We’re excited to reveal the cover for Victoria Lee’s A Lesson in Vengeance, a dark atmospheric thriller about a boarding school haunted by its history of witchcraft—and two girls dangerously close to digging up the past.
Author Victoria Lee also sat down to talk with us about the novel, from its overlap with the Dark Academia genre to her joy in writing female villains.
Witchcraft is woven into the Dalloway School’s history. The school doesn’t talk about it, but the students do. And most memorable of all is the Dalloway Five–five students who all died mysteriously one after another, who some say were witches.
Before her girlfriend’s tragic death, Felicity Morrow was drawn to the dark. But after a year away from Dalloway’s ivy-covered campus, she’s determined to leave all that behind her, focus on her senior thesis, and graduate. Only it’s hard when Dalloway’s occult history is everywhere. And when the new girl won’t let her forget.
It’s Ellis Haley’s first year at Dalloway, and she’s already amassed a loyal following. A prodigy novelist at seventeen, Ellis is eccentric and brilliant, and Felicity can’t shake the pull she feels to her. So when Ellis asks Felicity for help researching the Dalloway Five for her second book, Felicity can’t say no. Given her history with the arcane, Felicity is the perfect resource. And when history begins to repeat itself, Felicity will have to face the darkness in Dalloway–and in herself.
Victoria, you have a well documented love for The Secret History and the Dark Academia genre. What were the most important elements of dark academia that you wanted to carry into your own work?
A frequent theme in dark academic literature is that of the thin line between obsession and madness. I just completed my Ph.D., so I can tell you firsthand that mental illness is disproportionately high among academics. When you’re at that level of education, there’s a lot of pressure to succeed, and your success can feel like it’s directly proportional to how much time and happiness you sacrifice to your research. Research, by the way, that’s usually about the tiniest sliver of a sliver of a subject—and that’s the topic that becomes your entire world. So the fact that dark academic media seems so concerned with the overlap between intellectual obsessions and mental illness rings true for me. I wanted to explore that in A Lesson in Vengeance. When is obsession just obsession, and when do we take obsession too far? When do we ignore mental health problems because we perceive them to be part and parcel of academic pursuit—the price you pay for passion?
Dark academia also has a very particular aesthetic. You know what I mean: elbow patches, glen check blazers, old books, ink-stained fingers and late-night poetry readings. I wanted to luxuriate in that, of course, just for the hell of it, but I also find that the dark academic aesthetic is incredibly androgynous. That makes for fertile ground to explore gender, to play with what it means to be female, to be female and perform femininity versus being assigned female at birth but not conforming to femininity—dark academia makes space for more fluid gender considerations. There’s also a tradition of queer normativity in dark academia; it’s difficult to think of a work from the dark academic canon that doesn’t have some kind of queer representation. As a nonbinary author that was particularly fun for me.
There’s also themes within dark academia of elitism and narcissism and a culture of bourgeois apathy/exceptionalism that I wanted to work through with A Lesson in Vengeance. A lot of dark academia deals with the banality of evil—how wealth and privilege make people oblivious to the moral impact of their actions in a kind of twisted moral solipsism; the rest of the world feels to the bourgeois narcissist like a stage, society nothing but set dressing and actors performing for their entertainment. I love character-driven books, I love villains and antiheroes and people doing good things for bad reasons (or bad things for good reasons); the inherent moral ambiguity of dark academia is so interesting to me.
Finally, I feel like dark academia has a unique way of playing with implausibility. The scenario set up in The Secret History, for example, is delightfully implausible, but dark academia loves to take the absurd and make it seem possible—not just possible, but real. Since A Lesson in Vengeance is at its heart still a work of speculative fiction, despite the trappings of a psychological thriller, the structure that dark academia provides for blurring those lines between reality and fiction was perfect. Especially since I wanted to use the story to talk about female grief and mental illness, with a main character who is constantly questioning her reality, I needed a genre that would let me set the reader, too, at a disadvantage. In dark academia, everything is melodramatic to the point of absurdia. It’s ideal for messing with readers’ certainty over what’s real and what isn’t.
Why was it important for you to include discussions of your characters’ sexuality—and in particular, queer sexuality—in your narrative?
On the sensual note…yes, there is a scene like that. It’s important to me to include sex scenes in YA books that are accessible for teens. Many teens do have sex, after all, queer teens especially have been excluded from those kinds of narratives in YA literature for so long. Often times queer romances end up sanitized and chaste, as queer sexual interactions are hypersexualized and eroticized through the straight gaze in a way that heterosexual sex isn’t. This is especially true for lesbians, bisexual girls, pansexual girls, and other women who love women. Feminine sexuality is punished and censored, and queer female sexuality doubly so. Even today, many queer books are excluded from school and library collections due to their “inappropriate content,” despite the most explicit sexual content being some light kissing. It was important to me to have a sapphic sex scene on the page in A Lesson in Vengeance, while of course still keeping the content appropriate for the target age group. Queer teens deserve that.
You’ve mentioned before that neither of your protagonists are really “good” girls. What was the most exciting part of that to write?
All of it? Can that be my answer?? No? Okay then.
Honestly, I love female villains—and female bad girls, unlikable girls, cruel girls, antiheroines, and so on—a lot, partly because society tends to conflate femininity either with gentility and passivity, or with an unstable, erratic pure-emotional state. But to be a proper villain, or a proper bad girl of any stripe, one must have agency. Neither Ellis nor Felicity are passive in their story. They don’t always make good or selfless decisions. They are selfish and shortsighted and obsessive and sometimes callous. All of us have the capacity to do both good and bad things, even if we believe ourselves to be perennially honest, upstanding, morally righteous social citizens.
Sometimes I think that even within the kindest of us, there sleeps a secret monster that could be unleashed. It just takes more or less intense circumstances for the monster to awaken. That’s something Ellis talks about in A Lesson in Vengeance, as well—the question of whether a quiet, banal evil exists in all of us, and we just have to hope we never find out what it would take to bring our evil to the fore.
What AO3 tags would you give this novel?
Dark Academia (obviously!), Unresolved Sexual Tension, Catskill Mountains, Mental Health Issues, Dubiously Accurate Witchcraft, Ellis Haley Logic, Slow Burn, Bad Relationship Exemplars, Poetry Lesbians, Ill-Advised Decisions Involving Ouija Boards and Skulls, Ghosts, Let’s Pathologize Female Anger
Without giving away spoilers, is there a scene or character that you’re really excited for readers to experience?
Two scenes: one happens in the woods, and one happens in a graveyard. I think those are the scenes I spent the most time mulling over pre-writing (and devoted the most playlist songs to). They’re also the most Aesthetic (with a capital-A).
What will fans of the Feverwake series enjoy about A Lesson in Vengeance?
They’re very different books in a lot of ways—the Feverwake series is sci fi, of course, and Noam’s voice is a lot grittier and snarkier. It’s also a very male-centered book. A Lesson in Vengeance, on the other hand, is a gothic dark academic suspense with a more poetic, flowery prose—and all the characters are either female or nonbinary. But there are some similar themes, as well. Both books deal a lot with mental illness, grief, and handling toxic relationships (both familial and romantic). All my books end up being super character-driven, so people who were drawn to the characters in my previous books will probably also enjoy A Lesson in Vengeance for the same reason.