11 Creepy Cliques in Literature
Anyone who has been part of an insular friend group can tell you that cliques are powerful. Group mentality is a force to be reckoned with, which is why I spend a lot of my time reading (and writing) about close-knit friendships that turn, if not deadly, at least sinister (but, let’s be real, often pretty deadly). To write my debut novel, FAN CLUB—which hinges on a group of super fans who worship a pop star to disturbing and malevolent ends—I immersed myself in other literary enigmatic cliques. Here are just a few of my favorites.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt: The mother of all creepy clique books! Tartt’s debut novel is the gold standard in the murderous friend group canon, with arguably one of the most iconic first lines of all time (“The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation”). Richard Papan, an outsider from California, arrives at Hampden College in Vermont for his freshman year. There, he falls in with an eccentric professor and the students who hang on his every word.
Bunny by Mona Awad: Weaponized cuteness, exploding bunnies, and one strange MFA cohort. Mona Awad’s sophomore novel follows Samantha Heather Mackey, an outcast in Warren College’s creative writing program. The other members call each other “Bunny” and host mysterious extracurricular workshops called Smut Salons where they perform supernatural experiments. It gets even weirder from there.
We Ride Upon Sticks by Quan Barry: While not as murder-y as the other books on this list, We Ride Upon Sticks delivers a healthy dose of cozy spookiness thanks to its central cast. The Danvers High field hockey team finds that the secret to finally achieving a winning streak is to embrace the history of their hometown, site of the original Salem Witch Trials, and do a little magic.
The Girls by Emma Cline: I can’t think of anything scarier than the Manson family, on which the cult in Cline’s 2016 debut novel is based. Fourteen-year-old Evie Boyd stumbles upon a group of artfully disheveled girls one day in the park. She’s soon swept up in their life on a ranch outside of Los Angeles, under the sway of a man named Russell. Her summer with the cult culminates in a brutal crime.
Dare Me by Megan Abbott: It’s been years since I graduated high school, but nothing strikes fear through my heart quite like a cluster of young women in cheerleading uniforms. If you’re asking “why,” well, you’ve probably never read this book. Addy and Beth are best friends, the number one and two on their high school cheer squad. But when a new coach comes to town, she upends the social order.
Carrie by Stephen King: And speaking of high school, I’m eternally grateful I wasn’t classmates with Carrie White–or the popular girls who made her life a living hell by pelting her with a rain of tampons, mocking her incessantly, and humiliating her during prom via a bucket of pig’s blood. While no one should condone telekinetic murder, you can kinda see where Carrie was coming from.
The Lightness by Emily Temple: Teenage Olivia runs away in search of her missing father, heading to his last-known location, what she calls “Buddhist Boot Camp for Bad Girls.” There, she meets a trio of unusual girls on an obsessive (and perhaps dangerous) quest for levitation.
Confessions by Kanae Minato (translated by Stephen Snyder): While less cliquey than the other books on this list, Confessions fits the bill because it tracks the intense dynamics between students at a middle school who are somehow adjacent to the death of their teacher’s young daughter. As the story unfolds, the reader finds out what happened to the girl, and witnesses the aftermath play out among the students and adults at the school.
Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl: If you’ve read and loved The Secret History, this is just about the closest read-alike I’ve ever found. Yes, it revolves around a group of students who are drawn to a charismatic professor, but the real highlight is our narrator Blue, whose distinctive voice guides us through the story as mysteries unfold.
Catherine House by Elizabeth Thomas: Another entry in the “dark academia” subgenre, Thomas’ Catherine House follows Ines as she starts her first year at the mysterious school that requires utter devotion from its students.
The Secret Place by Tana French: There are several Dublin Murder Squad books that could fit the bill for this list, but I’m partial to The Secret Place. An unsolved murder at an all-girls’ boarding school leads Detective Stephen Moran into the complex world of Holly Mackey and her friends, who may know more than they are saying about the killer.