Since its publication over 150 years ago, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has inspired a raft of adaptions and reimaginings. References pop up in far flung places, from James Joyce’s nigh-unreadable Modernist tome Finnegans Wake to 1970s reefer madness tract Go Ask Alice. (Pardon me as I wax pedantic, but what we tend to think of as “Alice in Wonderland” is two separate novels: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass.) Alice’s adventures resonate, and have since the very beginning.
That books contain elements of the monomythic hero’s journey is undoubtedly part of their appeal: Alice journeys into the underworld and back out again, through personal transformation and victory over chaos. People love them some monomyth, from Gilgamesh to Star Wars. Carroll’s wordplay and nonsensical rhymes are also top notch—the poem “The Jabberwocky” from Through the Looking-Glass has lent the English language more than a couple new words (galumph, chortle, vorpal). Phrases such as “down the rabbit hole,” “curiouser and curiouser,” and the political slur “Tweedledee and Tweedledum” all come from Alice’s adventures.
But I think the real draw is how perfectly Wonderland captures the landscape of dreams: the tumble into the dark, the illogic that nonetheless contains a kind of sense, the fantastic that is at turns wondrous and dangerous. These aren’t the dreams of wishes and hopes, to be followed into a bright future; these are the dreams that bubble out of the hindbrain. Children’s stories that scare us sink their claws in deeper, and Alice’s Wonderland is more menacing in places than most.
Over the years, countless authors have revised and reinvented Carroll’s original. It doesn’t take much to twist Wonderland into a nightmare (indeed, it happens quite often), though the occasional lightness and whimsy in her underground can make for sweeter, kinder takes on the classic. There is so much to Wonderland, so many places off the path that have yet to be explored. Come see what these eight authors have found.
Alice, by Christina Henry
Alice is one of the darker reimaginings on this list. It starts with Alice in an insane asylum, like so many of these iterations do, but this one travels to a more dangerous wonderland than we’re used to seeing. There’s a New City, and an Old. Alice is from New City, where the rich and pampered live, but after her abduction by gang lord Rabbit, she’s been tossed by her family into the Old City asylum. Her one friend is Hatcher, a butcher who murders with an ax. They have to make their way through the Old City with something like luck to sustain them, and the way luck often does, it runs out. Alice is dark, strange, and brooding. She continues her foray into Wonderland this month in The Red Queen.
Queen of Hearts, by Colleen Oakes
Queen of Hearts is a prequel of sorts, telling the story of the titular queen’s rise to power. She starts as the princess Dinah, a young girl longing for love and security, and through cruel court politics and betrayal, ends up as the paranoid dictator we meet in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. There are more than a few books that revisit the backstories of villains and side characters from Wonderland, everyone from the Red Queen to the Mad Hatter. The project to humanize with villainous characters is an empathetic one, and it also diminishes some of the fear we feel.
Heartless, by Marissa Meyer
Like Queen of Hearts, Melissa Meyer tells the story of the Queen of Heart’s young life, her desires and disappointments. Melissa Meyer is known for her Lunar Chronicles, which retell various folktales in a cyberpunk-y pan-Asian country, where there are magicians on the moon and cyborgs in the market square. Heartless is not due to be published until later this year, but it’s sure to showcase her unique blend of science fiction and fantasy.
After Alice, by Gregory Maguire
Speaking of villains’ backstories, Gregory Maguire has made something of a cottage industry out of reimagining the denizens of various wonderlands. Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West obviously set the standard, and was adapted into an even more successful Broadway musical. In After Alice, Maguire takes a run at Wonderland. The novel opens with Alice falling down the rabbit hole, but this time, her friend Ada tumbles in after her. We follow Ada as she tries to catch up with Alice underground; meanwhile, Lydia, Alice’s sister, tries to find Alice in the real world. Maguire mixes commentary about Victorian England with observations about Wonderland, peopling his narrative with real-world figures like Charles Darwin in addition to the usual cast of rabbits and caterpillars. Many reimaginings superimpose the real Alice Liddell with her fictional version; Maguire makes that superimposition a commentary on how each era’s anxieties inform their dreams.
Splintered, by A.G. Howard
Alyssa Gardner is the descendant of Alice Liddell, the girl that inspired the fictional Alice. The women in her family have always been touched; Alyssa’s mother was institutionalized, her gifts driving her to madness. Alyssa is worried that she will likewise succumb to the family curse. (Honestly, I find the mental illness trope somewhat worn and insensitive—no one uses straightjackets anymore, for example, because they are cruel.) But then, she’s taken into Wonderland by a man called Morpheus and charged to perform a series of tasks that will correct the mistakes of the original Alice Liddell. Howard’s retelling has more fidelity to the source material than many, and like Carroll, she weaves clever puzzles through Alyssa’s quest. Howard really knows her stuff.
Alice in Zombieland, by Gena Showalter
Alice in Zombieland uses Wonderland motifs sparsely: I expected a novel wherein Alice head-shots her way through a zombie wasteland, but this one is more of a gothic high school drama. (There is cute little mashup also called Alice in Zombieland, but like most mashups, not much changes from the original. But now it has zombies, so.) Alice’s whole family is killed in a car accident, and, newly orphaned, she must move to a new school. Her father always believed in zombies, which in this world are incorporeal soul-eaters, and it seems he was right. Alice has to fight this undead threat while navigating her grief and her (sometimes unnerving) new school. The horror of this novel is really more the horror of the everyday. High school is a terrorscape, amiright?
The Looking Glass Wars, by Frank Beddor
The Looking Glass Wars is both a secret history and a sequel rolled into one. Alyss Heart was the true heir of Wonderland, but driven out by her evil Aunt Redd. She tells Lewis Carroll the whole story, but something got lost in the translation. The Looking Glass Wars details what happens when she goes back to Wonderland and claim her throne. I find the stab at Carroll needlessly churlish—creating a backstory where he neither created Wonderland nor got it right is, let’s say impolite—but the book remains true to the heart of Wonderland: Alice herself.
Gears of Wonderland, by Jason G. Anderson
Victorian science fiction and fantasy are just begging for a steampunk treatment, and Anderson provides with aplomb. Gears of Wonderland trades out Alice for a schlub named James who is dragged into Wonderland against his will and better judgement. (He’s not unlike a lot of underground-dragged folk, like Richard Mayhew from Neverwhere: bland but upright.) Wonderland has changed since Alice’s adventures, and James finds himself in the middle of political intrigue and changing borders. Like we all do!
What’s your favorite alternate Alice?