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.

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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.

“No matter who I couldn’t save before, no matter if I’m stuck being a random mess of a girl, I’m still going to save something.”

Two great ones in a row! Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter is a creative and powerful reimagining of the Russian fairytale “Vasilissa the Beautiful” (which I am belatedly adding mention of to the Fairytales page). At first I thought the modernization might be overly clever and verging on silly – Baba Yaga running a chicken-footed convenience store in Brooklyn, beheading shoplifters – but that is far surpassed by the genuine understanding of the initiatory themes involved.

Vassa, 16, essentially an orphan (her father ran out in a rather unique way), lives with her stepsisters and a magical talking doll, in a neighborhood where nighttime has gone strange, each night lasting longer than the last. After a fight with her stepsister, she impulsively risks shopping at the aforementioned store. She manages to avoid the axe, but gets stuck in a perilous arrangement with the old witch shopkeeper, where she must complete a series of impossible tasks over three long nights. Running away will transform her into a swan, but staying might get her killed. In the midst of this, she encounters several entities that need her help, all trapped or hurt in some way by the witch. There is a junk room, and a possible companion betrayal, and a brief interaction with “things from home” in the midst of the adventure. The adversary’s minions are severed, animated hands. There manage to be moments of genuinely disturbing imagery along with rather funny parts – if you like gallows humor – and some truly beautiful and tragic characters.

But what really makes an impact is the slowly unfolding transformation, on an emotional level, that Vassa undergoes throughout her trials. As we see flashbacks to parts of her past (even those parts unknown to her), and gain insights into her various magical companions, we gain a deeper understanding of her journey and the sacrifices she must make. While the Girl Underground does not really defeat her Adversary alone as is usually important, I thought this was effective and special enough to qualify nonetheless.

“I’m not clever like the rest – I’m just a bit mad. But maybe a bit mad will do.”

A Face Like Glass by Frances Hardinge was one of the more compelling and original GU novels I’ve read lately. She has created a fantastical and complex world that somehow still seems believable – an underground city, appropriately enough, where miracles are crafted by treacherous nobles who survive by subjugating an underclass, and where the cartographers who must comprehend and track the twisting, multi-leveled, half-magical passages below the earth are driven mad with a mystical knowledge that is contagious just by talking with them. Really fascinating stuff!

Neverfell, 12, is an orphan and suspected outsider to this place, called Caverna. While every other inhabitant learns from birth to control their facial expressions into a limited and artificial range, Neverfell’s face shows what she is feeling, and for that she is feared and ogled. After escaping the tunnels where she had been kept safe for years (funnily enough by following a white rabbit), she begins an adventure with many ups and downs as she unravels the mystery of her origins while contending with the confusing and untrustworthy Cavernans she meets. She acquires several companions, but is betrayed more than once. She encounters several potential Adversaries, but the true ones may be hiding in plain sight. She is a pawn in a dangerous game, but manages to take control of her destiny after all, and not only defeats her opponents but rescues hundreds of virtual slaves and changes the future of the world forever.

A Cure for Wellness is a movie with a lot of potential to be something truly original and creepy, and it has some stunning visuals, but ultimately it was very disappointing for me, especially in the last third or so of the film. I kept thinking it was becoming a pale copy of Phantom of the Opera, and was gratified to see a reviewer point out the same thing. However, perhaps that is an even more apt comparison considering the Girls Underground angle.

This is one of those “If the Story Were About Her” situations – I didn’t notice it at first, but if one imagines the whole scenario from the point of view of Hannah (who doesn’t even appear to be a major character initially), it’s at least an Honorable Mention. Dr. Volmer is the Adversary, of course, who she defeats, and Lockhart is her companion, who even betrays her in a way by succumbing to the waters. The climax takes place underground, and almost the entire story happens within one “house” (okay, a large sanitarium, but a nicely labyrinthine one at least).

“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.

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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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