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I was excited for The Door by Andy Marino because the title so nicely alludes to “portal” part of Portal-Quest Fantasy (of which Girls Underground is an example), however it turned out to only be an Honorable Mention and – while interesting and ambitious – was ultimately disappointing.
Hannah, 12, lives with her widowed mother next to a remote lighthouse. Her inner world is complex and somewhat dysfunctional, in that she talks to people in her head and is crippled by certain OCD tendencies (which was an interesting and unique aspect for a protagonist, though it’s not fully explored). One day strangers visit, and events compel her mother to reveal that their family has a sacred duty – they guard the door to the city of the dead, a vast otherworld where all souls go after death. When her mother is murdered, Hannah goes through the forbidden door to rescue her.
In the city of the dead, Hannah’s “imaginary” inner people materialize before her, and become her companions, along with a couple dead souls who help her. She must avoid the ominous Watchers who patrol the city, and she has conflict with those who have betrayed her – but there is never really a firm Adversary working against her. She does start to forget herself, and the details of her life (a consequence of being in the land of the dead) but that is remedied. The city and its inhabitants are creatively imagined and described, but that’s not quite enough to sustain the book.
While Hannah manages to find her mother, and even her long lost father, and there are some tantalizing hints that she’s been to this otherworld before somehow, nothing is explained in the end, her final test is rather anticlimactic, and the resolution is vague and unsatisfying.
The Near Witch by Victoria Schwab is really only an Honorable Mention as far as the GU archetype goes, but well worth reading.
Teenager Lexi lives in a small village named Near (in some undefined time that includes rifles but not cars or modern technology) that appears to be very closed off to outside influences. There’s a story in Near of a witch who lived long ago, who was accused of killing a child and murdered in retaliation. History has become indistinguishable from legend at this point, but Lexi begins to suspect the Near witch is real, and not gone after all, when children begin disappearing from the village.
Unfortunately, the locals fixate on the stranger who has recently showed up, an enigmatic boy that Lexi names Cole (because he won’t divulge his real name), and who becomes her companion as she tries to discover the truth behind the missing children, while protecting her own little sister Wren from joining them (and, eventually, protecting Cole from the villagers). She is helped (and sometimes hindered) along the way by two elderly sisters that were once powerful witches, and may still have some magic left in them. As time runs out she must find the old witch’s bones to put her to rest, which involves entering a haunted wood and battling the witch’s spirit and her crows. (A sort of secondary adversary is Lexi’s uncle, who is one of the village elders and leads the hunt for Cole, refusing to listen to Lexi’s protestations.)
Lexi does defeat the Near witch, and saves her sister, but only with Cole’s help. There is not much interaction with the adversary until the very end, and there’s no big journey or otherworldly exploration. She does have absent parents, though, in that her father is dead and her mother has sort of faded due to grief. And the adversary does try to trick her at the last moment.
The Final Girls is probably just an Honorable Mention as far as the GU archetype goes, but worth mentioning, as it cleverly references the old slasher movies that are often themselves Girls Underground stories. I will also note that early on, there is a mention of the Persephone myth, and GU examples often will reference other GU stories (most often Alice, but sometimes older myths and fairytales).
Max loses her mother in a car crash, and years later tries to connect with her memory by going to see a showing of the movie that made her momentarily famous, an 80’s slasher film called Camp Bloodbath. Max and her friends get magically transported into the world of the movie, complete with killer on the loose, and Max finds herself trying to rescue her “mother” (really the character played by her mother). They become the “final girls” once all of Max’s friends and the other characters are killed off. But it is only when her mother sacrifices herself that Max gains the power to defeat the adversary – which somehow magically rescues all her friends and sends them home…. or so it seems.
At the Devil’s Door is a fairly mediocre horror movie but with an honorable-mention level GU plot. You might think that the first character you meet, a teenage girl, is the Girl Underground, but it’s a bit more complicated. This girl is tricked into letting the devil take over her body, but the adversary hardly stops there.
Fast forward a couple decades, and there’s a real estate agent showing a house, when she sees the first girl in the hallway, and thinks it’s the missing daughter of the house’s owners. After finding out that the girl she’s seen is actually the first girl, the one who supposedly committed suicide in the house in the 80’s, the real estate agent confronts the devil-possessed girl and is killed. Another potential Girl bites the dust.
The real Girl Underground here is the agent’s sister Vera, who begins to uncover the story behind these events. She finds out that Hannah (the first girl) was pregnant when she died, although a virgin. Apparently the devil has been trying to bring forth a supernatural child to inhabit. Vera confronts the devil but is thrown out a window and goes into a coma for eight months, after which she discovers she is about to give birth to a baby. Vera is understandably freaked out, and gives the baby up for adoption.
Six years later, Vera decides to find her daughter, presumably possessed by the devil, and kill her. She confronts the little girl, who technically doesn’t confirm anything but acts creepy enough that you know she’s right. But Vera cannot bring herself to kill her, and so she takes the girl with her instead. This suggests another “girl loses” version of the archetype, which seems to mostly be present in the horror genre.
Raven Speak by Diane Lee Wilson is set in ancient Norway, during a winter with no end. Asa’s clan is dying of disease and starvation. Her father, the chieftain, has sailed off in search of food, and her mother is almost dead, so it is up to her to save her people. But she is opposed by the evil clan skald, Jorgen, who seeks power for himself.
When Jorgen attacks Asa and her beloved horse, they flee along the fjords until they meet an old wisewoman. Asa cannot tell if Wenda is ultimately her friend or another foe, for the one-eyed woman is strange and moody, and she speaks to two ravens as if they were people. But eventually, she decides to leave Wenda’s cave and return to her clan to face her adversary. They have a violent altercation, but Asa’s triumph is not the end of her troubles, for a much worse ordeal lays ahead, and a sacrifice she must make for the well-being of her clan.
Not perhaps a true GU story, as she doesn’t journey far, the adversary is almost a tangential plotline, and her non-talking horse is her only companion, but a gripping book with a strong heroine that is worth reading.
I just watched Mr. Frost for the first time – somehow I missed this 1990 gem with Jeff Goldblum, who I love, and had to track it down on Youtube. Partway through it occurred to me that it was probably a GU story (which it is, although I’m only considering it an Honorable Mention since it’s missing a lot of the finer details).
Mr. Frost is clearly the adversary, a man who may or may not be the devil himself. He volunteers a confession to some brutal murders but then immediately falls silent, and is eventually put in a mental asylum, where he meets Dr. Sarah Day. Frost will only speak to Day, and tells her that he plans to goad her into killing him. She treats him like a mental patient, obviously, even though the detective who arrested him (her companion in this sense) keeps warning her that Frost is truly evil.
After several displays of his power, Day is gradually convinced that Frost is indeed the devil and that she must murder him to save others. But when she does, it appears to open the door in turn for her to become possessed by the devil. While she “wins” in the sense of defeating the adversary, she ultimately loses – like some other thriller/horror GU stories, such as The Dark, In Dreams and Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark.
“Believing in yourself and your magic is half the battle.”
I picked up The Courage of Cat Campbell by Natasha Lowe figuring it might be a GU book because of the genre (intermediate fantasy) combined with the girl’s name in the title, and I was right. This is pretty light fare, with an adversary that is rather easily defeated – it’s mostly about learning to believe in yourself, which while somewhat cliché, is definitely a common GU theme.
Cat, who I think is 11 or 12, lives in a world where some people are natural witches, and the lucky ones go to train at a special witch school. Cat has always wanted this destiny, but did not appear to have inherited the gift from her witchy mother (who due to past events hates all magic). One day she discovers that she is a Late Bloomer and has powers after all, but she cannot control them well. Rejected by the school, and told by her mother to forget about becoming a witch, Cat sets out to prove herself in a dangerous way. A notoriously evil witch has escaped prison and Cat decides to capture her, with a little help from her companion Peter (who briefly gets turned into a guinea pig for his troubles).
SPOILERS Amazingly, it works, and Cat discovers that the evil witch was just sad all along, forced to be a witch when she wanted to be a singer, which created so much rage she hurt people. The “adversary” is willingly taken back to jail, but happy now, Cat’s mother comes around to her daughter’s new destiny, and Cat gets into the school and makes a life for herself as a witch, happily ever after.
“Don’t let fear stand in your way.”
I just watched the movie Housebound, and while it wasn’t quite a full GU story, it was at least worth an Honorable Mention here.
For one thing, it all takes place in a house (like so many of my favorite GU examples), and that’s actually a main plot point, because the protagonist is under house arrest and cannot leave the grounds. And because it’s her childhood home she’s confined to, there’s the whole “return home” aspect – even though in this case it begins the tale rather than being an interlude in the middle.
Upon arriving, Kylie’s mother tells her the house is haunted, but Kylie dismisses this – until strange things begin happening. Kylie’s parole officer ends up being a companion, as he is an amateur ghost-hunter. There are two feints as to the identity of the adversary (and one of the initial suspects becomes essentially a companion, helping Kylie here and there). The main hauntings occur in the basement, which is of course underground (and in the walls of the house, which was rather creepy). In the end, there is no real ‘final confrontation’ with the adversary, but it still has many of the elements in the right places. Not to mention, a wonderfully original combination of horror and comedy.
This is another example of “If the Story Were About Her“. If you watch the first season of the television show American Horror Story from the perspective of the daughter, Violet, it appears to be a Girls Underground story. Warning: SPOILERS ahead, I can’t talk about this without them.
First of all, the entire show takes place in a house, as many GU stories do – an extremely haunted house. In fact, Violet can’t even leave the house by the end, once she has died there (returning to her life as if everything is still normal after that transition mimics the “returning home in the middle of the adventure” trope common to GU stories). She certainly has the classic distant and distracted parents – so much so that they don’t even realize she is dead! When she is dead, her body is literally underground, in the crawlspace below the house.
Violet’s relationship with Tate is the most interesting part. He is both adversary and companion. As a companion, he watches out for her and tries to save her life, and helps her cope once she is a ghost. But as her adversary, he lies to her, tries to control her, and ultimately she must face off against him and banish him (“Go away, Tate!”).
Not quite a full GU example, but worth mentioning.
The Riverman by Aaron Starmer isn’t a GU book, but it deserves a mention here – and not just because it was so unique and riveting that I was literally unable to put it down, and read it all in a single sitting last night. It isn’t a GU story – but it’s the story of a GU companion, essentially, and provides an interesting perspective on that role.
Alistair, 12, gets a visit one day from a childhood friend, Fiona, who tells him an unbelievable story. Since the age of four, she has been visiting a magical otherworld called Aquavania, where everything is created by the imagination. But there is a sinister threat – a figure called the Riverman has been invading children’s self-created worlds there and sucking out their souls. Fiona fears she will be next.
Alistair never journeys with Fiona, and for most of the book he is doubtful that any of her story is real – assuming instead that it is a cover for a more mundane but still awful trauma. But as things escalate, the horrible truth of the Riverman is revealed, and Fiona disappears, leaving Alistair to figure it all out. I can’t really say more here without spoiling it, and this is a book that hinges on the mystery, so I will leave it at that.
But what fascinated me along with the plot was to read a first-person narrative by a Girl Underground’s companion, to see him as a protagonist in his own story, with the Girl’s adventures being only related second-hand, and taking a secondary role. And there is no doubt that Fiona is a Girl Underground – the author’s website even gives this description, linking her with several other GUs:
“Fiona Loomis is Alice, back from Wonderland. She is Lucy, returned from Narnia. She is Coraline, home from the Other World. She is the girl we read about in storybooks, but here’s the difference: She is real.”
While I felt that this book stood on its own even with a somewhat unresolved ending (not everything, after all, needs to be neatly tied up in reality), it turns out there are two more books planned, and I will have to give them a shot despite my skepticism about series, since this one was so engaging.