or the centuries-old rituals associated with these types of educational facilities. Places where mysterious things happened in the shadows, where intense devotion to the classics informed every fiber of daily life, and where sexuality ebbed and flowed just as it did in the works of Homer and Ovid and Plato.
Naturally, I was very delighted to learn there’s a whole subgenre that speaks to this fascination: dark academia. This specifically refers to novels and films and other works of art centered around higher education and a passion for the classics. I was familiar with the aesthetic as a major fan of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, which many credit with starting the dark academia literary genre. But I had no idea how expansive it had become, or just how much TikTok helped grow the fascination. In the age of COVID-19, when so many young people were stuck at home, dark academia flourished.
The themes of dark academia—which often revolve around an outsider who infiltrates an erudite, scholarly institution—center on self-actualization. And because of that, many delve into sexuality and its amorphous and exploratory nature. There are queer themes that pulse through these novels—sometimes explicitly, sometimes in the margins—that make them especially worthy of delving into during Pride Month, as so many of us ponder our own sexuality and queer identities.
Here are eight dark academia novels that explore queer themes, have LGBTQ+ characters, and/or dig deep into the trenches of sexuality and our complicated relationships with identity. If you’re anything like me, these books are not only entertainingly delectable. They also help us look inward and feel seen.
Alfred A. Knopf
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
I have to begin this list with the aforementioned novel that started it all. Well, sort of. There are older books on this list and in the dark academia genre, but The Secret History is responsible for popularizing the trend. The 1992 novel by future Pultizer winner Donna Tartt had a cult following from the beginning. It follows a college student named Richard Papen who transfers to an elite east coast college called Hampden. (Tartt based the school on her own alma mater, Bennington College.) There, he gets involved with five other students who exclusively study Classics under the tutelage of a professor named Julian Morrow.
Richard soon falls under the spell of the other students, who have a cult-like bond. The six of them get swept up in dark, murderous circumstances that begin with a Bacchanal gone wrong. They live in excess and stumble from one highly dramatic scenario to the next, and it’s all very delicious and intriguing. One of the Classics students, Francis, is openly gay, and queer themes run rampant in the subtext, too. In Tartt’s world, sexuality is fluid, as it was for the Greeks. This is partially responsible for the intense devotion many still have for The Secret History, almost 30 years later.
Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth
If you like The Secret History and want a story even more explicitly queer, I can’t recommend Emily M. Danforth’s Plain Bad Heroines enough. The book is equally intoxicating and way more sapphic. It’s set in Rhode Island at Brookhants School for Girls in two timelines: 1902 and present-day. The 1902 plot centers on two female students, Clara and Flo, who are in love with one another. Tragically, the girls are stung to death by wasps. Several other students also die, leading the school to shut down five years later.
The present-day storyline centers on two actresses, Harper and Audrey, who are set to play Clara and Flo in the film adaptation of a book about Brookharts’ mysterious history. When they visit the site of the allegedly cursed school, strange things start to happen, seemingly confirming that curse. The book is deeply fun (and funny!) and, though a bit large at 600+ pages, an absolute page-turner. Also, almost every character is queer, and the book draws much of its inspiration from the works of Mary MacLane, the highly influential feminist writer who was openly bisexual.
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
I wasn’t sure if this book qualified as dark academia at first, but I’ve seen it on a number of lists and aesthetic inspiration boards for the genre, so I feel OK with including it. And selfishly, I’m more than happy to, because wow, this book. Madeline Miller first wooed me with her beautiful, intricate novel Circe. Naturally, I had to read everything she’d written after that, which led me to The Song of Achilles, her debut novel. Like the best of dark academia, it is itself deeply infatuated with the Classics.
The novel follows the shamed prince Patroclus, during his time in the kingdom of Phthia. There, he meets Achilles, the Greek god, and the two form a tremendous bond. Friendship turns to romantic love, their relationship drawing the ire of Achilles’ mother, the sea goddess Thetis. The men later go to the Trojan War war together, cementing their story as an epic of love and tragedy. Miller’s writing is poignant and profound; this is not a book you’ll soon forget.
Feiwel & Friends
Ace of Spades by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé
As much as there is to love in the dark academia genre, one thing becomes immediately clear upon delving in: these books are very, very white. That’s why I can’t recommend Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé’s Ace of Spades enough. It’s a dark academia novel with two Black protagonists that calls out and highlights the racial disparity at the core of this breed of academia. The novel is set at Niveus Private Academy and centers on two students: Devon Richards and Chiamaka Adebayo. The two become prefects and everything seems to be in order. Until, one day, a mysterious someone who goes by the name Aces starts sending text messages that reveal secrets about Devon and Chiamaka.
Both Devon and Chiamaka serve as protagonists, and this draws us right into life at Niveus. It gives us an intimate lens into their lives, and makes the revelations all the more propulsive and devastating. Gossip Girl inspired Àbíké-Íyímídé’s writing, which is immediately apparent. But Ace of Spades is so much more than that. It’s an excellent dive into the uglier side of elitism. And bonus points? Both characters are queer.
Monument Pictures / Giphy
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
This is another one I struggled with in terms of considering it dark academia, but the internet once again veered me towards “yes.” (Something I’ve learned, that you will also learn if you fall into this genre: a lot of classic lit fits the dark academia aesthetics, and is therefore up for consideration.) I’m glad it mostly constitutes because The Picture of Dorian Gray is one of my very favorite novels. And Oscar Wilde should get as much credit as Donna Tartt for creating such rich, erudite worlds that stand the test of time.
The book follows the eponymous character, Dorian, who prizes beauty among all other qualities. He sells his soul, which a man named Basil captures in an oil painting that ages while he stays young and lives a very libertine and excessive lifestyle. Wilde’s novel is famous for its controversy; the book violated morality laws and was heavily revised before publication. It’s the subject of queer theorizing and studies, and a very important entry in queer literature. It’s the basis for many adaptations, including the 2009 film version starring the internet’s own eternal boyfriend, Ben Barnes, as Dorian Gray.
Maurice by E.M. Forster
I’m hard-pressed to think of a more explicitly queer dark academia novel than E.M. Forster’s magnificent Maurice. The book follows the titular Maurice Hall from his days as a schoolboy into his adulthood. Maurice is gay, and the book delves into his two most prominent relationships with men. First, with Clive Durham, his formative lover; and then with Alec Scudder, his true soulmate. Maurice learns about his queerness through the classics, and (spoiler alert) gets one of the few happy endings in queer literature. The book was also turned into a lovely 1987 film adaptation directed by James Ivory, who would later win an Oscar for Call Me By Your Name.
It’s hard to visualize the modern dark academia genre without Maurice, which exemplifies many of the aesthetics that came to define the aesthetic.
They Never Learn by Layne Fargo
Layne Fargo’s book isn’t about queer identity in any grand sense, but features characters that identify as queer, and that often feels equally like a win. They Never Learn is a delectable book about two women who team up to take down evil men. It centers on Scarlett Clark, a (bisexual) English professor who searches for the worst men at Gorman University, where she teaches, and plots their demise. But her latest target puts her in the focus of Mina Pierce, whom Scarlett sets her sights on to avoid notice.
In a parallel plot, Gorman student Carly Schiller—who escapes from an abusive household—grows close with her new roommate, Allison Hadley. When Allison suffers a sexual assault at a party, Carly wants vengeance. Scarlett and Carly’s storylines remind us of how pervasive male violence can be. The novel is spooky and singular, and a gorgeous entry in the dark academia canon.