Spooky Season Reads: The Secret History by Donna Tartt

October, 2023
Vita Moss-Wang

Set at the fictional Hampden College in Vermont, “The Secret History” by Donna Tartt is a sinister reverse-murder mystery that is the perfect spooky read for this season. The book transports readers to a small college campus in the fall and follows a group of students, Richard, Henry, Francis, Bunny, and twins Charles and Camilla, who begin practicing pagan rituals inspired by their classics class. However, one day, when madness and the guidance of their eccentric classics professor, Julian Morrow, consumes them, a member of their clique, Bunny, is killed. The book is narrated by Richard, a naive transfer student who arrives at the school intending to pursue his interest in Greek language and culture. However, after immersing himself in one of the college’s secret societies, he leaves forever changed, with dark secrets and a story to tell.

Upon arriving at Hampden College, Richard must charm the sole classics professor in order to participate in his class that consists of only five other students who are unusual and almost completely socially isolated. With difficulty, Richard is accepted into Julian’s classes, but soon begins to notice something strange in the other five students' behavior: they often disappear for several days, only to reappear and act as if nothing is out of the ordinary. Despite being part of the class, Richard senses he’s out of the loop as his classmates have a tendency to disappear then return exhausted and injured with changed demeanors — something which is of no concern to their professor. As Richard gradually assimilates into their group, he begins to spend all of his time with them, often hanging out with them for days on end at Francis’s isolated vacation home, getting intoxicated and discussing their studies of Greco-Roman cultures. However, they ultimately end up taking things a bit too far by attempting to perform rituals based on ancient customs.

Although long, this book is a true dark academia novel, fully engulfing the readers in a world of the solemn and mysterious sides of higher academia, creating a story that is impossible to put down. Tartt makes readers listen to Richard's voice and incessantly flip pages in his story. The book comes alive as Richard narrates, describing other characters with great attention to detail and vivid imagery. Despite knowing that Bunny dies, figuring out how and why it happens is what drives curiosity and creates importance for the reader. Tartt’s ability to make Richard’s tone dry and casual throughout the book, suggesting disinterest, piques the interest of the reader. His descriptions of appearance, body language are often so finely detailed the reader almost feels as if they are also familiarizing themselves with the habitual behaviors of the group and the unique culture of Hampden College. The dialogue and interactions Tarrt’s writing builds between the main characters is not only convincing, but it also causes the reader to identify and sympathize with their actions, humanizing the killers as the story progresses. Richard’s descriptions of each individual’s subtle actions convinces the reader of the intimacy and connection of the group by alluding to all that is unsaid.

“The Secret History” is particularly appropriate for the fall season considering Tartt is the pioneer of the dark academia genre. Hampden College is really a world of its own; throughout the story, Richard seldom describes his life off campus, his family, or the state of the outside world. The school is a tight-knit community that envelops both the characters and the audience. Additionally, “The Secret History” puts relationships into perspective and forces the reader to consider how they affect everyday life. Throughout the book, Richard and his friends struggle with mental health, substance abuse, and boundaries. Most importantly, Richard and his friends allow themselves to compromise their own wellbeing for each other, eventually failing to keep themselves safe. Their story truly shows how love — whether familial, platonic, or intellectual — can cause anybody to bend themselves and their morals in order to preserve relationships.