Sinister Bildungsromans? Help me find more books in my favorite genre
August 24, 2018 5:41 PM   Subscribe

There is a specific type of novel that is the definition of "comfort" for me - a loner attends a school/college, is adopted by an inner circle (usually led by one charismatic member), and after a period of euphoria realizes that there’s something sinister afoot. Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and Lev Grossman’s The Magicians are some of my favorites - are there more?

This genre is not just "new kid gets adopted by the popular kids and learns they’re jerks" — Mean Girls, Harry Potter, Clueless all fall into that genre but don’t belong because they’re not… sinister... enough. There can be humor, but there must be secrets, real danger and Bad Things looming. Romance may be a sub-plot but the main relationships focused on are within the clique. (For example, I'm not looking for Great Expectations, because although Pip is an outsider adopted into an inner circle, his main focus is Estella.)

Books in this genre that I love:
The Secret History by Donna Tartt (one of the best books of all time, I think she’s one of the greatest living writers)
The Magicians by Lev Grossman
Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl

I have also read, but did not enjoy, Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh (I found the prose too florid and the feeling of the book too dream-like, but in terms of genre it's exactly right).
posted by rogerrogerwhatsyourrvectorvicto to Writing & Language (49 answers total) 102 users marked this as a favorite
 
Came in to recommend Special Topics in Calamity Physics- I LOVE that book! But since you have that, maybe The Kingkiller Chronicle by Patrick Rothfuss would fit the bill? I can't think of any others off the top of my head,but will be watching this thread...
posted by DTMFA at 5:47 PM on August 24 [1 favorite]


The Magus might be what you have in mind:
The Magus (1965) is a postmodern novel by British author John Fowles, telling the story of Nicholas Urfe, a young British graduate who is teaching English on a small Greek island. Urfe becomes embroiled in the psychological illusions of a master trickster, which become increasingly dark and serious.
posted by Transl3y at 5:50 PM on August 24 [7 favorites]


m e Kerr's ya Fell series (unfortunately they weren't selling; idk if she wrote more after the last one with a huge cliffhanger was published).
posted by brujita at 5:56 PM on August 24 [2 favorites]


Not exactly the same, and it's a film, but Rosemary's Baby has this kind of frisson.
posted by nantucket at 6:03 PM on August 24 [1 favorite]


The Likeness by genius mystery writer Tana French.
posted by lalex at 6:11 PM on August 24 [20 favorites]


R.O. Kwon - The Incendiaries:
The Incendiaries is a campus novel, and so, true to form, it charts a well-worn path from eager innocence to bruised experience. Think of classic campus novels like F. Scott Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise and Donna Tartt's The Secret History — or even farther afield narratives like Tom Wolfe's I Am Charlotte Simmons and Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell.

However it riffs on the particulars, the standard campus novel always features an impressionable main character destined to fall under the spell of a charismatic professor — or another student, or a closed club or, perhaps rarest of all, an academic subject. Whether the infatuation is sexual, social or intellectual, the once naïve protagonist always pays for the experience in pain and a permanent case of wistfulness.

...Phoebe Lin is... ripe for manipulation when she arrives at Edwards and meets a mysterious character named John Leal outside a club one night.... It turns out that what Leal really has in mind is drawing Phoebe into the extremist religious group he's established on campus. Watching this seduction unfold with horror is Phoebe's boyfriend, Will Kendall, a sophomore transfer from a Bible college.
Fits the bill in a lot of ways, but there's not a lot of exploration of the dynamics within the religious group/cult itself, as it's more from Will's outsider viewpoint.
posted by spaet at 6:20 PM on August 24 [2 favorites]


Not quite the same, but similar tight collegiate clique leads to terrible consequences:
The Likeness by Tana French. (On preview, seconding lalex)

Another that fits the mood is If We Were Villains by M. L. Rio.
posted by the primroses were over at 6:24 PM on August 24


All These Beautiful Strangers by Elizabeth Klehfoth is exactly this.
posted by Daily Alice at 6:25 PM on August 24


The Interestings is not quite this (the sinister-ness is a lot more long-simmering and prosaic, and comes from a surprising place) but it gave me a lot of that same frisson as The Secret History - that fun reading experience of an ordinary person being inducted into a privileged inner circle and realizing it wasn’t what they thought.
posted by lunasol at 6:33 PM on August 24


Tam Lin by Pamela Dean.

I found the basic premise of The Likeness too improbable for a police procedural (it's the second book in the Dublin Murder Squad series), ymmv.
posted by betweenthebars at 6:43 PM on August 24 [10 favorites]


Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Letham. Bonus: same tiny campus as Secret History. Definitely Bildungsroman, possibly too much off campus.
Also, and maybe not great given your Waughlergy: Lucky Jim, by Amis Sr.
posted by Cold Lurkey at 7:03 PM on August 24


The Sixes by Kate White is in the neighborhood. Basically, there's a Mean Girls-ish secret society on a small, rural college campus that seems to be murdering people. A visiting instructor gets caught up in investigating the killings because some of her students are involved.
posted by fuse theorem at 7:11 PM on August 24


I think Down A Dark Hall by Lois Duncan fits perfectly. Possible downsides, its YA and it was written quite some time ago. It was a favorite of mine when I was a child back in the 70s.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 7:55 PM on August 24 [2 favorites]


Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers?
posted by Orange Dinosaur Slide at 8:40 PM on August 24


A Separate Peace by Jonathan Knowles gets really close to what you describe—loner at an elite school adopted by a charismatic student and brought into a tight-knit group. But the sinister impulse he discovers is within himself. A Secret History is my favorite novel, and I loved a Separate Peace. You might, too.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 9:22 PM on August 24 [1 favorite]


I don't know if this is quite what you're looking for, but I found Stephen Florida, about a college wrestler obsessed with winning the national championship, to be intensely sinister and unsettling in a really compelling way. He has relationships with his wrestling teammates, and there are Bad Things, but I think the strongest draw is the narrator himself and it's definitely on the weird end of the spectrum you describe.
posted by jameaterblues at 9:42 PM on August 24


The Elementals by Francesca Lia Block is YA but fits this to a T and I greatly enjoyed it despite being years beyond the YA demographic.
posted by Waiting for Pierce Inverarity at 11:34 PM on August 24 [1 favorite]


The Course of the Heart by M. John Harrison came out about the same time as Secret History and starts out with almost the same setup (magical ritual performed by college students leads to lifelong catastrophe) although it goes in different directions.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 12:00 AM on August 25 [3 favorites]


Meg Wolitzer's first novel, Sleepwalking, is maybe closer to this than The Interestings.
posted by Violet Hour at 1:35 AM on August 25


Black Chalk. It had a lot of hype due to comparisons with The Secret History and some twisty plot action. I wasn’t that impressed but it does hit all of your plot points. From the blurb:

A compulsively readable psychological thriller set in New York and at Oxford University in which a group of six students play an elaborate game of dares and consequences with tragic results
posted by freya_lamb at 1:47 AM on August 25 [2 favorites]


I love this genre too. Elizabeth Hand's Waking the Moon started out like this. I haven't read it in probably 15 years, my memory is that it went downhill in the final third of the book, but the first third was great.
posted by Athanassiel at 5:39 AM on August 25 [2 favorites]


I also came in to recommend Tam Lin.

Fritz Leiber's Conjure Wife is a period piece, but it fits your criteria and gets creepy AF.
posted by timeo danaos at 5:40 AM on August 25 [1 favorite]


Emma Cline’s The Girls definitely fits this description. A lonely girl in 1960s Northern California falls in with a charismatic group of countercultural youth, with unexpected results.
posted by little mouth at 5:52 AM on August 25 [1 favorite]


Oh, also Lisa Goldstein's The Uncertain Places. Her other books don't entirely fit the theme, but most are pretty good.
posted by Athanassiel at 6:07 AM on August 25


The Bellwether Revivals by Benjamin Wood is about a lower-middle class fellow who works in the Cambridge area (though not actually the university) who’s drawn into the world of the wealthy university families when he meets a beautiful med student and her extremely charismatic brother.

This review in the Independent is slightly spoilery, but it makes favorable comparisons to Brideshead Revisited and Donna Tartt's The Secret History.
posted by The Pluto Gangsta at 7:03 AM on August 25


The Basic Eight by Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket).
posted by nicwolff at 8:53 AM on August 25 [3 favorites]


If you want to get a little more philosophical / Jungian, Hesse's Demian would fit the bill.
posted by Bron at 9:11 AM on August 25 [2 favorites]


A memoir (with, as with all memoirs, fictive elements): Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs.
posted by nantucket at 9:31 AM on August 25


Came in here to recommend The Basic Eight. Thumbs up, nicwolff.
posted by Pickman's Next Top Model at 12:26 PM on August 25


Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell doesn't fit this exactly, but it's in the neighborhood. The TV adaptation is excellent, too.
posted by Lexica at 12:36 PM on August 25


Oh wow, I got goosebumps reading some of these suggestions! Thank you to everyone! I'm delighted that so many different titles were suggested, and that other people also enjoy this very specific genre!. Can't wait to curl up with these this fall.
posted by rogerrogerwhatsyourrvectorvicto at 2:13 PM on August 25


Also, Cold Lurkey's term "Waughlergy" was hilarious.
posted by rogerrogerwhatsyourrvectorvicto at 2:17 PM on August 25


Oh, thought of another one: Charlie Jane Anders, All the Birds in the Sky. Although I have to confess I didn't finish it, it featured not just one but two outsider children/teen/young adults going through this sort of thing over and over.
posted by Athanassiel at 3:27 PM on August 25 [1 favorite]


Peter Straub's Shadowland is not exactly this, it's missing the "adopted by inner circle" part, but it's super creepy.
posted by Mister Moofoo at 8:39 PM on August 25


Alan Hollinghurst's "The Line of Beauty" has a bit of this going on, as does his newest "The Sparsholt Affair" (though the Line of Beauty is more direct). John Banville's "The Untouchable," which managed to be about privileged Oxford cliques and also spying for Russia, spends some time in this area.

It may hew too closely to a traditional coming of age story but Chiara Barzini's "Things that Happened Before the Earthquake" had a lot of this feeling to it (and also often wonderfully atmospheric).

Oh, and listen, it's pulpy af (nowhere near as well-written as anything you've cited above) but Tara Isabella Burton's "Social Creature" is a great "Secret History" meets Tom Ripley meets terrible rich people in New York novel that will probably scratch this itch if you need a good novel for a plane or a poolside.

Also, this is irrelevant but "The Secret History" was one of those early defining novels for me. I received it as a gift from my aunt in my campus mailbox at my small southern boarding school and started reading it in the day student hall during my free period. The only other people in the hall at the time were Marisha Pessl (then a student at the same school, a year behind me) and a friend of hers.
posted by thivaia at 7:39 AM on August 26 [3 favorites]


Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. Such sinister things afoot, with layers revealed gradually.
posted by umbú at 7:59 AM on August 26 [4 favorites]


Another vote for The Likeness. Parts of it reminded me very much of The Secret History.

Daughters of Eve, by Lois Duncan, would fit the bill. Also YA. If you can, read the original 1979 book, not the updated 2011 version. I loved this book back in the day.
posted by SisterHavana at 2:30 PM on August 26 [1 favorite]


Nthing Tam Lin.

The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood is probably worth checking out -- it definitely has a sinister vibe & features a campus setting. However, instead of it being about an individual student who finds their way into a sinister circle, it's about a circle of three friends who are each victimized by an increasingly sinister individual.

I haven't read it, but it looks like Loner fits your brief.
posted by ourobouros at 10:04 AM on August 27 [1 favorite]


Definitely: The Library at Mount Char, by Scott Hawkins.
posted by pantufla_milagrosa at 10:48 PM on August 27 [1 favorite]


Not a novel and may be outside your preferred media, but Revolutionary Girl Utena is so this it hurts. (Anime and manga.)
posted by fast ein Maedchen at 6:12 PM on August 28 [1 favorite]


Popping in to nth A Separate Peace.
posted by Carouselle at 11:34 PM on August 28


The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark is a classic in this genre, and of course Tam Lin.
posted by nicebookrack at 1:25 PM on August 29 [1 favorite]


Seconding Revolutionary Girl Utena! This is actually a REALLY popular fantasy/thriller plot for anime and manga set in high school, and if you're open to expanding your request to comics, I know we can rec you a list. But Utena is a masterpiece.
posted by nicebookrack at 1:35 PM on August 29 [1 favorite]


The Lords Of Discipline. From an Amazon review that sums up the plot without giving anything away:
Will McLean is about to start his senior year at the Institute, a military academy in Charleston (based on the Citadel, Conroy's own alma mater). He didn't really want to go, but promised his father he would before his father died and gets a basketball scholarship anyways. He's not distinguished himself as a military man during his time there and doesn't plan to enlist and ship out to Vietnam as so many of his classmates intend, but he's almost made it through and is closely bonded with his three roommates, especially native blue-blooded Charlestonian Tradd St. Croix. Will is a quasi-outsider...while he's Southern and from an Institute family, he's also Catholic and an athlete, and probably the closest thing to a liberal on campus. Which is why he's assigned to look after incoming student Tom Pearce, the first black student to ever enroll, and protect him from the threat of a mysterious group called The Ten, who are deadset against integration. As Will's final year unfolds, he relives his own traumatic freshman year and we see how he's been shaped (sometimes against his own will) by the experiences he's had at the Institute as he tries to look out for Pearce, investigates The Ten, and falls in love with a troubled young socialite.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 3:09 PM on August 29 [1 favorite]


Reading the question I thought for sure your first example was going to be The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier. It fits the description perfectly, and is the second most painfully empathetic experience of how hellish school can be that I know (after A Separate Peace.) Oh yeah, and also Crime and Punishment, if you want sinister college dropouts.
posted by TreeRooster at 5:10 AM on September 2 [2 favorites]


TreeRooster, I just have to say, OH MY GOSH I LOVED THE CHOCOLATE WAR when I read it as a kid and had not thought of it in years. Definitely going to re-read now.
posted by rogerrogerwhatsyourrvectorvicto at 7:39 PM on September 3 [1 favorite]


The Haunting of Hill House. Eleanor, a shy young woman, who spent her youth in isolation as her abusive mother's caretaker, participates in a scientific experiment investigating paranormal phenomena in an allegedly haunted house in a remote location. She quickly warms up to the other study participants, the charming artistic Theodora and Luke, the young heir of the manor. But just as Eleanor finally comes out of her shell, ominous things start to happen and make her question her new friend's intentions towards her and her own sanity. No college setting, but I think all other required elements - loner protagonists joining cool kids, coming-of-age-story, deep dark secrets - are there. A reader certainly can't complain about a lack of sinister vibes, and the social dynamics, just as much as potential supernatural intrusions, contribute to a mounting sense of paranoia. I recommmend lining up your favourite fluffy piece of brain candy entertainment for when you finish this, because I didn't and then couldn't sleep for hours.

The Confusions of Young Törless. Set at a military boarding school in Austria-Hungary in the 19th century. Three students, Törless, Beineberg and Reiting, catch Basini, a classmate from a poorer background trying to steal from one of them. When Beineberg and Reitling start to blackmail Basini into submitting to various physical and sexual tortures, Törless remains a passive observer, until Basini turns to him for protection and Törless starts taking advantage of him as well. The sinister thing, the sensitive, introspective, highly perceptive, poetically inclined Törless is investigating, is something within himself. Brutish Beineberg and Reiting come across as garden variety sadists, talking like proto-Nazis, and Törless doesn't for a minute buy into their flimsy attempts to intellecutalize their power games, but on second reading, his own efforts in that regard really shouldn't be that much more convincing, just because his interior monologue is so much more eloquent. The novel doesn't meet all your criteria - there's never a period of enthusiasm about hanging with the popular kids for instance, because Törless' whole deal is that he feels alienated, and he only gets more so during the course of the novel - but there's certainly a lot of coming-of-age self exploration and disquieting insights into human nature and power dynamics, as well as a fairly compelling indictiment of the intellectually and emotionally stiffling nature of the military boarding school environment, and the emptiness of bourgeous values.

Krabat. During the thirty year war a beggar boy in Saxony is called to a mill in a dream, becomes an apprentice and finds out that the craft his master is actually teaching here is black magic. Learning to turn into a raven is fun, but then the fatal accidents accumulate, and an unsettling pattern emerges.... This one's YA, but I think a certain simplicity only adds to the beauty of the story here. Very atmospheric!
posted by sohalt at 9:11 AM on September 5 [1 favorite]


You might look into The Folk of the Air, by Peter S Beagle (author of the Last Unicorn). It seems like it would be pretty much like what you’re looking for, protagonist falls in with a crowd at renaissance festivals, said crowd is more than what they seem. Good book.
posted by Ghidorah at 9:12 AM on September 5 [3 favorites]


Update: I am on page 80 of The Likeness by Tana French and it is ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING THAT I EVER WANTED and so completely hits the spot. I thank you so much.

Looking forward to diving in to all of these suggestions!!
posted by rogerrogerwhatsyourrvectorvicto at 10:02 PM on September 7 [2 favorites]


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