“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 (the titular girl), 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).

“As to where we’re going…you might call it going down. Or up, depending on your perspective.”

The Water and the Wild by K. E. Ormsbee is a pretty satisfyingly classic GU story – once again, I find myself wondering how aware these authors are of the archetype (not likely by name, per se, but even subconsciously).

Lottie, 12, is an orphan with an unpleasant guardian and only one friend in the world – Eliot, a sickly boy whose health is taking a severe turn for the worse. For years she has been receiving mysterious letters and gifts in a box hidden under the apple tree in her courtyard, and she sends her latest wish (for Eliot’s health) there as well. Shortly after, she is approached by a fae girl who alludes to a possible cure for all illness, and invites Lottie on a strange journey inside her apple tree (down through the roots and back up again) and into another world.

Lottie finds herself in a parallel fairy (or “sprite”) world, filled with conflict. She discovers she is a child of both worlds, and that there are tales of someone from her family line reclaiming the throne there. Because of this, the Southerly King is after her. She quickly acquires some sprite children as companions, and they all take a perilous journey to the court of the King to plead for the children’s captured father (a great healer, and Lottie’s only hope). They face many dangers, including a swamp of oblivion (forgetting herself). And – always a crushing blow – there is a betrayal, or appears to be.

Lottie finally comes face to face with the King, and his evil minion, and thwarts them both. Then she finds out she has an even greater power than she ever could have believed.

I don’t play video games, but fortunately an astute reader of this blog recently alerted me to the game Little Nightmares as a possible GU story, and from what I’ve read, it seems to fit. Set in a labyrinthine place below (if not actually underground), female adversary for younger girl, adversary’s minions, no parents, final showdown with adversary, and even the rare ending where the girl becomes an adversary-type creature herself. The only thing it seems to be missing are companions. The following plot description is abridged from Wikipedia, and contains spoilers:

A nine-year-old hungry girl named Six is trapped in The Maw – a surreal resort catering to the whims of sick and powerful creatures. After waking up in the lower depths of the Maw, Six decides to escape the harsh confines, having regular moments of insatiable hunger. Whilst ascending, she soon becomes stalked by the long-armed blind Janitor of the Maw….After evading the Janitor by cutting off his arms via a door, Six follows the conveyor belt upward, to a large kitchen operated by the grotesque Twin Chefs….After managing to evade them, she manages to find a way out, but finds that the entire Maw is covered by a large ocean.

Six observes a boat ferrying large and obese suited Guests, who lumber to the Japanese-style dining area of the Maw, overseen by the Lady, the supposed leader of the Maw….Six makes her way further upwards, entering the Lady’s quarters. The Lady lives very lavishly in an elegant home, with many broken mirrors throughout the rooms. Chased by the Lady, who displays magical powers, Six finds a mirror that she uses against the Lady in a battle. Defeating her, Six approaches the Lady and eats her; in which she gains the Lady’s powers.

Going downstairs to the dining area, Six walks along the tables with strange black particles swirling around her. As the Guests notice her presence, they attempt to eat her, but suddenly convulse and die as Six walks on. Six approaches a large door with an eye encrusted upon it, revealing a large staircase leading to the outside world. 

Dig Two Graves was unfortunately less creepy and supernatural than the trailer made it seem, but nonetheless it’s at least an Honorable Mention as a Girls Underground story.

Jake, a young teenage girl, loses her brother when they decide to jump off a high cliff into a quarry, and she hesitates at the last minute – he jumps without her, and disappears into the water forever. Her parents seem to quickly move on, distracted by a new baby on the way, so it is up to Jake to seek a way to get her brother back from the dead. One day she is approached by some strange, anachronistically-dressed men (led by one who might be called the adversary) at the entrance to a tunnel, who promise they can bring her brother back, provided someone is sacrificed in his place. She then must decide if she can bear to push a school friend off the cliff.

Like Forbidden Game, it turns out that a lot of what is going on had its start with something her grandfather was involved in many years before, coming back to haunt them all. Unfortunately as far as the GU archetype goes, it is largely the grandfather and not Jake who deals with, and ultimately defeats, the adversary.

The Giant Under the Snow by John Gordon is another great children’s fantasy book from the late 60’s, like The Gruesome Green Witch and A Walk Out of the World, albeit only an Honorable Mention as far as the GU archetype goes.

Jonk (short for Jonquil, one of the more interesting GU names I’ve come across) wanders off from a school trip in the “backlands” one day and stumbles across a strange artifact and a Green Man figure embedded in the landscape. She is chased by a black dog and rescued by a mysterious woman named Elizabeth. Jonk and her two male companions learn more about the legend of the Green Man and are pursued by terrifying leather-skinned men when they seek out Elizabeth, who tells them the story of an ancient fight against an evil warlord who is trying to rise again. Jonk and her friends must hide the artifact from the adversary, but at least they get one big perk – magical devices from Elizabeth that allow them to fly! In the end, Jonk does end up facing off against the warlord one on one and thwarts his return.

Technically, I suppose this book fulfills many of the key plot points of a Girls Underground story, but ultimately something feels missing and it doesn’t quite fit the classic pattern. Perhaps it’s the lack of any meaningful interaction between Jonk and the adversary (he never even gets a chance to speak), the absence of a transition into another world, and her normal home life.

I just had a chance to watch the independent film American Fable, and while it’s not quite the classic GU story, it hits enough points (and the general tone) to warrant an Honorable Mention here. It is perhaps a less fantastical Pan’s Labyrinth, or a less grim Tideland, both of which have been covered here previously, and both of which feature an innocent and story-obsessed girl caught up in the harsh world of adults. The fantasy and dreamlike elements could have been turned up a notch in my opinion, though they were very well done.

11 year old Gitty lives with her family on their farm, her only friend a beloved chicken. While she is close with her father, her parents are both nonetheless distracted by the possibility of losing their farm, and some other intrigue she doesn’t understand. One day Gitty stumbles upon a man who appears to be being held prisoner in their old grain silo – although she intuits that her family has something to do with it, she eventually befriends the man, even going so far as to descend into the silo to spend time with him (not quite underground, but a journey down at least). In a way, everyone is a potential adversary for Gitty – the man himself, who turns out to be a threat to her family, her own parents who are hiding things from her, the strange woman they seem to be colluding with, and possibly most of all her older brother, who ends up in a final, violent confrontation with her when he discovers she’s been fraternizing with the enemy. The imprisoned man could also be seen as her companion, and/or the one she is trying to rescue in classic GU style.

Gitty sees the world through the lens of stories (The Power of Story), making sense of what she experiences by relating it to the tales she knows well. And so what is on the one hand a mundane situation – a farm being threatened by economic failure and the response of desperate people – becomes a fairy tale from a different angle, surreal and moving in its telling.

A GUIDE FOR YOUNG LADIES ENTERING THE SERVICE OF THE FAIRIES by Rosamund Hodge

(It’s all true.)

crookedmirrorsKingdom of Crooked Mirrors (listed on Amazon Video as World of Crooked Mirrors) is a wonderful Russian allegorical fantasy film drawing heavily on Alice Through the Looking Glass.

Olya is a little girl living with her grandmother (so, presumably an orphan). When her cat dashes right through the mirror to another world, Olya naturally jumps in right after it (like any good Girl Underground). She meets her reflection Yalo (everyone living there has backwards names) who becomes her companion. Together they chase after their cats, but end up befriending a young mirror maker. This boy is imprisoned by evil leaders for the crime of making mirrors that actually reflect reality, rather than the warped mirrors that the government prefers.

Olya and her reflection must rescue the boy and defeat the evil Reptile, Toad and Kite adversaries, and return the mirrors in the kingdom to their proper function. They are helped by a kind chef, and Olya encounters doubles of things in her normal life (such as the King being named the reverse of the word for “parrot”, a bird belonging to her grandmother). The whole production is delightfully Carrollian with obvious political overtones.

“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.

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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