Sinister School Days | The Reader's Shelf

The few years that many of us spend at college are often the most intense of our young lives as we confront new experiences, ideas, and people—often both enticing and intimidating. It is no wonder that authors incorporate this time into novels of psychological suspense.

The few years that many of us spend at college are often the most intense of our young lives as we confront new experiences, ideas, and people—often both enticing and intimidating. It is no wonder that authors incorporate this time into novels of psychological suspense.

Donna Tartt burst onto the scene in 1992 with The Secret History (Vintage. 2004. ISBN 9781400031702. pap. $16.95; ebk. ISBN 9780307765697), providing the literary standard against which all other novels like it would be judged. An isolated liberal arts college where classic arts and literature are seriously studied; a coterie of glamorous students who hover around a charismatic professor; a sympathetic outsider who penetrates this seemingly charmed circle; an atmosphere of creeping unease that gradually transforms into menace as dark secrets are revealed and darker deeds are done. The blending of these simple elements makes for an instantly gripping novel, which became a notable critical and commercial success. While Tartt would go on to publish two other books, her debut has taken on a life of its own, with other writers attempting to re-create its alchemy.

Carol Goodman’s gothic-infused fiction highlights why she is an acclaimed and best-selling author; she never fails to deliver a page-turner. The Lake of Dead Languages (Ballantine. 2003. ISBN 9780345450890. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9780345490919) proves the point. Jane Hudson returns as a Latin teacher to the same school where, as a student, she lost her closest friends to mysterious suicides. Now, it seems history is repeating itself as Jane’s students begin perishing in eerily similar ways. Whether Jane wants to or not, she must confront the horrors of her youth in order to save her own life and those of her charges. Goodman skillfully juggles past and present, while her narrative hurtles relentlessly toward a thrilling conclusion.

Marisha Pessl’s lengthy Special Topics in Calamity Physics (Penguin. 2007. ISBN 9780143112129. pap. $17; ebk. ISBN 9781101218808) has an occasionally rickety plot that can seem too reminiscent of The Secret History. However, these imperfections are redeemed by Pessl’s masterly use of voice. Blue van Meer, a ridiculously well-read young woman, seems to have all Western knowledge on call and employs her learning with brio and cleverness. Blue eventually finds herself at an elite school among a student clique and favored teacher whose death—amid others—drives the action. Where Tartt smolders, Pessl sparkles, and that is primarily thanks to the lively and inspired creation of Blue van Meer.

There’s scarcely a teacher to be seen in Christopher J. Yates’s Black Chalk (Picador. 2015. ISBN 9781250075550. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781250075567), leaving a closely bonded group of students to bring one another to ruin. During their first year at Oxford University, they invent a game—one originally composed of seemingly harmless dares—which slowly becomes a fixation that goes too far. The friends turn against each other, shattering relationships and then, more tragically, lives. While offering many pleasures, the story is especially notable for its skillful construction. Yates deftly manipulates times and points-of-view to keep his readers off balance and spring his surprises at the very end.

Appearing 25 years after The Secret History, M.L. Rio’s If We Were Villains (Flatiron: Macmillan. Feb. 2018. ISBN 9781250095299. pap. $16.99; ebk. ISBN 9781250095305) demonstrates that Tartt’s original formula has lost none of its potency. Here, the students are actors who exclusively perform Shakespeare. Oliver Marks is released from jail, only to be met by the person who put him there. Detective Colborne is eager to know the truth of the matter, so Oliver recounts the events surrounding his last year at Dellecher Classical Conservatory. While his crime remains unclear until the book’s climax, the astute reader can infer something of what occurred from the themes of the plays staged: Julius Caesar (thwarted ambition), Macbeth (murder), Romeo and Juliet (tragic love), and King Lear (madness).

Whereas all these other authors were publishing their debut novels, Joyce Carol Oates was no tyro when she wrote her highly concentrated novella Beasts (Da Capo. 2003. ISBN 9780786711031. pap. $13.95). The story focuses as much on a menacingly seductive English teacher as on the infatuated female students who are obsessed with him and with Dorcas, his equally entrancing sculptor wife. Dorcas’s passion for carving grotesque, sexualized wooden totems and her motto, “we are beasts and this is our consolation,” should be all readers need to know to see where this is leading. Oates is completely in her element, using all of her descriptive prowess to craft an increasingly lurid atmosphere.

Neal Wyatt compiles LJ’s online feature Wyatt’s World and is the author of The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Nonfiction (ALA Editions, 2007). She is a collection development and readers’ advisory librarian from Virginia. Those interested in contributing to The Reader’s Shelf should contact her directly at

This column was contributed by Steven Jablonski, Collection Development Librarian, Skokie Public Library, IL

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