Time for another book recipe! This one’s on how to write dark academia, which is a fancy term for nerd murder. Put on your most pretentious scarf and let’s get started!
- One insecure yet prone-to-monologuing protagonist
- A really solid aesthetic
- One twinkly-eyed academic
- An elite group of attractive yet pretentious students
- A really, really nice university campus
- Old books
- A bunch of well-meaning background characters there to misunderstand the protagonists
- So much booze
- Start with a sinister prologue where your main character monologues about a murder that they may or may not have committed as a student.
- Aaaaaaaand flashback!
- Your insecure yet prone-to-monologuing protagonist has just arrived at a fancy university. Try and make some friends with the well-meaning background characters but don’t worry, it won’t stick.
- Monologue about how no-one understands you.
- Introduce your attractive yet pretentious students! They’re all studying the same thing, taught by a twinkly-eyed academic who almost always drinks tea.
- Join the cool kids’ class!
- Attend the twinkly-eyed professor’s lectures. Describe them as transcendent, while sober.
- Fall in love with one of the pretentiously attractive students, but don’t do anything about it. Who wants to go on a date when you can yearn?
- Get so drunk with the pretentious students. It’s not like a normal college party, this one is special.
- Uh-oh, there’s tensions within the group! Sure hope nothing goes wrong that would provide some material for a sinister prologue…
- Remind your protagonist how boring interacting with normal people is. Good thing we’ve got those pretentious friends to rely on! Nothing could ever go…
- HAHA PSYCH SOMEONE’S DEAD
- The pretentious students decide to make it look like an accident, possibly because they are still drunk. Never ever entertain the possibility that you might actually get caught.
- Attend a lecture because WHAT NOTHING’S WRONG PSSHHH WHY DO YOU ASK
- Come up with some vague artistic/literary reason for covering up a murder, or possibly committing more.
- An authority figure starts sniffing around. Of course, you might get arrested, but talk about how this has affected tensions within the group instead.
- Uh-oh, looks like the least pretentious student is cracking up…
- Your tutor has realised what’s going on and they are, understandably, disgusted! No academic justification for your bad deeds for you, monologuing protagonist.
- Have a final confrontation with your pretentious friends! Fight! Kiss! Swear! Drink! The important thing is that it ends with another pretentious student dying and the irrevocable break-up of your friendship group, which is obviously more important than murder number two.
- Reflect on your youthful idiocy in the epilogue, now that the monologuing protagonist is older and wiser, and mope in a nostalgic yet sinister way.
THE END. Serve drenched in all the alcohol you can find.
- Your protagonists should spend 85% of the novel drunk, high, or hungover, but make sure they judge everybody else for doing the same. They’re too classy to be trashy – it’s decadent when they do it.
- Pick an aesthetic and commit to it. I’m talking colour schemes, uniforms, specific kinds of weather, maybe even themed food. Cram it all in there!
- Always make sure that your campus is suitably posh, and that your protagonist is not.
- It’s safer to pick a humanities subject for the cool kids’ class. It’s pretty tricky to get pretentious about numbers.
- Always include some stuff in foreign languages that is not translated for the readers’ benefit.
- Make sure to spend at least a chapter just talking about sexual frustration.
- Always, always, always include a needlessly opulent fancy party – preferably a masked ball – which your protagonists will judge but then go to anyway. Because c’mon. Of course you’d go.
And here’s one I made earlier…
It was when we were all sprawling on the grass in the Cloisters that the idea of murder first came up.
We had strewn ourselves across the grass, draping our legs over each other and passing around a bottle of Veuve Cliquot that Bastien had purloined from his stepmother. I was propped up on an elbow and trying to read Derrida, in the vague hope that it would make more sense when I was drunk. Theo had slung a possessive arm around Ophelia’s shoulders as her head drooped against his chest. Aubrey had propped her feet up on the picnic basket, an inch of slim ankle peeking out from between her brogues and the cuffs of her suit trousers. Bastien was opening another bottle and swearing; Perry was asleep.
I looked up from my book and took in the stone walls of Pumdringham Academy, the rolling lawns, the view down to the lake through the colonnade, and tried to seem as if it were not all new to me. The past few weeks had been a dream of dappled sunlight, leather-bound books and afternoons gone in a haze of brandy and champagne. It was a far cry from home. At Pumdringham I was Edmund: the scholar, the poet, the dreamer. At home, I was Ed, and my brother Jimmy would make farting noises whenever I tried to talk to him about syntax.
Bastien finally got the cork out of the next bottle and cheered. It fizzed over Perry and he woke up, spluttering.
“Good God,” he groaned, pushing his floppy hair out of his eyes, “how am I hungover already?”
“Come, gentlemen, and drink down all unkindness…”
“You’re misquoting,” said Aubrey, lighting a cigarette.
“D’you want another glass or not?”
Aubrey flicked her cigarette ash at him and stuck out her tongue. Ophelia took the bottle from Bastien and poured out another glass for her and Theo.
“Has anyone done the reading for Madame yet?” she asked, tucking a long curl of hair behind her ear.
Perry fell back on the grass and groaned. I wasn’t surprised. Sévérine de Compte au Lagneaulais – simply known to us as Madame – was our lecturer. She only dressed in black, kept rare butterflies and regularly set us punishing amounts of background reading for our French literature class. This week’s attempt to make sophisticates of we uncultured swine was Derrida, Sartre and Foucault, for Camus’ L’Etranger.
Bastien let out a snort of laughter. “La belle dame sans merci,” he said.
I nodded, to show that I definitely got the reference, but I didn’t want to show off about it.
Theo leaned back on his elbows. “I don’t see why we have to do all this extra reading,” he drawled, “nothing can compare to the real experience. When I was living in Montmartre…”
Bastien groaned. Aubrey rolled her eyes and winked at me. I blushed, and wondered if she could tell she was starting to look a bit blurry for me. I blinked, hard, as Theo steamed ahead with one of his stories about his ‘transformative experience’ buying baguettes and sneering at tourists on the bus to Disneyland Paris. Aubrey snapped back into focus, but by then she was looking at Theo and frowning.
“But if living through something is the only true test of the human experience, then what’s the point of literature?” she asked, pointing her cigarette at him. Even when she was arguing she was pretty. I wondered, briefly, if she would be impressed if I got her name tattooed on my chest, or whether she would think it was gauche. Maybe if I told her I did it as a satirical swipe at the gradual consumerisation of romance, she might make out with me in a corner of the library…
“There is no point to literature,” Theo scoffed, “nothing has a point. Meaning has no meaning unless it’s overturned, which is why it’s so important that we sit out here getting drunk at eleven am on a Wednesday.”
“Typical! That’s a typical misuse of the nihilist philosophy to justify decadence, and a wilful misunderstanding of the –”
I briefly tried to remember what nihilism was. Things were definitely getting fuzzy for me, and all I could say for certain was that it involved a lot of dressing in black, getting drunk and having a lot of casual sex, but in a transgressive kind of way. Actually, it sounded quite appealing.
“If you’d ever been to Montmartre, Aubs, you might actually –”
“But there are some experiences which only literature can illuminate for the decent human being! Surely you aren’t suggesting that to properly understand L’Etranger, the reader should go out and kill someone, are you?”
“See, there you go again with your crass limitations of so-called ‘morality’, but what even are these? Who decided what is moral and what is not? Camus didn’t –”
Bastien took a swig of champagne straight from the bottle and pointed at the pair of them. “Look,” he slurred, “unless killing someone is actually going to help me write my essay on French existentialism, you can both shut up. Now Aubs, darling, can I be a scab and scrounge one of your ciggies?”
Aubrey handed over a small leather pouch. “They’re not cigarettes.”
Bastien brightened up. “Even better.”
My full book-cookbook can be found here. Let me know what you’d like me to look at next – and as always, take this recipe with a pinch of salt.