Jennifer Cruise (editor), Totally Charmed: Demons, Whitelighters And The Power of Three

Our offices are filled with Benbella offerings. And we review them, you betcha. from Buffy to Farscape , Harry Potter to Flirting With Pride and Prejudice: Fresh Perspectives on the Original Chick-Lit Masterpiece – some successful, others merely well typed. So a look at the eight-season wonder that is/was Charmed? Sounds like a good fit. And it is. Probably because with this look Jennifer Cruise has her tongue planted firmly in cheek, giving her essayists the freedom to love and to mock, giving readers a multi-faceted view that in almost every case entertains as well as inform.

Yes, I said almost every case. I’ll get to the also-rans in a minute. I like to start off with the good news, and since there’s a lot more good that bad here, why not. Things start off well with Evelyn Vaughn’s “They killed Prue! YOU BASTARDS!” Vaughn’s South Park-tribute title leads in to a lighthearted, hip but nonetheless well-versed look at how killing Prue, the eldest Halliwell sister, was the best thing the powers-that-be could have done when the actress playing her left the show. As someone who raged against Prue’s death at the end of Season Three (and no matter how much I ended up loving Paige), I started the essay dubious. But this essayist makes her point clearly, and I came away with, if not total acceptance, then the possibility of finding it later down the road.

My favorite essays of the bunch go into all sorts of areas. “A Stake In The Future” by Ruth Glick (writing as her romance-lit alter-ego, Rebecca York) discusses feminism, the history of witchcraft, and Charmed as female empowerment in less than ten pages and still manges to entertain as well as inform. “Evil: Can’t Live With It, Can’t Quite Vanquish It” takes a look at evil and its place in the world, for better and worse. Want a world free of evil? Be careful what you wish for. And I agreed with Nick Mamatas’ observation in “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay, Casting Spells,”that “[n]obody ever nibbles on a See’s Candy. . . .” For crying out loud, I live on the East Coast and I know about See’s! How can that be San Francisco? But I digress.

The essay I could hardly wait to get my hands on when I scanned the title list was “What Is She Wearing?” a discussion of the fashion choices (and faux pas) of the Halliwell sisters. In ushering in this essay, the editor says that the Halliwell sisters attire, “. . . .is, well, Ho Lite.” After reading that little tidbit, it was all I could do not to skip right to that essay. In my defense, I got through the first seven pieces before I succumbed to my personal weakness for all things fashion. I wasn’t disappointed. Tanya Huff does a great job stripping down the Charmed Ones and finds that there may be a reason why they dress like five dollar hookers let loose in Barbie’s Dream House. That doesn’t help me find just the right corset, but her point is valid, and probably closer to the truth of the matter than the producers themselves would care to admit.

Some essays make points that are easy to see and easier to buy into. Others are a bit shakier; some of these are still enjoyable, others suffer for it. There’s only one time I yawned out loud. Robert A. Metzger’s “The Ultimate Witch” puts science side-by-side with witchcraft. Other than the oft-quoted “[a]ny sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” from Arthur C. Clarke, I found this piece to be dull, weighed down with overly-scientific discussion. Maybe it’s just the Liberal Arts girl in me. Tighten up the essay (it drones on for what seems like years, making ten pages seem like an entire physics textbook) and it could be a fascinating look at how a knowledge of science could have turned Piper into a modern-day superhero. As it stands, it sounds like my Dad, uber-science geek turned accountant, holding court. Yeah, fine, pass the peas.

Anne Perry’s “Charmed Into Goodness” doesn’t suffer from an overabundance of the subject matter. It just sucks because it’s dull as dishwater. It’s the rubber chicken in a room full of swans (or at least swans with a few doves and cardinals thrown in . . . oh forget it, you get the analogy). It’s a shame, because a writer with her cred had the promise to contribute something really amazing. But her essay sticks out; the tone and style are at odds with all of the other essays in this book. It may have been better placed in a critique of the show rather than a fannish compendium. And as with Metzger’s essay, it too goes on for far too long. Fortunately, the essays I enjoyed outweigh the two I didn’t care for. Otherwise it would have been painful.

In reading a few of these essays, I noticed that terms like “my friend” popped up when writers talked about the editor. If these essays had been placed earlier in the book, I would have been worried. Was it that difficult finding writers? Is it gonna be one of those compilations where everyone has the same fawning opinion? After reading the bulk of the essays however, these comments came off as an inside peek at the drawing together of this book, a sign that this person probably isn’t a raging fan (or, in the instance of the well-done “Seducing the Charmed Virgin,”even vaguely aware that the series even existed until this point) and so the opinion will be free of any long-term fannish loyalty.

This book was printed in 2005, as the eighth season of Charmed hit the airwaves. The essayists all write that the show is still on the air — a bittersweet irony, since the eight season was to be the final one for The Charmed Ones. I can’t help but wonder if any of these essays would change if they had been written after the show wrapped. But barring Phoebe’s knowledge of the future, who could have known what was about to happen?

The cover art is fantastic; the front and back of the book is treated like a tabloid paper, with essays hinted at in “outrageous” ways — “What Is She Wearing? — This Year’s Best and Worst Dressed Witches” and “Cole Turner: Romantic Hero or Mysogynist Pig?” I knew that this was a compliation that wasn’t going to take this show too seriously, or worse yet, revere the topic within an inch of its life. Since the show itself is more camp than high drama, it’s a perfect fit. I also loved the quickie biographies about each contributor thrown on at the end of each essay, because I hate having to page back and forth to get that information. Plus, bios in this style tend to be the hip, irreverent Stephen King-style bios that I enjoy much more than the dry, “real” bios often found at the end of “more serious” works. The end of the book features a mini-biography paragraph on each of the main actors in the series, a nice fannish tidbit.

You’d think that as a reviewer and editor that I’d have tons of books everywhere. You’d be right. Still, Totally Charmed will have a place on my bookshelves. Overall, this group of essays doesn’t give one solid viewpoint, and it’s all the better for it. It doesn’t even ask you to draw your own conclusions, but if you’re in that frame of mind this book is a great place to start working on it. I won’t say that it’s given me tons to think about, but it’s an enjoyable read, and the essays are worth revisiting for their humor, expertise and entertaining points-of-view. Plus, any book that has a picture of Cole Turner/Julian McMahon on the cover is a keeper.

 (Benbella Books, 2005)

About

Denise Kitashima Dutton has been a reviewer since 2003, and hopes to get the hang of things any moment now. She believes that bluegrass is *not* hell in music form, and that beer is better when it’s a nitro pour. Besides GMR, you can find her at Atomic Fangirl, Movie-Blogger.com, or at that end seat at the bar, multi-tasking with her Kindle.