513UydbkTyL._SL160_They, directed by Robert Harmon, begins with the night terrors of a small boy named Billy in 1983, but quickly fast-forwards to the present day and focuses on Julia, a graduate psychology student who was close friends with Billy and also experienced night terrors as a child. When he comes to her ranting about a vague “they” who are after him (and have been since his childhood), and then kills himself in front of her, Julia is thrust into a nightmare of her own.

She meets other friends of Billy who all had night terrors as children. All start showing strange marks on their bodies that seem to indicate they are about to be collected by the creatures who dwell in the dark. As Julia goes from skeptical to downright scared, she is betrayed by her other companion, her boyfriend, who believes she is simply crazy and tries to drug her so she will sleep. Julia escapes alone underground to the subway, where she seems to be attacked by the creatures, but then is seen to be fighting off normal people who are trying to calm her down.

She ends up in a mental institution, where she is quickly taken by the creatures to their otherworld, unseen by those trying to help her.

This is really only an Honorable Mention, since Julia doesn’t really do anything to propel her into the adventure, nor is there a singular adversary or any kind of real stand-off between her and her demons. However, it follows the plot enough to be worth mentioning here, especially as it’s yet another horror genre example.

61j5Ns+RbgL._SL160_“She felt like one exiled from fairyland – a stranger in a world she didn’t know. It was all sliding away, going faster and faster as she tried to pursue it, to recover the lovely feeling of utter rightness, of unutterable, quiet joy that said without words all is well, everything is in place, this is how it is supposed to be. And then it was all gone beyond recall and the loss and the emptiness were more than she could bear.”

Pig Tale by Verlyn Flieger is a pretty intense GU story, unflinchingly showing the consequences of not belonging in a close-knit society, as well as recognizing the inexorable hand of fate even when it seems incredibly unfair. There are also some wonderful mythological undertones that are never fully explained, which actually gives it a more authentic and ancient feeling.

Mokie (meaning “pig girl” – she was never given a real name) was abandoned in a field as a baby, and is brought up reluctantly by villagers who think nothing of her. She is put to work by the village pig-keeper, who becomes more and more threatening as she transforms from girl into young woman. Her only friend is an unwanted piglet she names Apple and raises herself. 

One day Mokie is attacked in the most brutal way and flees the village. She takes up with a group of gypsies performing at the local harvest festival, but she has seen that they are not actually what they seem, but rather come from the Crystal Country, a sort of fairyland. It has been a bad year agriculturally, and there are hints that a sacrifice must be made in order to ensure better farming, but Mokie is mostly unaware of this. She slowly lets herself become part of the strange folk who take her in, finding a place for herself after never belonging. After an arrest and daring escape, the group wanders for awhile, eventually coming back to the scene of Mokie’s attack, where she recovers her repressed memories. Apple is captured, possibly as the needed sacrifice, and Mokie risks everything to rescue her, but it may be too late for both of them. (Her companions all know more than they can tell her – which from one perspective is a sort of betrayal.) In the end, Mokie’s true origins and nature are revealed. 

There is no clear adversary here except perhaps the horrible pig-keeper, unless one looks at the entire village together as the adversary, since they all collude against her. Considering the final act of sacrifice, that might actually be appropriate. 

“Anywhere there’s an edge, the worlds meet – if you’re in a doorway, or between sleep and waking, or going into a wood or coming out of it – you can touch both worlds….Some people – not many, but some – live their lives right on the edge. They don’t belong to either, but they can see both.”

618VfNZnBUL._SL160_“I was full of this big, blaring feeling of UNFAIR. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. You don’t get involved in magical adventures to lose. Not in books, anyway.”

I read The Bronze King by Suzy McKee Charnas several years ago, before this blog. While I recognized it as a Girls Underground story, I did not remember how perfectly it fits the archetype. And not only because the monstrous adversary actually does dwell underground, in the subway tunnels.

Valentine (or Tina, or Val, or Vee) lives in New York City with her mother, who is mostly preoccupied with her job and meeting new men. One day Val feels an explosion near a subway entrance, and shortly after starts noticing things disappearing – at first small things, but then more significant ones, including a large bronze statue in the park. Unnerved and unsure of what to do, she makes a wish in the manner her grandmother taught her, and soon after an itinerant violinist named Paavo shows up who seems to know all about the strange happenings. He tells her they are due to a force trying to come into this world and devour it (which he calls a kraken, though it is not literally one). They must find the missing statue, which was made to guard the entrance against such monsters. She is also helped by a somewhat annoying boy named Joel, who just sort of falls into being a companion.

Val discovers that she has the key to the door where the statue is being hidden, but is grounded by her mother and cannot leave to use it. Joel tries himself instead of bringing the key to Paavo, which results in him and the key being captured and held by the kraken in the subway tunnels. The kraken’s minions, a group of street thugs, keep getting in the way and attacking them. Val and Paavo go to her grandmother for help, who tells them Val must get the key herself, but leave Joel behind. Scared and looking for a way out of this responsibility, Val goes home briefly but must run away again. Eventually she frees the statue but must face the kraken alone to save the world.

61QdcwjDd8L._SL160_When I read the blurb on the cover of Mercedes Lackey’s The Gates of Sleep, I recognized the general outline of a GU story, but didn’t realize that it would be a re-telling of the Sleeping Beauty tale – which is interesting because the original fairytale isn’t really a GU prototype like many others. This mostly comes down to an issue of volition and confrontation of the adversary – the fairytale protagonist is merely rescued by a prince, whereas Lackey’s character Marina must fight on her own.

Marina comes from a family of Elemental Mages, and she herself has an affinity for the powers and spirits of Water. At her christening, her wicked aunt curses her, and to protect her she is sent away by her parents, to live with their magician/artist friends. She learns magic, but nothing of her own history. As she nears her eighteenth birthday (the deadline of the curse), events occur to force her into the control of her aunt, and she is thrust into a new and unwanted life. Along the way, she makes allies amongst the servants and villagers, and uncovers a larger evil being perpetrated by her aunt and cousin. (As well as, of course, falling in love.) When her aunt finally makes her move, Marina’s friends can help, but she must face her aunt alone in a final, magical battle.

51ZJKSjPLQL._SL160_The Witches’ Kitchen by Allen Williams may be the first Girls Underground example I’ve come across where the girl starts off the story as an animal, and must go through the journey to regain her human form (The Cat Returns and The Old Country both have the girls becoming animals partway through, and The Last Unicorn has the protagonist begin as an animal and get turned into a girl temporarily).

The Toad doesn’t know her name or her past when she finds herself trapped in a magical and labyrinthine kitchen by two evil witches. She is initially helped by an imp there and also picks up several other companions along the way, as she tries to both escape and discover her identity (which, when she does, reveals her to be an orphan among other things). She is pursued by magical creatures in the shape of skeletal birds, sent by the witches to retrieve her for their spell. She encounters a group of spiders whose venom gives her visions of her past life. Eventually she comes to learn that the witches themselves are responsible for her current state. After a betrayal by one of her companions (although against his will), she uses her newly-discovered magical powers to wage a final battle with the strongest witch. The Toad remembers who she is, returns to her natural form, and escapes the kitchen.

(While the writing in this book was somewhat uneven, the illustrations by the author made up for it – it’s worth checking out just for those.)

For over a decade now, I have traced the Girls Underground archetype as it appears again and again in literature, film, television, fairytales, comic books, art and mythology. This has revealed to me not only the power of this particular story, but the power of Story in general. This is not just a metaphor – I believe Story shapes reality itself. Not surprisingly, some of my favorite movies illustrate the sacred role of Story, and I have recently noted this trend and decided to share a brief list here with you all. If you know a movie that should be added to this list, please let me know in the comments.

labyrinth

Labyrinth - the film that started the idea for Girls Underground begins with Sarah reading from a book (probably a play) called Labyrinth, the details of which (down to the dialogue) she then enacts when the real Goblin King comes for her brother.

neverending_story

The Neverending Story – Bastian is given a special book which turns out to be more than just a simple story. As he reads it, he becomes a part of it, and must save the storybook world from annihilation.

lady_water

Lady in the Water – a creature named Story arrives from a mythical world to help a writer achieve his destiny. To save her from danger and return her home, the man caring for her must learn the fairytale from which she comes, and find the right people to act out its sacred roles.

neverwas

Neverwas - Zach’s troubled father wrote a popular children’s book with him as the protagonist when he was younger. Now grown, he finds a delusional man who believes he is a character from the book, and thinks Zach will save his kingdom. However, there is more truth to the story than Zach ever imagined.

big_fish

Big Fish – Will’s dying father has told tall tales about his life as long as he can remember. But not only is there more truth to his wild stories than Will could have believed, it is the power of the story itself that will give his father the finale he deserves.

the_fall

The Fall – a little girl named Alexandria is recuperating at a hospital when she meets a man who begins to tell her a long tale. As her imagination bleeds story into reality, the man’s ulterior motives come to light. However, Alexandria wedges herself into the story, and eventually helps heal the man’s heart.

imaginarium

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus – this is perhaps only an “honorable mention,” but during a flashback it is revealed that Doctor Parnassus was once part of a group of monks who ceaselessly told the stories that kept the world moving. When the devil tries to silence them, the world can survive only if people elsewhere are also telling stories.

31662lzBsML._SL160_In a way, the whole tv series Fringe is a Girls Underground story, but in particular I think the end of season 2 through most of season 3 particularly qualifies. Olivia Dunham is an FBI agent (orphaned, by the way) who gets sucked into working on strange, unexplained cases, assisted by an old mad scientist, Walter, and his reluctant (at first) son, Peter. Over time, she comes to find out that the scientist experimented on her as a child, and that she has special powers because of this. They also discover there is a parallel universe that has become connected to ours, where things are mostly the same, but slightly different, and most of the people in our world have doppelgangers there.

When Peter journeys to the other side on a potentially dangerous mission, Olivia follows him using her unique abilities, hoping to rescue him. While Peter and Walter make it back safely, Olivia is attacked by her double, who then assumes her persona and goes back with the others. Olivia is then stranded in the “otherworld,” kept prisoner by Walter’s harsher double (called “Walternate”), who is her adversary. She escapes and enlists a cabbie for assistance, who eventually goes from hostage to willing helper and companion. But while in captivity, Walternate had been feeding Olivia her double’s memories, and she soon begins to forget herself, thinking she is the Olivia from that world. Being a parallel universe, the “objects from home” theme is everywhere.

Eventually Olivia recalls her true identity, and begins to struggle to get home, constantly thwarted by Walternate. She is also temporarily betrayed by a companion, though he comes around to helping her. In the end, she does not directly confront her adversary in a final showdown, but is able to escape his clutches and return home.

51jIe0IcZdL._SL160_“And rage welled up in her, welled up and spilled over. She almost couldn’t speak, she was so angry….most of all at herself, Maya. Who always came too late. Who always did the wrong thing. Who couldn’t save anyone, not even her brother.”

The Cabinet of Earths by Anne Nesbet introduces Maya, age 12, whose family moves to Paris due to a job offer by the mysterious Society of Philosophical Chemistry, just as her mother is recovering from a serious illness. Along with her new friend Valko, Maya begins to discover a web of intriguing connections between her extended family and the Society. She meets a distant relative who guards the Cabinet of Earths – a collection of old magical bottles that Maya is deeply drawn to. When she discovers the Society’s secret magical substance, she hopes it might save her possibly-still-sick mother. But the head of the Society – the adversary – steals Maya’s little brother before she can try to save her mother, and instead she must rescue him.

Once Maya learns the secret of the Cabinet of Earths, she knows she must destroy it, but the Cabinet tempts her, and she begins forgetting her mission. There appears to be a betrayal by a companion. She may be too late in saving her brother. All seems almost lost when she finally squares off against her adversary, holding his very life in her hands.

51xGZpiS5WL._SL160_666 Park Avenue was apparently a book first, but this is just going to refer to the television show, which is only one season long.

Jane and her boyfriend Henry become the building managers of a luxurious residential hotel in New York City called the Drake, owned by mysterious billionaire Gavin Doran and his wife. Right away, strange things start happening, especially to Jane. She is having weird dreams, seeing things, finding secrets hidden in the basement. While supernatural events are happening to many of the tenants simultaneously, Jane is clearly the focal point, and it is revealed eventually that she has a special tie to the Drake that goes back many years. She begins to unravel its secrets with the help of companions such as a girl who lives in the building (and knows more than she seems to), and a police detective who is called to the scene.

Meanwhile, Gavin is grooming her boyfriend Henry for political office. In fact, it seems Gavin is behind a lot of the creepy things happening at the Drake. It is only clear at the very end that he is indeed Jane’s adversary in a very classic Girls Underground sense (there is sort of an intermediary adversary for a time, but he is defeated before the culmination). However, when offered a devil’s deal in the final confrontation with him, Jane takes a darker route than most Girls Underground.

This is one of those examples of the kind of GU story that takes place entirely in one building, and a very labyrinthine and magical one at that (as there are passages to other places and times within it). While not a great masterpiece, it was definitely better than expected, and had moments of true creepiness.

51jkuE3zh4L._SL160_“She didn’t know where they were going, only that they were driving away from her former life and into a distorted fun-house-mirror version of it.”

Holly Black has made appearances here before with her Modern Faerie series and graphic novels, and now there is The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, a truly original vampire story.

Tana grew up in a world with Coldtowns, places where vampires and those infected with the Cold that creates vampires can be quarantined. Her mother died of the Cold, and her father has been distant ever since. Tana awakes after a night-long party to find all her friends dead, slaughtered by vampires, and her ex-boyfriend infected. She takes her ex, and a vampire who is being hunted by the others, to the nearest Coldtown in an act of desperation. Along the way they meet some more companions, siblings who are headed to Coldtown to try to become vampires deliberately.

Once in Coldtown, several of Tana’s companions are either killed or become vampires, while she waits to see if the injury she suffered in their escape will result in her own infection. Her ultimate goal is just to get home again (although she has an intermediate goal of rescuing a family member when her sister decides to follow her to Coldtown). However, a betrayal by some of her companions (after drugging her), and an unexpected entanglement with the hunted (and very complicated) vampire, interfere with her plans.

The adversary could be seen to be the Cold itself, but also comes in the form of an ancient, elegant vampire named Lucien who threatens what Tana has come to love. Tana does face off against Lucien, but her greatest battle will be with the infection.

“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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