“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.

I finally got around to watching Jordan Peele’s Us, which was so enthralling that it took me awhile to notice what a perfect Girls Underground story it is (silly of me since the movie begins with some text describing underground passages!). Then while watching some of the special features, I was absolutely thrilled to hear Peele mention “there are several stories involving a woman or a young girl going to this other land that inspired some of the imagery in this movie” and then name-dropping Alice in Wonderland, Wizard of Oz, and the Nutcracker, all Girls Underground examples!

SPOILER ALERT (since it’s impossible to really talk about this film without them).

Adelaide suffered a traumatic, terrifying experience in a funhouse as a child, and this experience starts coming back to her when, as an adult, she goes with her family to the same beach on vacation. Her family is attacked by a group of doppelgangers, led by Adelaide’s double, the Adversary. She fights them along with her husband and children (as companions) until the Adversary kidnaps her child and takes him far underground, where she must go to rescue him and confront her double. However, in a sense this story is what I call a “reverse” GU (where the girl starts out in the otherworld and comes to the “normal” world), because we find out that Adelaide and her double actually switched places as children, so the woman we’ve been viewing as the protagonist was originally from the otherworld and journeyed above, taking over the life of the “real” girl. Which means that the Adversary was herself a Girl Underground in the beginning. It all makes for a very complex, morally ambiguous, and intensely creepy version of the archetype.

There have sure been a lot of Baba Yaga books coming out lately, which is wonderful! Especially since they often fit the Girls Underground theme. (I’ve profiled Vassa in the Night and Summer in Orcus already, and there’s the fantastic House with Chicken Legs by Sophie Anderson, which wasn’t quite GU but still worth reading. I also happen to be reading an older book featuring Baba Yaga which I just found in a thrift store – The Dream Stealer by Gregory Maguire. And of course there are all the many books shown on this page.) But on to our featured book….

The Door by the Staircase by Katherine Marsh shows a somewhat softer side of the Russian witch, without ignoring the fact that she eats children. Mary, 12, is an orphan who tries to escape the orphanage by climbing through a chimney. While she doesn’t succeed, the next day she is suddenly adopted by the mysterious Madame Z, and taken to live on the outskirts of the town of Iris which is filled with (mostly fraudulent) magicians and mediums. She quickly makes friends with a boy who performs as an illusionist, and he helps her navigate her precarious situation when it is revealed that Madame Z is the dreaded witch of fairytales. She is also helped by several magical creatures, and Yaga’s stable hand Koschey, who will be instantly familiar (and suspicious) to anyone who has read Russian folklore. While Baba Yaga is a formidable opponent, a betrayal uncovers a bigger Adversary, and Mary must face this new foe, resist their temptations, and defeat them. In the end, she actually must save Baba Yaga rather than fleeing from her. And in doing so, fulfill that classic Girls Underground quest to return home – in this case, a new home and a new family she forges with her own tenacity.

I Am Mother, directed by Grant Sputore, isn’t immediately an obvious Girls Underground story but I think it nonetheless qualifies. Since it’s pretty much impossible to talk about this movie without spoilers, the following will contain some.

A girl, known only as Daughter, is raised in an elaborate underground bunker from birth by an android called Mother. Supposedly she is the first of a new race of humans who will be created to replace the now-dead population after some kind of worldwide disaster. She lives in isolation until one day a surviving human woman comes to the door, and Daughter makes the possibly rash decision to let her in, contamination be damned. Except, as she will find out, there is no contamination, and much of what she has been told is a lie – as well as what she is told from here on out, because neither the Woman nor Mother can really be trusted. She struggles to discern which of them is the Adversary, but ultimately it is Mother, and Woman becomes her companion – but one who will betray her with lies. When Daughter finally escapes, she is drawn back to the facility (sans companion) in order to rescue her brand new baby “brother”, a common quest for a GU. Mother tries to win her over but reveals herself to be a much larger Adversary than even expected. In the end, Daughter doesn’t quite “defeat” her Adversary as much as make a convincing appeal that she can go on repopulating the earth without her – and while Mother accepts this, it is also shown to be part of her plan all along.

“Unfortunately, confusing and crazy ordeals are often the only way to get to the bottom of incomprehensible things.”

I really wanted to like The Land of Yesterday by K. A. Reynolds more than I did. I picked it up because the cover is one of the most Girls Underground I have seen – a girl literally falling! – and some initial reviews I saw were enthusiastic. But ultimately, while the emotional issues it tackled were meaningful, the writing and world-building were a bit too “clever” for my tastes, without ever really pulling me in. The one thing I really did love was the idea of a house being the adversary – often a GU story takes place entirely within a house, but I can’t recall one ever being such a prominent character before.

Cecelia, 11, made a tragic mistake that resulted in her little brother’s death. Since then, the magical, animate house she inhabits has turned against her. Her mother disappears one day in search of her brother’s spirit in the far off Land of Yesterday (actually another planet), and the house pushes Cecelia to follow her, threatening to destroy her father if her mother is not returned to it. She uses a magical pen filled with her own tears to open a literal door within herself. Despite her brother’s spirit’s warnings, she takes off on a perilous quest. She soon meets two gnomes who run a shuttle service between the worlds, who become her companions. Once she reaches Yesterday, she finds her mother but due to the powers of that world of the dead, begins to forget why she’s there. She must see through illusions and fight to rescue those she holds dear. Eventually she leaves her companions behind, and must face off against her angry house alone (uncovering an old secret in the process) in order to win back both her parents and get back home.

“Sometimes all you can do is trust you’ll find your way home.”

I Still See You is a classic GU story, and while overall it’s a pretty mediocre movie, it does have a somewhat interesting premise that sets it apart just a little.

Ronnie, a teenager, lives in a world adjusting from a strange and devastating event 10 years prior, when some kind of scientific experiment went awry and killed millions… leaving impressions of those killed to constantly recur in certain spots on a repeating loop. They call these ghost images “rems” (for remnants). Ronnie’s own father is a rem, appearing regularly at the breakfast table, a painful reminder of his absence in her life.

In this world, just seeing a ghost is not enough to qualify as unusual or scary – but Ronnie has been noticing new rems, which is supposedly impossible, and one of them appears to be threatening her.

Guided by a helpful teacher and assisted by the “weird kid” in school, she discovers the story behind this malevolent ghost and embarks on a dangerous journey into the forbidden zone (the radius around the original accident) to find some answers. There is an initial hint of betrayal by a companion, and then a much worse one that reveals a feint as to the identity of the Adversary. Nothing is what it seems in this world filled with ghosts, and ultimately Ronnie is left to fight her Adversary on her own.

kojoI actually decided to watch The Burial of Kojo simply because I love magical realism and the trailer drew me in. Didn’t actually occur to me to look at it from a Girls Underground perspective until 3/4 of the way through, when someone tells the protagonist that time is running out to rescue her father. click! Then I thought back through the rest of the film and ultimately decided that while this hits a lot of the right notes, it’s really more of an honorable mention, not only because she has no companions but because of the ending.

It’s hard to discuss this movie in a GU context without giving away too much. Suffice to say there is a distant mother, guidance from a stranger that propels her into a mythical realm of sorts, an otherworld that is upside-down, and an Adversary who shows up both in this world and that one, in different guises. Esi is special, for sure, although she only understands how when it may be too late.

On a side note, Girls Underground stories often reference others of their type. I have to wonder if this particular shot from Kojo (top) was a deliberate reference to an extremely visually-similar shot from GU classic Pan’s Labyrinth (bottom).

bkpl

37688226The Thorn Queen by Elise Holland was a fairly standard middle-grade GU adventure fantasy story. I have to say I almost gave up on it at first because it just felt like it was throwing a lot of “clever” world building at us all at once (so many new words for seemingly random invented creatures!) but I stuck with it due to the GU angle and it ended up being relatively enjoyable from that perspective, especially with a nice twist as to the identity of the Adversary (although for once, I did see it coming).

Meylyne, 12, a resident of the Between-World, foolishly trespasses into the forbidden Above-World, ignores a warning, and gets herself and her family into some serious trouble. The only solution, upon the advice of a wise well, is to embark on a quest ostensibly to heal a sick prince, but ultimately to save her entire world. She acquires an animal companion, and then a human boy after she rescues him. They discover that a figure known only as the Thorn Queen has been causing mayhem and weakening the entire land. When she finally uncovers the Adversary, it comes with a revelation about her own true nature – as well as the customary attempt at temptation. She then journeys underground to the Beneath-World where more is revealed about her history and powers. With time running out, she must heal a friend and save the world, after a final confrontation with the Thorn Queen.

“Well, if we have disappeared, can we assume that this place is – somewhere else? Like a horrible sort of Narnia? Not our world at all?”

I devoured Small Spaces by Katherine Arden in a single day, and I think some of the eerie scarecrow imagery seeped into my dreams that night. Weirdly, this just happened to be another book-within-a-book example like the last post.

Ollie (short for Olivia), 11, is set apart by the recent tragic loss of her mother, and her behavior since has only further alienated her from her classmates. One day she comes across a lady about to throw an old book (called, of course, Small Spaces) into a creek and impulsively steals it before it can be destroyed – a decision that seems to doom her but actually is the key to her survival. In this book she reads the apparently true story of a family that was granted a miracle – with a terrible price – by an entity only referred to as the Smiling Man.

The next day she discovers that the school field trip to a local farm intersects with this strange and sinister history lesson. When their bus breaks down and Ollie receives disturbing warnings from both the freakish bus driver and her broken digital watch, she decides to take matters into her own hands and escapes to the forest, with two classmates in tow as unlikely companions. They are quickly surrounded and pursued by animate but voiceless scarecrows all seemingly in thrall to the same Smiling Man, and it appears that they have stumbled into some kind of parallel otherworld (which they amusingly keep calling “Bad Narnia”).

The other students on the bus have been captured by the Adversary, and Ollie must use all her cleverness and bravery (and information from her useful book) to rescue them and make it back home to her own world with her companions. This journey culminates in a dangerous corn maze where she loses her friends, makes a bargain with one of the Adversary’s minions, and eventually uncovers the true identity of the Smiling Man. In the final confrontation, he preys on her deepest desires to tempt her to his side but she stays strong. She exposes a fraud, tricks her Adversary, and uncovers the key to breaking the spell.

In the Night Wood by Dale Bailey is not a Girls Underground book. It is a story about a man who, having lost much, becomes obsessed with uncovering a mystery behind the author of a strange Victorian fantasy tale called, of course, In the Night Wood. And that story, the book-within-a-book, appears to be a Girls Underground story.

“What would she do now? she asked herself as the fell King spurred his horse into a gallop and hurtled down the corridor of trees. She recalled too late the words the Knight of Ice had imparted to her at the end of his Tale: When you come to the end of your own Story, he had said, you must remember the thing that you have forgotten. But how could you remember the thing you had forgotten when you had forgotten to remember it? she wondered.

And then the Horned King was upon her.”

As you can see from this excerpt from the book-within-a-book, there is also a deep awareness of The Power of Story running through these recursive tales, which also grabbed my interest. And then, of course, there’s the gorgeous, very GU cover:

nightwood

We don’t really get enough of the Victorian story to be 100% sure of its details, but there is a girl, and a journey into an otherworldly forest, and an Adversary. We get just enough tantalizing morsels to make me hope that Bailey will some day reveal the whole thing, much like Catherynne Valente spun out The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making after fans begged her to expand on its mention in another of her books.

Bailey’s book is well worth reading beyond any GU connection. It handles the intermingling of folklore and the everyday very deftly, with an understanding of how mythic reality can manifest subtly at first, starting in the caverns of the mind and slowly bleeding out to take physical form. And how terrible and bloody it can be.

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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