Reading Here Be Dragons: Exploring Fantasy Maps and Settings by Stefan Ekman, I came across the work of Farah Mendlesohn. In her book Rhetorics of Fantasy, Mendlesohn suggests all fantasy novels can be placed in one of four categories, based on how the fantastic is introduced into the story. As Ekman describes them:

“The portal-quest fantasy introduces the point-of-view character into a fantasy world, either from a version of our own world (through, for instance, a wardrobe) or from a place in the fantasy world that, like the reader’s world, is ‘small, safe and understood’ (such as the noneventful, comprehensible Shire). The story is told from this point of origin, and the reader learns about the alien world along with the main character(s). In immersive fantasy, the characters, unlike the reader, are at home in the strange world, and the world is described as if totally familiar; the reader has to puzzle out how it works from the clues that are given. Intrusive fantasy is set in a world (often our own) into which the fantastic intrudes, causing chaos and confusion. Neither protagonist nor reader is familiar with the fantastic intrusion, and the story is a process of coming to terms with it. The ghost story is a typical intrusion fantasy. In the final category, liminal fantasy, the reader’s expectations are used to create worlds where the commonplace comes across as strange and wonderful, and the alien is portrayed with an everyday triteness bordering on the blasé. These fantasies are stories in which stylistic manipulation is central to the experience of the fantastic.”

Girls Underground stories are almost all portal-quest fantasies. A crucial element of the archetype is the girl leaving behind her normal life for an adventure in a strange new land. Her volition in taking that first step across the threshold is key (and results in a quest with one of a limited set of common goals, such as rescue of a loved one). However, a smaller number of GU stories instead fit the intrusive fantasy category, where the otherness bleeds into her normal life and changes its course. To me, though, these are usually less effective examples.

While I came up with the concept of Girls Underground, I certainly am not the first person to notice similarities between some of these stories. Especially between any of them and Alice in Wonderland (which may account for the high number of Alice references in GU books – consciously or unconsciously, the authors know what type of story they’re telling). Here’s a great visual examination of some of the parallels between the movie Labyrinth (one of the primary inspirations for Girls Underground) and Disney’s Alice movie. It’s quite remarkable.

labyrinthalice

One of the plot points of the Girls Underground archetype is:

She interacts with people or things that are somehow connected to her ‘normal’ life at home, or briefly returns home in the middle of the journey.

While this is found in many GU stories, it is exemplified best, perhaps, by the original inspiration for the whole idea: Labyrinth. Not only does Sarah return to her own bedroom again while still on her quest (via the Junk Lady’s deception), but many of the creatures and things she encounters during her stay in the labyrinth (including the labyrinth itself) are echoes of items she has in her room: dolls, stuffed animals, posters, books, games, toys. This is illustrated wonderfully by this amazing set of animated gifs, juxtaposing the childhood object with its manifestation in the otherworld:

  
 

Sometimes I wonder about the female adversaries that exist in some Girls Underground stories – the wicked stepmothers, nasty witches, evil queens… were they once themselves the girl on the quest, only to stay too long down there in the dark and become something for other girls to fear?

We can actually see this process happen in the continuation of one of the bloodier GU stories, Hellraiser. The Comics Alliance blog reports that a new graphic novel series based on the original story and movie has provided the ultimate twist:

Last year BOOM! Studios launched a new Hellraiser series by Clive Barker that marked the influential horror writer’s return to his most famous creation after decades away. Co-written with Christopher Monfette and drawn by Leonardo Manco, the book’s first arc was a hit with fans of the storied franchise, concluding with original Hellraiser heroine Kristy Cotton replacing the iconic Pinhead character as the demonic Cenobites’ head of human soul-harvesting.

This makes sense to me, after years and years of reading these stories, and living my own strange version. The otherworld is not always a gentle place, and the Girl is always changed by her time there, after all.

(Other examples of Girl Becomes Adversary can be found in the movies In Dreams, Candyman, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, and Gretel & Hansel, and in the book The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There.)

There are several stories which would qualify as Girls Underground examples, if the female character were the primary protagonist.  Here are just a few:

  • Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie (Wendy)
  • The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis (Lucy)
  • Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman (Door)
  • The Riverman by Aaron Starmer (Fiona)
  • Nightbreed (Lori)
  • American Horror Story: Murder House (Violet)
  • A Cure for Wellness (Hannah)
  • Monsters, Inc. (Boo)

Vegemen 1

“Pray have no fear, but quietly submit
Just laugh and jump into the soft, warm pit.”

 

My mother came across this amazing book, The Vege-Men’s Revenge (pictures by Florence K. Upton, verses by Bertha Upton – a mother/daughter team – and originally published in 1897) and was nice enough to pass it on to me. This isn’t really a full-fledged Girls Underground example, as it’s missing most of the salient features, but it is a literal girl-goes-underground story, and it’s also awesomely weird and gruesome, so I just had to add it here.

It tells the story (entirely in rhyming verse!) of Poppy, who is out walking one day, planning to harvest some veggies from the garden, when she is accosted by a couple of anthropomorphic vegetables. They sweet talk her into following them down underground to their kingdom….


…then surprise her with a condemnation of her previous vegetable-eating habits, and begin their revenge. They plant her in the ground (one of the most beautiful pictures in the book):


…and tend her, and she grows into many different types of vegetable, all of which look like her (clothes and all).


Then they pick the Poppy-veggies, cook them, and eat them! After the feast (portrayed in the cover painting, above), they have a wild dance that flies around faster and faster until they all sort of explode in a bang – and it turns out to be all Poppy’s dream (which kind of says something about the strangeness of Poppy’s mind).

I’ll forgive the all-too-common “it was all a dream” ending, but I do love how Poppy’s reaction to this is to gleefully go ahead with her plans to harvest her vegetables, completely unfazed by the dream’s message.

“Dear Carrot! turn back! for I don’t want to go!
I’d rather return to the world that I know!”

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.

Your Host

My name is Sarah and I am a writer, artist and ritualist living in the Pacific Northwest. I hold a degree in comparative mythology and ritual, and am the author of several books. If you have suggestions, story examples, questions, or anything else to share with me, please email me.

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