“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.

How could I resist picking up a copy of Time of the Witch by Mary Downing Hahn? I spied it in a library sale (one dollar!) in all its 80s teen supernatural pulp fiction glory, complete with wonderful cover illustration. I wasn’t expecting much, and I was right, but it was a fun diversion for a couple hours.

12 year old Laura has just been dumped at her aunt’s house in the boonies for a whole summer, with her little brother, so that their distracted, soon-to-be-divorced mother can focus on getting back into school and the workforce. The only interesting part of this very small town is Maude, an old woman with a pet crow who may just be a real witch. Despite the misgivings of everyone around, including her new friend Wanda, Laura decides to approach Maude for help – she wants to get her parents back together. But it turns out that Maude has a complicated backstory with Laura’s family, and her motivations are not what they seem. Laura gets what she wishes for in the most horrible way, and then must race against the clock to undo it – and to save her brother, who has been caught in the web. She enlists the help of a former magical student of Maude’s who is now more of a “white light” sort of practitioner. Unfortunately, this means that in the final showdown, Laura herself only plays a supporting role and doesn’t really defeat the Adversary all by herself. She does, however, learn a valuable growing-up sort of lesson about the way of the world, which is typical for these versions of the archetype.

Just stumbled upon this fantastic video showing an unboxing of my Girls Underground Story Oracle by Sparkle Divine Tarot (one of my Kickstarter supporters – thank you!). Watch it if you want to get a better idea of what the cards are all about!

ETA: Another video from the same creator (below) includes the Girls Underground Story Oracle in her Top 5 Oracle Decks of 2018! Mine is the first one reviewed, take a look –

Sometimes I find my way to GU books via a circuitous route. Awhile back I saw a reference to The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken and realized it was a classic of children’s literature that I had completely missed, so set out to rectify that. While plucking it off the library shelf, I noticed nearby another book in the series by the same author, called Is Underground. Obviously the “underground” caught my eye, and I was even more excited once I realized that “Is” was the name of the main character, who was therefore a titular girl. So clearly this book had to come home with me too!

I devoured Wolves quickly and enjoyed it a great deal, and it was quite nearly a GU story itself, with a double-protagonist, although ultimately I felt it didn’t quite qualify. Then I moved on to Is Underground. This one is more definitively GU, although sadly it lacks a satisfying final solitary confrontation and defeat of the adversary.

Is, an orphan living with her sister, one day encounters her dying uncle who begs her to search nearby London for his missing son (her cousin). Once there she discovers that many other children are missing, including the king’s own son. After receiving a mysterious invitation to board a train bound for “Playland” and a supposed life of fun in the North, clever Is realizes it must be related and plays along, only to escape before the rest of the children disembark (and are taken directly to a life of slavery working in the mines). She discovers that there is a whole town built underground here, populated by child slaves, evil guards, and somewhat oblivious wealthy adults. She also discovers that she has more distant family members here, who try to help her in her search for her cousin, the king’s son, and some solution to the evil being wrought. Yet another family member, her own uncle, is the Adversary, who has set himself up as a king in this wasteland.

Is eventually ends up voluntarily working with the other children in the mines in order to figure out how to save them. She discovers a hidden talent, as well as a prophecy circulating that seems to indicate she is destined to help. She finds one of the two boys she was looking for, and manages to rescue most of the enslaved kids, with some help. In the end, her Adversary is destroyed, but not directly through her own actions.

No End House is the second season of the horror anthology series Channel Zero. It tells the story of Margot, a teenager whose father recently died, who decides to try out a mysterious new haunted house with her friends. This house appears out of nowhere at various places around the country, the only warning being hints and rumors online. An urban legend says that those who make it to the 6th room are never heard from again.

It’s hard to really discuss the GU plot points here without major spoilers, so suffice it to say that there is a big companion betrayal, a revelation of the true adversary, a period of forgetting herself, a return home in the middle of the journey, and of course a labyrinthine house! Overall, it was a refreshingly new take on the haunted house trope, and featured some truly creepy moments both inside and outside of the house (or perhaps, inside and further inside, depending on how you look at it).

Tigers Are Not Afraid (original title: Vuelven) is a beautiful but painful tale told with a fantastic touch of magical realism that also turned out to be a good Girls Underground example.

Estrella is a girl living in a Mexican city which has been destroyed by drug cartels. Her school is shut down after a shooting, and her mother has disappeared, most likely killed by the gangs (the fact that her mother keeps appearing in haunting visions cements the idea that she is now a ghost). No friendly or helpful adults seem to exist in her world – she is more alone that even most other Girls Underground.

Estrella falls in with a small group of orphans living on the streets, one of whom has recently stolen a gun and phone from a major player in the gangs. When the gang retaliates and kidnaps one of the orphans, it is Estrella who is sent in to rescue him, which she does, granting her a firmer place in the group. But eventually it is revealed that she was not the one to shoot the kidnapper, and her friends turn their backs on her.

Guided by visions of dead people, and now certain that her mother is among them, Estrella leads a final charge against the gang and its dangerous leader. With all her friends either killed or escaped, she alone descends into a room filled with the bodies of the gang’s victims, and lures the leader inside where the ghosts take their revenge.

This is one of the more dark and violent versions of the archetype I have seen, reminiscent in many ways of Pan’s Labyrinth, which also used the very real horrors that humans inflict upon each other as the setting for a lone girl’s dangerous journey.

“They will all abandon you. All you have left is my desire for you.”

I’ve covered a lot of horror movies (and a few books) here, because it seems to be a frequent genre for Girls Underground stories, especially those featuring an adult protagonist (and as I’ve mentioned before, these “girls” often have much darker fates than their younger counterparts, which will be confirmed by this current entry). I’ve profiled some of the classics of the genre, but somehow entirely missed the 1992 original Candyman (a sequel is in the works, which will be especially interesting considering the director Jordan Peele has already made one GU movie), even though it fits perfectly. Doubly negligent on my part since Candyman has long been one of my favorites (can anyone resist Tony Todd’s velvet voice beckoning to “be my victim”?), and I found on a recent re-watch that it has held up well over the years.

Helen is a graduate student studying urban legends, and one night invokes the titular boogeyman as a game, making the crucial mistake that sends her into the otherworld – both in the sense of embroiling her in the history of this phantom killer, and in the sense of stepping into a dangerous crime-ridden housing project, far from familiar territory. Her companion is her fellow thesis-writer, Bernadette. As Helen uncovers the mystery of the Candyman, he begins appearing to her, always causing her to black out and resurface in the midst of some gruesome scene – which then makes her the prime suspect in several murders, leading to her commitment in an institution. He kills her companion too, and her husband betrays her – she is alone. Candyman insists that she must surrender to him willingly, join him, in order to save an innocent child he has kidnapped. He tempts her with immortality. She seems ready to make the bargain, but at the last minute sets him on fire and rescues the child, although she loses her own life in the process. Now Helen has become a Candyman-like figure, able to be summoned in the same manner, ready to wreak bloody vengeance (another Girl Becomes Adversary).

What I noticed in particular this time around was that in its own way, this is all about the Power of Story. What the Candyman wants most – what he thrives on – is belief. The legend must continue, and it was Helen’s work trying to explain it and therefore weaken its power that threatened him. With her final act, she made such an impression on the public that she became a legend herself, therefore gaining the same kinds of powers and his promised immortality.

I recently watched Wildling, directed by Fritz Böhm, and by the end I had concluded that it at least qualifies as an Honorable Mention here.

Anna grows up with a man who is (to us) obviously not her father, who keeps her locked in a room with warnings about the monsters (called Wildlings) that prowl the woods looking to eat small children. When she enters puberty, he gives her drugs to suppress it, making her ill. Eventually, he attempts suicide, but bungles it, ending up in the hospital, and Anna is rescued and fostered by the local sheriff while she acclimates to society. She befriends the sheriff’s younger brother who becomes her companion, and is assisted by a wild man living in the woods. Her adjustment to the world of school and parties is interrupted by disturbing physical symptoms of her transformation into something else (and a new set of instincts that cause her to tear out the throat of a bully who tries to rape her).

Just as Anna is learning more about her origins and true nature, she is suddenly thrown in jail for the bully’s murder. She escapes, and takes off into the wilderness. She is pursued by law enforcement, but more dangerously by a group of wildling hunters, including her so-called “father” (now recovered from his botched suicide attempt and having learned no lessons whatsoever). In a final confrontation, she unleashes her animal self and triumphs over her former captor, free now to fully become the wildling she was meant to be.

“She felt out of place and out of time, as though a great force had ripped her away from everything she knew and deposited her, dizzy and breathless, on a strange mountaintop. Even her mother was unfamiliar to her. For the first time in her life, she felt completely alone.”

I picked up Lily by Michael Thomas Ford hoping it would be a case of a titular girl GU story, and I was right! On top of that, it was an excellent read, with a truly unique style and protagonist, and the best Baba Yaga character I think I’ve ever read (so many authors try to mitigate her bloodthirstiness and amorality but not this one).

Lily, 13, finds upon puberty that she can tell how someone will die just by touching them – a special power that causes her nothing but grief, especially after she sees, but cannot stop, her father’s impending death. Her mother immediately retreats from her and becomes distant, yet still forces Lily to come with her and abandon their secluded, magical village to enter the mundane world. They soon come upon a religious tent revival show (run more like a carnival, and written with no love for a certain type of crass Christianity, which I appreciated), and Lily soon finds herself bound to use her power as a sideshow act for the Adversary, a preacher who has also set his sights on her mother. She initially falls for his lies that doing this will help rid herself of her curse. In the meantime, she befriends a changeling, and falls in love with a girl who is held captive by the Adversary, thus adding a quest of rescue to her tasks. All throughout these ordeals, she is shadowed by Baba Yaga, who she has met once in the dream world, and who takes a special interest in her – though one never knows if that will be to her benefit or detriment.

Lily doesn’t quite defeat the Adversary on her own, but she does return home with her true love, and has one final confrontation with Baba Yaga in the form of a riddle game which she wins (sort of by accident). Still, there are enough elements here to qualify this as a solid Girls Underground story. And it stands out among the rest in many ways, including the amazing illustrations by Staven Andersen.

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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