Blue Light of the Screen is a ghost story.
Not in the sense that it’s a story about a ghost, necessarily, but about one person’s fascination with ghosts, told in a series of vignettes, capsule reviews about ghost fiction, and musings on criticism and philosophy of ghosts and hauntings. Ghosts are all the way through it, and the book itself has something of a haunted, liminal atmosphere, like an empty, quiet old house where the TV suddenly turns itself on just before midnight. It’s not the most conventional of ghost stories–there’re no vengeful spirits or unfinished business or anything like that, no “ending in violence and trauma”–but there’s still a kind of lingering haunting feel. It’s a book about horror where the horror bleeds into and blends with the real world, where you begin to understand the monsters and why you’re afraid of them in a much more concrete and present way. While Cronin’s writing might be abstract and stream-of-consciousness at points, Blue Light of the Screen a book that connects to the reader, a book that longs to hide in the recesses of the mind, to help you understand what you feel in those cold moments or those quiet places, or whenever you turn on a horror movie. It’s an unnerving and dark work, full of emotional truth and surprising warmth, and could very possibly be one of the definitive works exploring the “why” of horror, rather than the what.
Presented as a book-length essay, Blue Light of the Screen is the story of one woman’s relationship with horror, as Claire Cronin recounts how she wanted to write an essay on horror that ends up instead becoming an intense memoir about her relationship with monsters, a primer on horror film criticism, a guide to movies, and a moving exploration of how monsters and supernatural events in horror relate to the actual feelings and thoughts of the audience. As it progresses, it builds a fascinating but mildly harrowing portrait of the book’s version of Claire, her family, and the idea that perhaps we all have our own hauntings, monsters, and strange events in our lives.
Blue Light of the Screen feels liminal. There’s this odd feeling when everything gets quiet late at night, when the background music starts to fade but you haven’t put on the next song yet, where the quiet feels heavy and it feels kind of as if you’ve slipped sideways into another dimension. When the only light a couple rooms away is that glowing oasis of the TV screen playing softly in the background and it feels like you’re adrift in darkness. Somehow, Cronin has managed to capture that exact feeling in Blue Light, using it to great effect as it fills the pages with a kind of lingering… strangeness, a feeling that something has made itself known and refuses to go away. It helps with the downbeat tone of the book, the atmosphere lending itself to the sensations Cronin describes, making each scene almost tangible. It’s a book you experience as much as you read, present in each one of Cronin’s various anecdotes and musings as she connects each point to the larger, more sweeping view of horror.
This book that works the way a mind works, slipping from topic to topic, associating as it goes along, each anecdote revealing more of the overall picture, paging through Claire’s memories and anecdotes, connecting them back and forth to a variety of psychologists, film theorists, and other scholars. A chapter can begin talking about satanism in horror, or werewolves, and then work seamlessly through the author’s personal history with faith and her mother’s attempts to perform a “long-distance exorcism” before sliding into a discussion of folk horror, all of it personal, all of it real, but all of it also informative. The elliptical style actually helps make the information more palatable, presenting the concepts Cronin wants to address not just in the academic context, but connecting them to a more real, personal context in a way that anyone can relate to. We’ve all had odd moments or elements of mysticism in our lives (some more than others, since it’s kind of a privilege to be able to dabble in things like that), and it definitely makes Claire’s relationship with horror–her nightmares, ideas, and the way she engages with the academic texts involved–that much more personal and understandable.
The result is something halfway between a work of horror criticism and The Man on the Ceiling by Steve and Melanie Tem, a book where the personal and the academic intersect constantly, a meditation on art and the supernatural that also contains a deep knowledge of horror tropes and criticism. As she shifts from recollection to recollection, Cronin manages to provide a wide breadth of commentary on criticism, everything from religious theories about horror to existential dread to the very mechanics of the genre, all of it showing a wealth of knowledge, but contained in an incredibly digestible way. It’s a perfect way to show one’s love for the genre while still exploring it in a new way, and creates a much more personal and approachable work than the wide-ranging discussion that would normally be presented divorced from the memoir portions.
Blue Light of the Screen might not be a book filled with overt horror, with ghosts and gore and overtly supernatural things, but it’s still a must for horror fans. With its deeply personal musings on horror and weirdness in the everyday, eerie and liminal atmosphere that makes it feel like a ghost encounter sometime in the middle of the night, and its layman’s-terms exploration of horror criticism and the why of horror as well as the what, it makes for a fascinating read and a definite jumping-off point for both horror and an exploration of the reader’s own life. In blending memoir, ghost story, horror critique, and scholarly essay, Claire Cronin has managed to create a book about horror that doesn’t just deliver the eerie and unnerving atmosphere horror fans expect from ghost stories, but one of the best investigations of the genre since Nightmare Movies. It’s a haunting and beautiful true ghost story wrapped around a personal relationship with horror, and it’s well worth the ride.