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Buy ‘The Secret History’ by Donna Tartt -The Ultimate Cult Novel

Updated on November 5, 2015

A Modern Gothic Horror

Creative Commons licence
Creative Commons licence | Source

The Secret History

Photo credit: Aleksej1990 (Public domain/Wikimedia Commons)
Photo credit: Aleksej1990 (Public domain/Wikimedia Commons)

‘The Secret History’ is the first novel by Donna Tartt, initially published in 1992. It pretty much caused a sensation on first publication, and even all these years later it’s not too hard to see why. It follows the tale of the college experience of Richard Papen, an undergraduate who has transferred to a small exclusive private college after dropping out of a medical degree. He becomes fascinated with a small, snobby clique who are Classics majors, and by hanging around them almost accidentally transfers into their department as well as becoming part of their group. This is easier said than done: their tutor, Julian, has an elite mentality and is initially reluctant to allow him to join the group. Richard gets around this: but rather through charm of manner and engineered social connections, rather than academic prowess.

Cliques, Cults and Student Misbehaviour: The Secret History

Even as part of the group, as time passes he still doesn't really feel at ease with them or fully accepted. He begins to feel that something odd is going on: the least intelligent member of the group, Bunny, appears to have some strange kind of hold over the rest of them. It seems he can command them to lend him money or do his bidding, as he wills, and they unwillingly comply. This isn't due to any magnetic charm of manner: Bunny's behaviour is boorish and charmless, including to Richard.

But Richard has other things to worry about. Despite posing as a Hollywood blueblood with glamorous starlet parents, he is actually from a humble bluecollar home. His parents do not support him financially, and when winter break comes he is on his own, with neither job nor income. Too proud to ask his new friends for help, he finds free lodgings but they are far from ideal. When he falls seriously ill, Henry, one of his new friends, discovers him and takes him to hospital, probably saving his life.

This key incident may be what cements his loyalty to the group. That loyalty, when he discovers they plan to flee the country, is what prevents him handing them over to the authorities, despite it being clear that something is very wrong.

Credit: nadbasher Flickr/Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic
Credit: nadbasher Flickr/Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic

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Mayhem and Murder In The Dorm?

He suspects that the 'something' is murder. And he isn't wrong. When the group's flight plans break down and they admit the truth to him, he is appalled but unsurprised. And Bunny's behaviour is explained: he is implicitly blackmailing them.

Soon Bunny's death begins to seem inevitable: and as soon as it seems that way, it is. Consequences unravel from there, and so do the group, including Richard.

This is a fine, fine novel, emotionally satisfying, the kind of intense, dream-like experience that causes you to gasp for air when you come up from being submerged in it. You look around dizzy, and realise that, oh yes, here is real life, allegedly. Not there in the pages of the book.

The only flaw is the character – or non-character – of Julius. Never in literature will you have come across such a cipher. He makes me think of a Zelig: a man popping up at crucial points in history, and utterly devoid of personality. Perhaps this is intentional: but it's hard to see how this offensive mass of phoney pretension and inauthenticity inspires such devotion in this unhinged little group. This is more especially the case when you consider that this devotion is of the type that leads to cult-like manslaughter and murder.

Perhaps the point is that these fiercely intelligent, emotionally immature adolescents need only the flimsiest excuse, the most gimcrack plastic hook to hang their posturings, dreams and passionate, desperate homicidal schemes from. Julian in the end is incidental. The secret history of the secret clique is what is key.


Kakutani, M. 'Books of The Times; Students Indulging In Course of Destruction'. 04/09/1992 (31/10/2009). <>

Photo credit: nadbasher


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    • Ollie Hicks profile image

      Ollie Hicks 8 years ago

      I totally agree, WestOcean. I also like 'Dusty Answer' by Rosamond Lehmann - very dreamlike.

    • WestOcean profile image

      WestOcean 8 years ago from Great Britain

      This is a great novel and surely one of the most claustrophobic and gripping college novels ever penned.