“Now there’s nobody to judge me, to tell me about myself. Nobody to impress, nobody to disappoint. Now is the time I find out who I am.”

Cuckoo Song is the fifth Frances Hardinge book I’ve read, the third profiled here, and hands-down my favorite so far. However, it’s hard to discuss here without spoiling the main premise of the plot, which isn’t fully revealed until about a quarter of the way through, and I love this one too much to do that. But I can say that it has all the important elements of a GU story – an Adversary and his minions, several companions, distant parents, time running out, rescue of a family member, return home in the middle, solitary defeat of the Adversary, as well as a labyrinthine area and a journey, if not underground, upside-down.

Triss (whose name actually changes a couple of times, in one of the most striking evolutions I’ve seen as a Girl comes to understand who she really is), 13, emerges from nearly drowning in a pond with hazy memories not only of that event, but of her entire life before. As she pieces together what happened and why she feels so strange, she uncovers a whole other world beside her own, and a host of dangerous enemies.

This is a weird one even for Hardinge (I noted some Goodreads reviewers had trouble connecting with the character, and her strange proclivities) which is probably why it resonated so strongly with me. You’ll just have to trust me that it’s worthwhile. Especially for those who love fairy folklore (although I don’t think “fairy” is once mentioned, nor is it nearly that simple).

Don’t know how I missed this one so far, but just re-watched Dario Argento’s Phenomena and it totally fits, though with a disappointing ending from a GU perspective. And with the added bonus of featuring Jennifer Connelly, just a year before she would go on to star in Labyrinth. (Her character is also named Jennifer.)

Jennifer is sent to a Swiss boarding school by her absentee movie star father (her mother having abandoned them earlier). One of the first things she learns is that there is a serial killer on the loose, stalking teenage girls. Jennifer sleepwalks, and she also has a psychic affinity with insects. Both of these end up getting her enmeshed in the mystery of the killer, with the help of a friendly local entomologist (and a lot of maggots – this is Argento after all). But they also get her labeled insane by the headmistress, who tries to send her to an asylum. Jennifer escapes and is able to start tracking the killer, but when one of her companions is murdered too, she tries desperately to get back home.

When the Adversary is revealed, there is sort of a one-on-one confrontation (actually, a few of them), but each time someone or something else ends up doing the dirty work, rather than the girl herself. She does however have a very creepy descent underground in the basement of the killer’s house.

(This being giallo horror, it was over-the-top, but the enjoyment of that was made more surreal for me by the fact that the copy I was streaming would periodically switch to the Italian dub version for a little bit, and then suddenly switch back to English.)

 

Well, Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase is certainly a case of a titular girl, though to be fair, all of the Nancy Drew books have her name in the title – for all I know, they often fit a GU theme too (it’s been ages since I read one). But still worth mentioning this adaptation, which was a fun little movie.

16 year old Nancy has recently moved to a small town after her mother’s death. Her father has become involved in local politics and they are both being threatened by a man from the opposition.

When she learns that an elderly neighbor’s house is supposedly haunted, Nancy is on the case, along with her best friends (mostly helping remotely). She finds a secret passageway in the house and various methods that someone has been using to fake the haunting and scare the woman into moving. Meanwhile, her father is abducted. Nancy ties the two together and chases after the Adversary, only to find he has a secret accomplice which constitutes a deep betrayal for her.

On somewhat of a side note, the GU plot element of spending time drugged is expressed here by the use of concentrated nutmeg by the Adversary to disorient Nancy and her companions during their time in the “haunted” house. An odd, obscure choice, and perhaps a dangerous one as the psychoactive effects of nutmeg are real, but the perils of using it are not shown or discussed in the movie. As someone who is generally a proponent of entheogenic exploration, let me just say, do not try this at home. Negative side effects of large doses of nutmeg are severe and definitely not worth it.

Many moons ago, I discovered – via the magic of Twitter – the existence of a “Girl Underground” tabletop role-playing game. The author was kind enough to send me a copy, and I’ve been sitting on this for much too long, but finally got a chance to look it over now that I’ve got more time on my hands! Turns out they were inspired by my work here, but did not realize I had been the one to identify the story archetype originally and coin the term Girls Underground; they thought it was already something known to academia, which to my mind means I’ve done something right.

Now this won’t be a proper review, because I have absolutely zero experience with or knowledge of RPGs and am really not qualified to comment on the construction of such. As much as I love Story, I have never felt myself to be a storyteller even in a collaborative or informal way. But I still enjoyed reading through the playbook and imagining how such a game might unfold.

“Inspired by Alice‚Äôs Adventures in Wonderland, Labyrinth, The Wizard of Oz, Spirited Away and similar tales, Girl Underground helps you tell the story of a curious girl and her strange companions as they travel through a wondrous world, complete a quest, and find the way back home. Throughout the journey, the Girl learns about herself, discovers the values that are important to her, and challenges the world around her.”

As the above quote shows, the game hits most of the major Girls Underground elements, including her growth and transformation as a part of the journey. But there are differences too (as there should be, since they have created their own expression based on the various source materials). I noted for instance that while antagonists can definitely be part of the play, there is no requirement to have one major Adversary, something that is pretty crucial to the archetype as I’ve defined it. I think this may be partly due to it being a PG-rated game with a very positive bent, so perhaps not wanting to dwell on some of the darker or harsher aspects – just like some GU stories are meant for kids or families, whereas others are in the horror genre.

I very much enjoyed the different types of companions they came up with, and can guess at some of the book/film inspirations for them. The locations were also great, including the evocative “Hall of Ten Thousand Masks,” and a bazaar which reminds me of the junk shop motif I’ve noticed in several GU stories. The Girl herself is 12 years old (though you can choose pretty much every other characteristic about her), and that’s prime GU age from my research. She encounters a selection of “Manners” that are basically societal rules of behavior for girls that she will challenge, making this game even more overtly feminist than the general archetype and, I’m sure, a very empowering experience especially for female players (or really, anyone who has had to confront restrictive cultural norms).

In the “Playbook Advice” section, one note for the Girl is: “When she pines for home, show how the wonders of the underground can fulfill her dreams. When she wants to stay, turn up the danger and highlight elements that make her miss home.” I love this as I feel it recognizes the internal conflict so many GUs go through on their journeys, being pulled between a longing for the home they left, and a love of the magical otherworld they have found. Most go home in the end, but will forever leave part of their heart behind in the underground.

You can buy the Girl Underground RPG here.

From time to time I come across something that isn’t really a Girls Underground story per se, doesn’t include nearly enough of the specific plot elements, but nonetheless has a Girls Underground feel to it. Such was Manual Cinema‘s production ADA/AVA. (I was lucky enough to watch it today on the last day they were streaming it for free, but here is the trailer below. I highly recommend it if it becomes available again.)

I saw Manual Cinema’s Frankenstein in person at the end of February and it was stunning. They have a totally unique fusion of shadow puppetry, live acting in silhouette, live music and sound effects, producing a sepia-toned silent film type of experience, but you’re seeing the behind the scenes at the same time as the finished effect. It’s hard to describe, but pretty mind-blowing to watch happen right in front of you.

ADA/AVA is about an elderly woman whose twin sister dies, and her journey into the mysteries of life and death, via a carnival mirror maze. It’s fantastic, both endlessly clever in execution while simultaneously being beautiful and touching. So I dub Ada an honorary Girl Underground (and possibly the oldest one yet!).

Thanks to a reader recommendation, I recently watched the 2016 film The Gatehouse, which despite its low budget and less than stellar acting did tap into some nice folk horror themes and was a solid GU story as well.

Eternity, 10, lives with her father (who in this case functions mostly as a companion), her mother having drowned. They have moved to a strange building that was previously the gatehouse… to something, possibly the forest itself. A monster lives in these woods – or is it a forest guardian, an ancient spirit? Something is killing people, regardless.

Eternity obsessively digs for treasure all over the place, and her mother’s spirit begins to manifest, leading her to uncover a weapon. She wins an ally in her babysitter who has also experienced strange things, and receives guidance from a psychic. Eventually Eternity and her companions discover a secret basement in the gatehouse and venture underground to explore. They think they must prevent the antlered creature from taking the stones that protect the forest, but in the end it is revealed that the real Adversary is human, and Eternity faces off against him alone, and defeats him with the weapon her mother led her to, although she may have lost her father.

(As a side note, this was an okay movie but I just noticed the absurd pull quote on the image here says “All the markings of a Shyamalan epic” which either means the reviewer was on some pretty good drugs, or really doesn’t like M. Night Shyamalan very much.)

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.

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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