bfdd53926f969f5222951e6fa7311d1aThis is another example of “If the Story Were About Her“. If you watch the first season of the television show American Horror Story from the perspective of the daughter, Violet, it appears to be a Girls Underground story. Warning: SPOILERS ahead, I can’t talk about this without them.

First of all, the entire show takes place in a house, as many GU stories do – an extremely haunted house. In fact, Violet can’t even leave the house by the end, once she has died there (returning to her life as if everything is still normal after that transition mimics the “returning home in the middle of the adventure” trope common to GU stories). She certainly has the classic distant and distracted parents – so much so that they don’t even realize she is dead! When she is dead, her body is literally underground, in the crawlspace below the house.

Violet’s relationship with Tate is the most interesting part. He is both adversary and companion. As a companion, he watches out for her and tries to save her life, and helps her cope once she is a ghost. But as her adversary, he lies to her, tries to control her, and ultimately she must face off against him and banish him (“Go away, Tate!”).

Not quite a full GU example, but worth mentioning.

61g5izigvVL._SL160_The Riverman by Aaron Starmer isn’t a GU book, but it deserves a mention here – and not just because it was so unique and riveting that I was literally unable to put it down, and read it all in a single sitting last night. It isn’t a GU story – but it’s the story of a GU companion, essentially, and provides an interesting perspective on that role.

Alistair, 12, gets a visit one day from a childhood friend, Fiona, who tells him an unbelievable story. Since the age of four, she has been visiting a magical otherworld called Aquavania, where everything is created by the imagination. But there is a sinister threat – a figure called the Riverman has been invading children’s self-created worlds there and sucking out their souls. Fiona fears she will be next.

Alistair never journeys with Fiona, and for most of the book he is doubtful that any of her story is real – assuming instead that it is a cover for a more mundane but still awful trauma. But as things escalate, the horrible truth of the Riverman is revealed, and Fiona disappears, leaving Alistair to figure it all out. I can’t really say  more here without spoiling it, and this is a book that hinges on the mystery, so I will leave it at that.

But what fascinated me along with the plot was to read a first-person narrative by a Girl Underground’s companion, to see him as a protagonist in his own story, with the Girl’s adventures being only related second-hand, and taking a secondary role. And there is no doubt that Fiona is a Girl Underground – the author’s website even gives this description, linking her with several other GUs:

“Fiona Loomis is Alice, back from Wonderland. She is Lucy, returned from Narnia. She is Coraline, home from the Other World. She is the girl we read about in storybooks, but here’s the difference: She is real.”

While I felt that this book stood on its own even with a somewhat unresolved ending (not everything, after all, needs to be neatly tied up in reality), it turns out there are two more books planned, and I will have to give them a shot despite my skepticism about series, since this one was so engaging.

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“But this was the way the world was. It was deeper and stranger and scarier than she’d ever imagined, but it was real. To forget, to give up now, would just be giving in to her fear. And Alice’s father hadn’t raised her to give up.”

The Forbidden Library by Django Wexler is a good illustration of how certain plot elements are essential to a Girls Underground story – without them, it’s not just a matter of the story not “qualifying” by my standards, but it often falls flat when it has all the other ingredients but is missing something essential. This “honorable mention” is missing a strong adversary and final confrontation, and it made the ending quite disappointing for me. (Not surprisingly, I see there is a sequel which drags out the main mystery some more, and maybe will solidify an adversary… but I prefer books that can stand on their own.)

Alice, 12, spies her father talking to a fairy one night, and her entire world is turned upside-down. Not only is reality not what she supposed it to be, but the conversation spurs her father on a trip from which he never returns. Alice is sent to live with an uncle, who is not really her uncle, in a strange house with an even stranger library. She meets a talking cat, and a mysterious boy living secretly in the library, who become companions of sorts, though neither of them very helpful. After being transported into a book and having to fight her way out, Alice is informed by her “uncle” that the world has magic in it, and she has great potential to be a powerful magician.

Alice tries to find out what really happened to her father, but the issue is never resolved. There are several potential adversaries, but in the end it seems no one can be trusted, and it’s unclear who – if anyone – is her primary foe. Therefore, while the book was entertaining enough, in the end it was not particularly satisfying.

51m3bOq-yoL._SL160_“All her life she had longed for something else, for something to take her out of the humdrum world she knew – and now that it looked like it might actually happen, she didn’t have one clue what to do.”

Skulduggery Pleasant (re-titled Scepter of the Ancients in the paperback release) by Derek Landy is the first of a long series, but I have only read the first one – and despite it being a witty, fun book, probably will not commit to eight more of them!

Stephanie, 12, inherits her uncle’s estate, and is immediately attacked for unknown reasons, and saved by a mysterious man who turns out to be a living skeleton (named Skulduggery Pleasant). She discovers a whole hidden world behind the world she knows – filled with magic and strange people, and under threat of war. An evil man named Nefarian Serpine is trying to find a magical, deadly scepter, and thinks Stephanie knows where it is (because her uncle did). He keeps sending his henchmen after her.

Skulduggery is briefly captured and she must rescue him with help from other companions. There is a sort of betrayal by one of them. She briefly returns to home and normality but just as quickly embarks on adventure again (leaving a magical mirror-version of herself in her place to delay discovery). She chooses a new name, and discovers something special about who she really is. Toward the end, they all go underground to stop the adversary from getting the scepter. But in the final confrontation, while Stephanie briefly faces off against Serpine, she does not defeat him alone.

51Kba192q2L._SL160_This one is really just an Honorable Mention, but I’m featuring it because of how influential this series was to me when I was younger – I rediscovered it at the library recently, and realized it was, generally speaking, a Girls Underground story too!

Witch’s Sister is the first of three witch books by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, written in the 70’s. Lynn believes her sister Judith is being turned into a witch by their mysterious old neighbor Mrs. Tuggle. She and her friend Mouse spy on Judith and see all manner of strange happenings, and Mouse begins reading an old book on witchcraft, and matching up the legends with Judith’s actions. It appears that the witches are specifically after Lynn’s baby brother, so like a typical GU she must rescue him. The climax of this particular book happens during a stormy night when Lynn’s parents have gone away, and she is left with the witches to defend her brother. She confronts them alone, and manages to foil their plans. But, things are obviously not over, and the story continues in the following books.

This book features the creepy little cantrip that I loved so much I memorized it, and still use it to this day:

From the shadows of the pool,
Black as midnight, thick as gruel,
Come, my nymphs, and you shall be
Silent images of me.

Suck the honey from my lips,
Dance upon my fingertips,
When the darkness tolls the hour,
I shall have you in my power.

Fast upon us, spirits all,
Listen for our whispered call.
Whistling kettle, tinkling bell,
Weave your web and spin your spell.

61ED-+5hvDL._SL160_“Tonight, young Rosenquist, you will find that some games are real.”

The Twistrose Key by Tone Almhjell is one of those wonderful Girls Underground stories that holds well to the plot points, but still has a unique voice and beautiful story to tell.

Lin Rosenquist, 11, has just moved to a new house with her distracted parents. Her beloved pet – a rescued wild vole named Rufus – has recently died, leaving her all alone. One day a mysterious package is pushed through her mail slot, addressed to Twistrose – her secret name for herself. It contains a key to the cellar of their rented home, and another, more extraordinary key. Going underground to the cellar, Lin discovers that the second key transports her to another world, called Sylver.

Sylver is populated by animals who have died, who were loved in life by a child. Most were pets, but some were wild. Lin is reunited with Rufus, and immediately informed that she was brought to Sylver to find a missing boy, a boy who must create a special gateway between the worlds – necessary for Sylver’s survival, but also Lin’s only way back home. Her entire adventure takes place in one night, although it is long, because time runs differently in a land governed by children’s hearts.

Lin acquires some other companions, although she’s not always sure who to trust, and there is a small betrayal at one point by someone they thought was on their side. The adversary is technically a shadowy figure called the Margrave, but mostly Lin deals with his primary minion, an evil cat, and other supporters. Although her final confrontation with the cat is not really alone, and requires her companion’s help, Lin does manage to find the boy and save the day at the very last minute. On the way there are magical wells, lots of great talking animals, scary trolls, thorn hedges, and other fairytale elements that are familiar and yet still create a distinctive story with characters that stick with you.

519+FRhnN+L._SL160_Storybound by Marissa Burt is one of those books that has all the right elements (it’s even about the Power of Story), but just doesn’t grab me for some reason. Reading the reviews of this book and its sequel, Story’s End, on Amazon, I found several other people who felt the same way. The writing just falls flat here – enough that I am not going to bother reading the sequel, though I assume it ends on a typical GU note since the rest of the story follows the plot points fairly well.

Una, 12, is a foster kid who’s never known her parents, and is an outcast at school. One day in the library basement, she finds a book with her own name in the title, and by reading it is transported to another world (specifically, she begins her journey in some underground tunnels). This place is Story, where all the characters from our favorite tales live. She immediately meets a boy, Peter, and a talking cat, Sam, who figure out that she’s been “Written-In” and is in terrible danger from the powers that be, who have closed off Story to anyone from the outside. Together, they start uncovering a web of lies about Story’s recent past, and pinpoint a set of increasingly dangerous Adversaries – the Tale Master, the mysterious Sorceress he’s working for, and the evil (and inexplicably male) Muse whom she loves, who is trying to come back to Story and take over.

There is no final confrontation with the major Adversary for now, since the story is continued in a sequel. But Una does battle the Tale Master alone, and reveals something important about who she really is.

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“I made myself grow up, and put away childish things. I thought the adult world was a prosaic sort of place where everything was clear-cut, everything was tangible; but it isn’t. It isn’t.”

Prospero’s Children by Jan Siegel hits almost every important GU plot point, and was very engaging… but the author made an abrupt shift in the second half that almost lost my interest.

Fernanda (Fern) is 16 when her family inherits an old house in the English countryside. Her mother is dead, and her father is often travelling and otherwise rather preoccupied, unaware of the strange goings-on that begin immediately. Fern and her companion-brother Will discover a mysterious connection to the lost world of Atlantis, meet a strange old tramp on the moors who knows all about it, and must race to find a magical key before it is used to destroy the world. Fern’s initial adversary is her father’s girlfriend, who is not what she seems. Other than Will and the tramp, Fern is also assisted by a wolf and a house goblin. The first part of the book is one of those GU examples that takes place entirely within a house. There is a betrayal by a companion, and a feint as to who the real adversary is. The initial adversary manages to destroy herself, but opens a crack in the worlds that Fern must journey to fix.

And then suddenly, we are shifted back in time to Atlantis, where our protagonist has forgotten who she is or why she is there, and yet must still fight the larger adversary and save the world. This second part is just as true to the archetype as the first, but it is a bit jarring to suddenly lose track of all the other characters in the story thus far, and have the main character not even know what’s going on. A daring device, which doesn’t entirely work, but I am glad I stuck with it in the end. Fern acquires new companions and helpers, is able to save all the worlds from being torn apart, and has a more satisfying final showdown with the arch-adversary. Against all odds, she is able to return home, although she is very much a changed girl from the beginning of her adventures.

51g5E9YAGrL._SL160_Dreamwood by Heather Mackey is set roughly 100 years ago in a slightly alternate version of the Pacific Northwest. Lucy, 12, has just run away from her boarding school to join her father in his explorations. He is a scientist specializing in clearing ghosts – however while ghosts are acknowledged by most people as real, they have begun to be dispersed by the use of electricity, and his profession is not exactly admirable anymore.

When Lucy arrives in the town of Saarthe, she discovers her father has disappeared into the wild forest of a place called the Devil’s Thumb. Helped along by a mysterious little man in a cottage, and accompanied by a boy named Pete, Lucy sets off in search of her father, as well as a cure for the disease that has been destroying the trees and everyone’s livelihoods.

With the help of a native girl, Lucy and Pete make it to the forest and begin searching for the miraculous dreamwood, a type of tree they believe will cure the rot, and hopefully lead them to her father as well, since he was also searching for it. But the forest is extremely dangerous, and they have to abide by strict rules. A sort of intermediary adversary emerges when Lucy is betrayed by someone she thought was a friend, who even has minions, but he manages to destroy himself without her help, and the real adversary is the last dreamwood tree itself, which has poisoned the forests in vengeance for the settlers’ logging activities.

Lucy ends up having to face the tree alone (although, being a tree, this final confrontation with the adversary is wordless), which has been feeding off her father in order to make its own magic. She makes a painful offering, and in turn manages to save her father and the forest.

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“You are who you are because you forgot who you were.”

The Wall and the Wing by Laura Ruby doesn’t feature a titular girl per se (although she is a “Wall” – you have to read the book to discover what that is), but the protagonist’s name is simply “Gurl” which is interesting in itself.

Gurl lives in an orphanage, abandoned as a baby with no name – so the unpleasant matron simply calls her what she is (no explanation of the spelling). She lives in a world much like our own, but where most people can fly to some degree or another, although Gurl cannot. One night she escapes to explore the city, and discovers two things – a cat (rare in this world) who follows her home, and the startling fact that she is capable of becoming invisible.

Gurl names the cat Noodle (strangely the second animal companion named Noodle I have encountered recently) and hides her away, but the matron captures her and uses her as leverage to make Gurl steal things for her. In the meantime, she begins making friends with Bug, a fellow orphan who discovers her secret. Together they rescue Noodle and escape, helped along the way by a crazy Professor and a mysteriously  helpful stranger. They find out that Gurl is being sought by a gangster named Sweetcheeks (the real adversary, more frightening than the matron) who wants an invisible girl for his crime business. His minions are the rat-like man-creatures who live in the sewers (although they turn out to have an unexpected soft spot).

There appears to be a companion betrayal, but it is complicated and he remains on her side in the end. There is a theme of the orphans forgetting who they are. There is even a “return home” in the middle, although Gurl doesn’t realize it. She does defeat Sweetcheeks, but not really on her own in a final standoff. However, in doing so she discovers her true identity, and her place in the world.

“The traffic flow from folklore to fiction and film has always been heavy.” - Maria Tatar, Secrets Beyond the Door

An exploration of story…

In which I describe examples of the Girls Underground archetype that I have discovered in literature and film. For more information regarding the concept, including its earlier incarnations in fairytales and mythology, visit the pages linked above. Here is a list of all the examples I have covered thus far.

Alice Days

Celebrate one of the primary inspirations for Girls Underground - Alice in Wonderland - with a holiday down the rabbit hole and through the looking glass! Check out the Alice Days page for party ideas, movie recommendations, and more.

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