Stories about academics discovering the supernatural/weird
April 11, 2013 1:35 PM   Subscribe

Can you recommend books, movies, or short stories that involve academics in supernatural peril?

There is a particular type of story that I love. In it, a historian or other academic investigates a topic. Then, they realize in the course of conducting research on their topic that some sort of supernatural entity/critter/weirdness exists in the world. Think Elizabeth Kostova's "The Historian" or Caitlin Kiernan's "As Red as Red." Or even "Dracula." I especially like it when the authors have created or incorporated other texts into their stories: newspaper articles, history books, diary entries, etc.

What I like about these stories is that I learn a little twisted bit of real-world history (Vlad Ţepeş! New England consumptives as vampires!), but underlying that is the sense that "Oh, man, we've been wrong all along, there really are things that go bump in the night!"

My examples involve vampires, but answers do not need to be about vampires.
posted by zoetrope to Media & Arts (34 answers total) 50 users marked this as a favorite
Indiana Jones
The Librarian
posted by mkultra at 1:40 PM on April 11, 2013

posted by seemoreglass at 1:41 PM on April 11, 2013

I sincerely hope you've already read the grandfather of this trope, his unholiness HP Lovecraft. If you look up his many and obscure references, you will find he has invented about 50% of them whole cloth and the other 50% will lead you to odd, fun, and little-known bits of art history, poetry, and historical tidbits.
posted by WidgetAlley at 1:42 PM on April 11, 2013 [4 favorites]

Pretty much all of M.R. James' short stories involve academics encountering or recounting very creepy supernatural occurrences, with an emphasis on British/Swedish settings.
posted by Kitteh at 1:43 PM on April 11, 2013 [4 favorites]

Perhaps H.P. Lovecraft's The Statement of Randolph Carter. Certainly some of his other works, too.
posted by bcwinters at 1:43 PM on April 11, 2013

Does Stargate count? (Aliens pretending to be gods!)
posted by harujion at 1:47 PM on April 11, 2013

A Discovery of Witches is exactly this.

Carlos Ruiz Zafon's books are like this, too. They aren't a series, exactly, but are related. The Shadow of the Wind is the first one.
posted by something something at 1:48 PM on April 11, 2013

You should read Lincoln's Dreams by Connie Willis. And then the rest of her backlist, because Connie Willis writes great stuff. :)
posted by southpaw at 1:48 PM on April 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Does A Wrinkle in Time count?

I mean, yeah! A Wrinkle in Time!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:49 PM on April 11, 2013

You might also like The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield.
posted by something something at 1:50 PM on April 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Among the Immortals by Paul Lake is about an academic who discovers that a famous Romantic poet was a vampire, and ends up getting directly involved. Lots of historical detail about the Romantic poets, much of it even somewhat accurate. ;) It's a pretty awful book, though.
posted by rhiannonstone at 2:00 PM on April 11, 2013

The Anubis Gates is a fun read that does time travel right.
posted by Durin's Bane at 2:04 PM on April 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'd also like to add Publish or Perish by James Hynes. It owes a lot to classic academic horror.
posted by Kitteh at 2:13 PM on April 11, 2013

Barbara Michaels/Elizabeth Peters (one writer, two pen names) has a number of stories along these lines. The Elizabeth Peters books have more academics but are also more likely to end up with a rational explanation for supernatural elements. The Barbara Michaels books don't always feature academics and sometimes end with a rational explanation, but often involve supernatural elements -- Stitches in Time would be a good one to start with.

Also, seconding M. R. James and Connie Willis, because they are both awesome.
posted by pie ninja at 2:16 PM on April 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Almost all of M R James' stories have scholars and spooks. "Oh, Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad" is terrifying.
posted by Ideefixe at 2:17 PM on April 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

Also, Sarah Monette's The Bone Key: The Necromantic Mysteries of Kyle Murchison Booth, which is a collection of short stories heavily inspired by M. R. James. The central character is an archivist at a museum.
posted by pie ninja at 2:20 PM on April 11, 2013

Seconding M.R. James, with a few specific recommendations: "Casting the Runes" is a marvelous, and quite chilling story (especially in one of the incidental details) that includes some surprisingly exciting research scenes. "A Warning to the Curious" is a very bleak take on what you can dig up (literally and figuratively) in the course of historical research. Likewise "The Tractate Middoth."

I'd also like to mention the weird stories of Arthur Machen, several of which are based around academic investigations, linguistics, and early anthropology (with a particular focus on the archaic culture of Wales and pagan religion, two great interests of Machen's), especially "The Great God Pan" and several of the stories assembled together into the collection The Three Impostors. In Machen's world, being an art historian or a translator of local dialects turns out to be considerably more dangerous than being, say, a submarine captain.
posted by the brave tetra-pak at 2:22 PM on April 11, 2013 [4 favorites]

A very dear friend of mine has a novel called The Paradise Engine being published at the beginning of May about an academic dealing with weirdness -- as I haven't read it yet, I can't confirm that it's supernatural weirdness, but it's weirdness all the same. Might be up your alley.
posted by pised at 2:35 PM on April 11, 2013

The Land of Laughs.
posted by Wordwoman at 2:38 PM on April 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

The End of Mr. Y
posted by Boxenmacher at 3:00 PM on April 11, 2013

Ramsey Campbell's The Darkest Part of the Wood.

Honestly, I read that shit in 2011, and sometimes I *STILL* get creeped out thinking about the woods.
posted by spunweb at 3:04 PM on April 11, 2013

Tim Powers does a lot of this, although his protagonists tend to be less academic and more everyman types.
posted by The otter lady at 3:37 PM on April 11, 2013

Two recent films come to mind: The Awakening and Red Lights.
posted by theuninvitedguest at 3:49 PM on April 11, 2013

posted by kirkaracha at 5:18 PM on April 11, 2013

The Mummy?
posted by CrazyLemonade at 5:20 PM on April 11, 2013

The short story Belief by Isaac Asimov might qualify.
posted by catquas at 5:30 PM on April 11, 2013

Nthing Connie Willis who is awesome, but apart from Lincoln's Dreams not really much with the supernatural. Also HP Lovecraft, though he can be an acquired taste, he is so influential on the genre that his works are a must. Also Jonathan Carroll - in addition to The Land of Laughs mentioned above, try Voice of our Shadow and Bones of the Moon. His characters tend to be writers more than academics, but some awesomely surreal and creepy stuff nevertheless.

Lisa Goldstein is seriously underrated. Her latest is The Uncertain Places and is about academia, fairy tales, surreality. Um, complicated. Very good. (Actually, looking at the blurbs, she's well-regarded by her peers!) Also try The Alchemist's Door which is about John Dee (15th century scholar and magician) and Rabbi Loew (15th century Jewish scholar famed for creating the golem).

Fritz Leiber - Conjure Wife (50s academia and witchcraft) and Our Lady of Darkness (will change the way you think about cities and skyscrapers and sleeping with books on the bed).

Um. I know I have more in this genre - I rather like it myself - but am at work. Will check contents of bookshelves once I'm home. :)
posted by Athanassiel at 8:32 PM on April 11, 2013

Libba Bray's YA novel The Diviners is set in 1920s Jazz Era New York. One of the characters is a fun-loving but troubled young flapper whose parents are worried about her behaviour, so they send her to live with her Uncle Will in NYC. He's a professor (philosophy, IIRC) who also runs the Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult; the police call on him to consult whenever there's a murder that seems to involve the occult. After she moves in with him, Evie has the opportunity to help her uncle with the museum and his cases.

It's a fun page-turner. Pretty creepy, too, for a YA book.

*not to be confused with Margaret Laurence's [excellent] book of the same name
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 10:16 PM on April 11, 2013

Preston and Child? One protagonist is a curator (or something) at a museum, I believe the American Museum of Natural History. There's a whole series, starting with Relic.
posted by troywestfield at 7:14 AM on April 12, 2013

The Bone Key: The Necromantic Mysteries of Kyle Murchison Booth by Sarah Monette is a collection of short stories all supernatural related and centred around the main character who is a museum archivist.

It's been awhile since I read it but I enjoyed it.
posted by halcyonday at 7:45 AM on April 12, 2013

City of Dark Magic is what you're looking for. A gifted musician lands a job in Prague cataloguing Beethoven's manuscripts, and weird stuff starts to happen.

It doesn't quite fit the context of this question, but I still think you'd love Sunshine by Robin McKinley. She does a good job of writing our world but with vampires/weres/witchy things, but in a way that makes you believe it's always been that way, and old magic clashing with technology, and my favorite heroine of any sci-fi/fantasy book EVER.
posted by wintersonata9 at 10:08 PM on April 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Slightly off-piste, but it is precisely for this reason that I am particularly fond of the Wizard / University story arcs in Terry Pratchett's discworld series.
posted by inbetweener at 12:04 PM on April 16, 2013

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