I have read and watched some real dreck in the hunt for more Girls Underground stories. The 2017 DTV movie Stickman is not the worst, but there’s not a lot to recommend it either. I am a sucker for creepy spirit creatures who are summoned by unsuspecting children or teens and haunt them to their graves, but…. this one was pretty mediocre and unoriginal. I’m not even going to worry about spoiling it because it’s not worth protecting.

Emma (second Emma in a row!) is in a mental institution for killing her sister and mother as a child, but of course she didn’t do it, it was the Stickman, who was originally invoked by her sister via the standard creepy rhyming poem, and then transferred its attention to Emma once she read that poem aloud. She lives in fear of the Stickman attacking her in her dreams, and must ward him off through drawings each night. (These drawings of the Stickman, scattered throughout the film, are way more interesting and spooky than the actual thing itself, which would have benefited from more suggestive shots and less full-on exposure, being rather uninspired CGI.) Her initial companion is a troubled kid on the ward with her.

When Emma is released to a halfway house, she meets a group of girls who become her new companions, much to their detriment, since when a Girl Underground in a horror movie starts losing her companions, it usually means they die violently. When the meanest of the girls teasingly reads aloud the poem, the Stickman starts coming after all of them, this time in reality instead of dreams. They return to the asylum seeking answers, and discover the full backstory, which includes a retroactive betrayal by that first companion. Eventually left on her own, Emma ends up at the house where it all began, but is robbed of her chance to defeat the Adversary alone, and instead the first companion finishes the job. Which redeems him, I guess (though lots of people are now dead), but doesn’t really give much of a satisfying ending to her story.

I had originally thought the French television series Marianne was my first instance of a titular adversary (as opposed to a titular girl), but looking back I see a few other examples that qualify ( I Am Mother, Candyman, Mr. Frost, and Sweet Miss Honeywell’s Revenge), as well as others that refer to the adversary by title or description rather than proper name (Phantom of the Opera, The Darkangel, The Caller, The Iron King, Soultaker, The Gruesome Green Witch, The Thorn Queen, and my last post The Dark Stranger). Funny how I never noticed that before!

Emma has made a career writing horror novels about an evil witch named Marianne, who has survived death in spirit form to torment others. Over time it is revealed that Emma attempted to summon Marianne in an adolescent ritual, but in fact her connection to the witch goes back much further (though ultimately, in some way, she let Marianne in, even if she didn’t know what she was doing at the time). When Emma decides to stop writing the series and revisits her old stomping grounds, Marianne makes a violent reappearance, taking Emma’s parents and friends one by one in an attempt to force her to write again, thus giving Marianne a stronger hold on the physical world. Emma must rescue her friends, even when they turn against her. At the end, she still has some help in defeating the witch, but ultimately must overcome her in an internal struggle for her very soul.

 

“‘There’s this character, the dark stranger, and it’s like he created himself to lead me.’ ‘Where is he leading you?’ ‘I don’t know, but it’s gotta be better than here.'”

The Dark Stranger, directed by Chris Trebilcock, was uneven at best in terms of writing and acting, but totally won me over with it’s solid GU plot, creative incorporation of comic art, and a huge emphasis on The Power of Story.

Leah is a teenager struggling with mental illness, whose own mother was similarly tormented and committed suicide. She also inherited her mother’s artistic talent (well, we presume – her mother’s paintings in the movie are strangely childish and amateur looking for a supposedly great artist, though Leah’s own graphic novel style is portrayed much better).

After some of her own blood accidentally mixes into her ink, Leah begins falling into fits where she draws an ongoing story without being aware of what she is doing. This story-within-a-story (one of my favorite devices!) is basically a mythologized version of her life, which turns out to be closer to reality than she realizes at first. In it, a shadowy man comes to take the protagonist away to an underground world (which is also a carnival!); this man starts appearing to Leah in her everyday life as well. Blood appears to link them, and as she continues to make art with it, he begins manifesting physically and murdering her allies. But Leah can find clues to what is happening and how to defeat him within the story she is unconsciously creating.

After meeting a man who serves as guide and advisor (and who reveals a long history behind the current events, which connects Leah to her mother’s struggles as well as many other “insane” artists), Leah and her companions are pulled into the otherworld (visualized as if the comic had come to life, which was well done) by the dark stranger. He kidnaps her companions in order to force Leah to finish the story by killing herself. But she claims her own power and volition instead, and writes her own victory.

Watch Hollow by Gregory Funaro is only an Honorable Mention as a GU story, and doesn’t really stand out among them, but was a fun read nonetheless.

Lucy, 11, lives with her brother Oliver and her father, both of whom spend most of their time and attention on their failing business as watchmakers (her mother is dead). One day they get a generous offer from a stranger to come fix the clock in a strange old mansion and live there for the summer. Soon magical creatures are awakening and insisting to Lucy that she is the new caretaker, and that there is a dangerous evil lurking in the woods surrounding the house, called the Garr, who wants to destroy everything. She must rescue an animal companion, and then her brother, and discover the true nature of the Adversary. She never really ends up confronting him alone, though, and overall just doesn’t play enough of a critical role to make it entirely her story.

A Skinful of Shadows is the fourth Frances Hardinge novel I have read (one of the others, A Face Like Glass, was also a Girls Underground book), and they have all been fantastically written and noticeably unique one from the other (unlike many prolific authors who seem to just repeat the same scenarios and environments over and over).

Makepeace is a young woman living during the English Civil War, who is embroiled in a much stranger war of her own, for control of her very body and soul. She comes from a long line of people with a special gift (or curse) – a hollow space inside that can be occupied by spirits. As a child, her mother taught her to ward off the ghosts who tried to get inside her. But an impetuous decision leads accidentally to her mother’s death, and Makepeace is sent to live with the aristocratic family of her dead father, where she discovers terrible secrets behind their wealth and power. As she works to unravel the mysteries and protect herself, she begins to acquire companions – the first is her half-brother James, but the rest are all spirits who come to live inside her, including the ghost of an angry, abused bear who becomes her closest ally once she learns how to coexist with him. (The relationship she has with this animal spirit is profound and complicated and one of the best things about the story, especially as it is communicated entirely without any conversation possible between herself and the bear.)

When James is possessed by ghosts, Makepeace goes on a long and dangerous quest to find a cure, which might also save her someday. There is not one Adversary but a collective of them, manipulative ghosts who have lived forever in borrowed bodies and have set their sights on her next. Despite several painful betrayals, she manages to defeat them all with her cleverness and tenacity – although she never faces them alone per se, since with all the ghosts inside her, she will never be truly alone.

The new movie Gretel & Hansel is, of course, based on the fairytale, but as the re-ordering of the name shows, it places Gretel in a more prominent position and ends up being more of a GU example by far than the original tale.

Teenaged Gretel and her younger brother Hansel are cast out by their half-mad mother (their father already dead), and set off into the forest. Along the way they eat some mushrooms* and spend some time without cares. In the search for a means of survival, they end up at the house of a strange old woman (Holda, a name taken from another German fairytale) whose table is always mysteriously laid with abundant food. They decide to stay with her for a while, and Gretel becomes a sort of apprentice in herbcraft and other arts, while Holda begins to reveal that they are more alike than expected, and encourages Gretel to embrace her inner witch (therefore adding a “temptation by the Adversary” element). But when Hansel goes missing, Gretel rejects everything in favor of saving him (and ends up saving the souls of other lost children as well). She discovers Holda’s true nature, along with the truth about that food she’s been eating (it’s not good news). She defeats the witch, but in the end she may be becoming an adversary herself after all.

While I loved the visuals and a few of the ideas, ultimately I found this movie to be disappointing – a rather weird backstory that didn’t make much sense to me, an off-putting voiceover by Gretel now and then, and too much style over substance. But, I find it fascinating that when people elaborate on the older stories that formed the foundation of the GU archetype, they end up adding elements to make them more fully part of that archetype, possibly without even realizing it.

*The mushrooms, of course, are fly agaric, although they are strangely unrealistic in their appearance. Like so many other media representations, however, this one fails to accurately portray anything about such mushrooms, including how they must be prepared to become psychoactive and not just nauseating (pro tip – do not eat them raw!). For more about fly agaric, see my blog Raven’s Bread.

The Bone Garden by Heather Kassner features a protagonist who struggles, like Alice when talking to the Tweedles, with the fear that she may not be real. Except in Irréelle’s case there’s an especially good reason – she was created by a bone witch from nothing more than bone dust, and the witch keeps threatening to imagine her out of existence if she misbehaves.

Irréelle lives with her creator, Miss Vesper, in a crumbling mansion next to a graveyard. Tunnels lead from her basement into an underground realm below the cemetery, where Irréelle gathers bone dust from skeletons to bring back to Miss Vesper for use in her magic. After a big mistake, Irréelle escapes into the tunnels where she meets (and rescues) another of her Adversary’s creations, and together they work to solve a puzzle in hopes of being freed. But is any real life possible for an unreal girl?

In the final confrontation, Irréelle defeats her Adversary not with weapons or cunning, but with empathy, which was an interesting departure from the norm. Though overall the writing style itself was just average, I agree with one reviewer who said this would make a really great stop motion film like Coraline.

“This is your story. Your adventure. You must enter the Manor and find your father. Only then will the mysteries unravel. Only then will your destiny become clear.”

I picked up The Cradle of All Worlds by Jeremy Lachlan at a paperback sale at the library, quickly discerning that it was a GU story from the cover blurb. However later I discovered that it had also been released with the alternate title Jane Doe and the Cradle of All Worlds (because it is the first book of a series), thereby making it a case of Titular Girls. It turned out to fit the archetype down to very small details, and was quite enjoyable and creative throughout, but was ultimately unsatisfying because it ended on a cliffhanger with no resolution or final confrontation with the Adversary. I hope these will come with the next book (Jane Doe and the Key of All Souls, due in February), but I personally prefer stand-alone books where the story is at least completed to a point, even if it then continues on in a different way in sequels.

Jane Doe, 14, has lived her whole life on an isolated island with her father who cannot speak or interact, where both of them are reviled as cursed by the townspeople. She does not know anything about her past, her mother, or even her own name. She only has one friend, a younger girl named Violet. This island has one notable feature – a magical door into a place called the Manor, which is a sort of meeting place between all possible worlds, created by the gods themselves.

One day Jane receives a secret message that leads her into a trap by a bad man who seems initially to be the Adversary but is quickly dealt with – there are much bigger foes ahead. She discovers a piece of her own history from a local wise woman, who tells her she alone can save the island – but it is so much bigger than that, as she will soon find out. When her father suddenly gains volition and disappears into the Manor, Jane begins a quest to find him and save the world – maybe all the worlds.

Within the Manor she acquires another companion, dodges booby traps, navigates an impossibly labyrinthine and tricksy landscape, learns of the true Adversary, finds more pieces of the puzzle that is her life, is betrayed, finds her father and loses him again, and is almost eaten by monsters. By the end of the book, she is faced with life-changing information that will result, I’m sure, in an ultimate confrontation, but as I said, not yet, not until the sequel (if indeed there is only one and it’s not going to be stretched out for multiple future books).

“Thresholds are dangerous places, neither here nor there, and walking across one is like stepping off the edge of a cliff in the naive faith that you’ll sprout wings halfway down. You can’t hesitate, or doubt. You can’t fear the in-between.”

I had very high hopes for The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow. I had seen rave reviews of it online from authors I highly respected. It appeared to be a Girls Underground story that not only featured a titular girl, but relied heavily on magical portals (my favorite kind of portals!). I was hoping not to be disappointed, as I have been a few times recently with GU books that had all the right elements in theory, but just didn’t possess that spark of Trueness, nor the facility with language that can stop you flat in your tracks to savor a sentence fully before resuming the journey. Fortunately, this book delivered just what I was looking for (and more, since it turned out to also touch upon my favorite theme, the Power of Story… in this case, the power of words themselves to change reality). I don’t think I’ve felt so connected to a book profiled here since my beloved The Hazel Wood (the upcoming sequel of which is a burning brand on the horizon for me!)

“….all stories, even the meanest folktales, matter. They are artifacts and palimpsests, riddles and histories. They are the red threads that we may follow out of the labyrinth.”

January Scaller was 7 years old (just like Alice) when she first opened a Door to another world – but she closed it without venturing further, and as she grew older, she tried to be a proper young woman with no time for magic. But magic is persistent. Now 17 – her mother dead, her father away most of the year searching for relics in service to the man who cares for her – she discovers not only that the Door was real, but that there are many Doors to many worlds, and that she seems to have a special power to open them (as well as other accomplishing other miraculous feats) by writing it as Story. When her father disappears – feared dead – she embarks on a quest to find him, armed only with a curious book that seems to tell the story not only of the Doors, but of something much closer to home. She acquires companions in human and canine form, and Adversaries seem to abound until the greatest foe is eventually revealed.

Companions. See the curve of that C like a pair of outstretched arms? It implied the sort of friends who might slay dragons or go on hopeless quests or swear blood oaths at midnight.” 

Escaping an asylum and pursued by a dangerous cabal with dark intentions, she finds a town of outcasts where she might just fit in…. if her presence doesn’t destroy them first. With no place safe, she desperately searches for the answers to the mystery of her own beginnings, returning at last to that very first Door. After a devastating betrayal, her true Adversary is revealed, and attempts to seduce her to his cause, but in the end, all she wants is to go home – once she can find out where that is, and how to get there. After completing her quest and defeating her Adversary, she finds she has a new mission that is bigger than any of them – and the power and strength to complete it.

“But perhaps–if I were brave and temerarious and very foolish–if I listened to the flat, fearless voice in my heart, so familiar and strange–I could rescue both of us.”

The new film Paradise Hills (dir. Alice Waddington) is much more style than substance (or even, coherence), but the style is fantastic. It was definitely worth watching just for a fun and dazzling scifi/fantasy/thriller, and it was a by-the-book Girls Underground story… but ultimately, didn’t have much to say that hasn’t been said better before. It doesn’t quite look like anything before, though, and that unique aesthetic kept me interested.

Uma is a wealthy girl whose family wants her to marry a man she despises. When she refuses, they send her to a surreal island reform school for uncooperative rich girls, run by a domineering but elegant headmistress (clearly the Adversary right from the start, in classic Red Queen fashion), who employs a cadre of handsome young men to keep the girls in line. Her fellow prisoners become her companions, but she is also joined by her secret lover, who infiltrates the island in order to rescue her. Eventually she discovers they are all being drugged nightly, and that’s just the beginning of it. Once it becomes clear that this place is definitely as sinister as you might suspect, Uma makes a desperate dash for freedom, uncovering many secrets along the way, including a betrayal by one of her companions. In the end she must confront the headmistress, revealing how she is connected to everything (quite literally, in a bewitchingly visualized but somewhat random and undeveloped denouement), and defeat her to make her escape.

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.

The Oracle


THE GIRLS UNDERGROUND STORY ORACLE - tapping into the Power of Story for guidance and insight. Learn more here.

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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