“As I dropped, my mom’s words flashed through my mind: Wherever we’re together, it’s home. I was finally on my way to get Mom back, and in some strange way, it felt like I was going home.”

I immediately knew that Hyacinth and the Secrets Beneath by Jacob Sager Weinstein was likely to be a GU story just from the title. Not only a titular girl, but a reference to the underground (like these)! It also happens to be the third GU book I’ve encountered which is set in a magical version of London (the others being Un Lun Dun and Neverwhere).

Hyacinth, 12, comes to spend a summer in London with her flaky, distracted mother, who grew up there. One day she innocently attempts to merge the separate faucets for hot and cold water and things turn weird – a magical drop of glowing water escapes, and monsters made of dirt appear and kidnap her mother in order to force Hyacinth to recapture the drop before it causes too much trouble. Fortunately, an old lady who lives in the building seems to know all about this strange magical water and helps Hyacinth, leading her underground where secret magic rivers flow beneath the city (unfortunately for Hyacinth, mostly through the sewers).

SPOILERS They make good progress, even avoiding a dangerous boy and giant boar, and have found the drop and are close to finding Hyacinth’s  mother, when everything is turned on its head. In one of the most severe companion betrayals I have encountered, the old lady is revealed to be the Adversary, and Hyacinth discovers that the monsters weren’t really all that bad, and the boy and boar were not dangerous and in fact become her new companions. Now she must stop the lady from gaining more power and possibly destroying the world, which also entails rescuing her mother (whose blood is a crucial ingredient in a dark spell). The final showdown, often a magical battle, in this case also involves a knife fight.

Looks like there’s already a sequel coming out with a new adversary for Hyacinth.

The Eye of the North by Sinead O’Hart makes a promising start as a Girls Underground premise, but ultimately only registers as an Honorable Mention due to the fact that most of the time, she is separate from her “companions,” and the lack of a definitive one-on-one showdown with the Adversary (in part because there are too many Adversaries!).

Emmeline’s world changes one day when her distant, negligent parents disappear, presumed dead, and she is shipped off to Paris to live with a relative. On the boat there, she encounters a plucky street kid named Thing, who becomes a companion of sorts, though they are soon separated and he goes on a parallel journey toward the same goal. Emmeline discovers that her parents were involved in a secret organization, attempting to thwart a madman who is trying to raise the kraken from the northern ice so he can control it and rule the world. She encounters allies and many new adversaries (each also trying to gain control of the kraken) as she repeatedly escapes and is recaptured on her way to rescue her parents. There is a moment at the end where she realizes that she has the power, but overall I still felt that it wasn’t quite a full GU story. Entertaining, but a bit too much going on as well, so many interesting concepts (like the Northwitch, made of ice) were not fully explored.

“The writing on the chamber under her heart said, I knew it would come to this.”

Summer in Orcus by T. Kingfisher is one of those rare gems that manages to both follow the classic GU tropes perfectly and still have something original and beautiful to say. Also, it’s the second story I’ve covered to have a protagonist named Summer!

Summer, 11, lives with her extremely anxious and overprotective mother. In fact, interestingly enough, while usually a Girl Underground is either an orphan or has distracted, unavailable parents, the opposite seems to end up having the same effect – Summer’s mother is so overwrought with worry that she isn’t really connecting at all to her daughter, and is effectively no better than a totally uninvolved parent.

One day Baba Yaga’s chicken-footed hut ambles past Summer’s back yard, and the witch sets Summer off on an adventure the girl had always longed for, but never fully understood. She is transported to another world, Orcus, where animals talk and wear waistcoats (and sometimes turn into houses), and where – of course- something horrible is eating away at the magic, something only Summer is capable of fixing.

As she accumulates companions and gains help from strangers along the way, she is also hounded by a horrible, destructive man and his minions for no reason she can discern. This time the adversary is not cartoonishly evil like many, but perplexingly unattached to the havoc he wreaks (which I found to be an enjoyable and somewhat more believable departure from the usual villains). She does, however, have a final confrontation, almost entirely alone – and while she doesn’t manage to save everything, she saves what she can, and it’s enough to start the healing process for Orcus.

There’s so much magic in the details of this story, and in the telling, that I am loathe to try to capture it here and suggest instead that you just go read it!

Although only available as an e-book (a shame, as I much prefer reading on paper over reading on a screen), it is also up for free in serialized form here.

Beyond the Walls is a three-part French miniseries (basically the length of a longish movie) that follows the journey of Lisa, an emotionally shut-down woman who inherits a house from a mysterious stranger. This is possibly the best GU story I’ve encountered that takes place entirely inside a house. It is both creepy and emotionally powerful, and I like how Lisa is consistently strong in spirit, unable to be swayed by fear or temptation.

After hearing weird noises coming from inside the walls, she smashes through and finds herself in a labyrinthine, windowless, endless house – mostly empty but for the occasional terrifying once-human monsters called Others. She eventually runs into a single companion, Julian, who has been stuck in the house for years – though for him, it’s 100 years ago (time is strange in the house). It becomes apparent that those who end up in the house are struggling with some kind of deep guilt, and if they can’t face it they eventually become the Others. After many trials, Lisa finds a door that leads to a forest (though still, somehow, inside the house) and is reunited with the little sister she lost (partly due to her own negligence), who is living in a cottage by a lake with a mysterious older woman named Rose. It is always day there, always pleasant, and both Rose and her sister want her to stay there forever. But Lisa is not fooled by this charade and eventually finds her way back into the house proper to search for Julian, who she became separated from in the forest. They fall in love but realize they could only be together if they stayed there. Instead, they decide to pursue a return to the outside world, and venture down, down, down to the basement where a giant vortex-like hole leads to parts unknown. Rose reappears to try to tempt Lisa into staying, but instead she makes a leap of faith.

Today on a whim I decided to go through my list of GU examples I’ve covered so far, looking only at the books, and count how many were written by male versus female authors.

A quick tally shows a 3:1 ratio of female authors over male.

This isn’t exactly surprising, for a story type that focuses so much on girls’ journeys, but I do wonder how that stacks up againstthe larger world of fiction (and in particular the fantasy, YA, and YA fantasy subgenres). Has anyone done any studies on what percentage of authors write main characters of their same gender? I’d be curious.

It’s hard to talk about And the Trees Crept In by Dawn Kurtagich, especially in regards to whether or not it’s a Girls Underground story, without entirely spoiling it, which I don’t want to do – this one is worth reading without any preconceptions. It’s a wonderfully gothic, disturbing, claustrophobic tale told in creative ways, that actually creeped me out in places (not easy to do, I’m getting more jaded to horror as I grow older).

Silla, who starts the story at 14, escapes her abusive father with her 4-year old sister in tow, and shows up on the door of her aunt’s crumbling mansion. But what she doesn’t know is that her aunt has a childhood secret that may threaten them all, involving the summoning of a dark spirit they call the Creeper Man. When her aunt goes mad and retreats to the attic, and the forest outside begins to edge ever closer to the house, cutting them off from any outside help (or food), Silla must battle her own inner demons to rescue herself and her sister. Her only companion is a mysterious boy who comes and goes, and may not be what he seems.

This is one of those GU sub-types that entirely takes place in a house (even when that house slowly becomes part of a forest), and uses that very effectively. When the final confrontation with the adversary comes, everything is turned on its head – but even though it takes an unusual approach to the archetype, I think it still fits. Also, this is a nice twist on the general trend for GU books to be YA fantasy and GU movies to be adult horror, since this is a YA horror book.

The Crooked Sixpence by Jennifer Bell is a pretty by-the-book GU story, though I have to say, the much larger text on the cover proclaiming it as part of a (brand new) series, The Uncommoners, made me wince a little, as I’m getting kind of tired of every book for YA/intermediate readers being part of a series. Just seems like publishers only want a new hot property, something familiar and easy to market and with built-in sequels – the next Harry Potter, or (cringe) Twilight – rather than a book that might actually have something unique to say (and something it can say in a single volume).

Ivy, 11, is living a normal life with parents who are fairly preoccupied with their careers, and her older brother Seb, when her grandmother (whose past has always been a mystery, due to amnesia) is injured one day and everything falls apart quickly. Strange people break into her grandmother’s house, lurk at the hospital, and pursue her and Seb, until a boy shoves her into a suitcase that turns out to be a portal to another world – called Lundinor – which is essentially a large, periodic market. But what this market trades in is unusual, or rather Uncommon – everyday items that are possessed by a part of a dead person’s soul, and can do amazing things. Bells give directions, belts make you fly, yo-yos are weapons.

Ivy discovers that this society of Uncommoners is threatened by a dark cabal called the Dirge, which is connected to her family. When her parents are captured by the Dirge, she and Seb (along with a couple Uncommon companions, both object and human) must unravel the mystery of their grandmother’s past to save their family and the whole of Lundinor. In the process, Ivy discovers she is special even by Uncommon standards. With time running out, she finally uncovers the main adversary, and confronts them on her own.

As Above, So Below is really only an Honorable Mention as a Girls Underground film, especially as there is no singular defined Adversary, but considering how very underground it is, I felt it fitting to include here.

Scarlett is on a mission to finish her late father’s scholarly work on the philosopher’s stone, which brings her on a quest through the Paris catacombs with several companions. But down in the deep below, all of their fears and past tragedies come back to haunt them, in a very material form. Hidden doors appear while others vanish just after being used. They end up trapped in a labyrinth of chthonic tunnels, and not many make it out alive. But in the end, Scarlett finds the magic she was looking for.

 

“I’m the only one who matches you… who challenges you… who’ll do anything for you.”

The new Jessica Jones tv show from Netflix is not only a GU story but very reminiscent of several other prominent GU examples. (I have not read the comic books on which it is based, so do not know if this extends to them as well.)

Jessica Jones is an orphan who, after an accident as a teenager, developed super strength. As an adult, she has become a hard-drinking, pessimistic mess – in fact, she really reminds me of the grim, alternate-world Buffy on Buffy the Vampire Slayer had she lived to grow up and become a PI in the big city. Especially because both of them have experienced extreme trauma at the hands of an adversary – in Jessica’s case, a man named Kilgrave with the power to control people’s minds. Jessica must rescue various companions/friends as Kilgrave plays a drawn out cat-and-mouse game with her. There is a betrayal by a companion more than once (although not really their fault, due to the mind control issue). There is also a really creepy and elaborate “return to home” in the middle of the story, when Kilgrave meticulously reconstructs her childhood home and brings her there to live with him.

Her relationship to her adversary very much reminds me of Sarah and Jareth in Labyrinth – especially from Kilgrave’s perspective. His speech to her in the police station, where he finally reveals his feelings and intentions, echoes Jareth’s statement that “everything I’ve done, I’ve done for you.” They both express desire in a way that seems like torment to the object of that desire. And when Jessica temporarily manages to isolate him and his abilities, she is expressing that he has no power over her.

She does eventually defeat him, through cleverness, in the final showdown. By then it was necessary, but I kind of wish she had made a different choice back around episode 7 or 8. Of course, I have a soft spot for certain kinds of adversaries.

I just re-watched The Girl With All The Gifts (so good it merited a second viewing), and decided it qualifies as at least an Honorable Mention as a Girls Underground story (there’s a lot more going on in this film, so the GU aspect is somewhat secondary). However, can only give some broad strokes here as any more would be spoilers.

Melanie, an orphan (though from causes more grotesque than normal), is locked in a military base, but makes friends with a teacher and eventually also some of the soldiers, who are her companions. The adversary is the doctor who wants to dissect her brain for a cure to the zombie outbreak. She has to navigate a post-apocalyptic world (made even more otherworldly, I’m sure, by the fact that she’s probably never been outside of that base before), and try to rescue her friends. She has a final confrontation with the adversary that is very much a “you have no power over me” situation, and discovers her destiny to be something More.

“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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