Dear Miss Sylvester:–
[…] Regarding the Necronomicon–I must confess that this monstrous & abhorred volume is merely a figment of my own imagination! Inventing horrible books is quite a pastime among devotees of the weird, & ….. many of the regular W.T. contributors have such things to their credit–or discredit. It rather amuses the different writers to use one another’s synthetic demons & imaginary books in their stois–so that Clark Ashton Smith often speaks of my Necronomicon while I refer to his Book of Eibon..& so on. This pooling of resource stents to build up quite a pseudo-convincing background of dark mythology, legendary, & bibliography–though of course none of us has the least wish actually to mislead readers. ….
Yrs. most cordially & sincerely,
H. P. Lovecraft
—H. P. Lovecraft to Margaret Sylvester, 13 Jan 1934, Selected Letters 4.344-346
Margaret D. Sylvester was born in 1918, which made her fifteen years old when she wrote to H. P. Lovecraft, care of Weird Tales, in late 1933 or early 1934. We know little about her life: at the time she was living in Denver, Colorado with her parents and two younger brothers, no doubt going to school and reading pulp magazines for entertainment. She seems to have had a taste for the macabre, and like many fans that wrote to Lovecraft, found that he wrote back. While we don’t know how regular their correspondence was, Lovecraft included her on his list to mail postcards to during his travels, and on his list of correspondents in his instructions in case of decease.
That letter from 13 January 1934 may well be the first; it has something of the tone of an answer, and questions about the Necronomicon was common early on in correspondence with Lovecraft. A long passage before this discusses the witch-cult and Walpurgisnacht, with Lovecraft borrowing from The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921) by Margaret A. Murray in his answer. “The Dreams in the Witch House” had been published in the July 1933 issue of Weird Tales, so perhaps that had precipitated the teenaged Margaret to pen a letter to him, filled with questions.
The best insight we have into Margaret Sylvester’s early correspondence with Lovecraft is in the few letters where he mentions her to others; in particular a long passage from mid-1934:
Am still shudderingly admiring the saponaceous monolith–& before I forget it, let me pass on a request for your charitable sculptorial services which I fancy you may wish to grant. A very bright young western correspondent–a damsel of precisely your own years who wrote me through W.T. & is interested in everything weird, especially art–has seen many of your drawings & the Cthulhu photograph (but not Ganesa), & has heard of your powers in clay-modelling & marionette work. Needless to say, her admiration of the Lord Ghu is boundless. Now it happens that she is herself an inveterate puppeteer, having given performances of “Dracula” & other horrors with figures made by herself; & contemplating such future triumphs as “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde” & “Beauty & the Beast.” Here is where you come in. Filled with respect for your fertile fancy, she will not be content till she gets a hellish clay head of your conception & workmanship for the Beast figure of “Beauty & the Beast.” Evidently she prefers a typically Barlovian nameless Thing to any conventional phiz. I’ve told her to write you direct–but if she doesn’t, & if you think the honour of representation & credit in an undoubtedly clever & probably oft-repeated marionette show would be sufficient reward for the sculptural effort, you’d better drop her a line yourself asking for mechanical particulars & further ideas. Address: Miss Margaret Sylvester, 4515 East 25th Ave., Denver, Colorado. I’d do it if I were you–since such modelling is an intrinsic pleasure. You’ll probably find this kid an interesting correspondent, too–very bright, though not a writer so far as I know. And a great admirer of your cinema hero Singor Lugosi.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 22 Aug 1934, O Fortunate Floridian 166
“Lord Ghu” was one of Lovecraft’s nicknames for Barlow, who had taken to modeling figures in clay, including a tablet-image of Cthulhu and a statue of the Hindu god Ganesha. “Singor Lugosi” would be actor Bela Lugosi, whose filmography included Dracula (1931), Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), White Zombie (1932), Chandru the Magician (1932), The Black Cat (1934), and The Return of Chandru (1934).
As it happened, Barlow declined the project. However, Barlow did agree to loan “Little Maggie” his copy of Gustav Meyrinck’s The Golem, which was currently being read by Catherine Lucille Moore; one can imagine the young Margaret Sylvester’s surprise to get a package from Weird Tales author C. L. Moore in the mail one day. Margaret Sylvester would in turn forward the book to Lovecraft’s correspondent Duane W. Rimel when she was done with it.
In about May 1935, a chain letter was sent to Lovecraft—Margaret Sylvester is the name immediately before Lovecraft’s. He forwarded the chain letter, including a few judicious remarks, to Barlow for his amusement.
So you’ve had several of the chain things come, eh? I’ve seen only two so far–Bro. Hadley’s & Little Maggie’s. The latter child seems to be in the business–indeed, according to press reports it started in her town.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 24 May 1935, O Fortunate Floridian 275
No doubt the letters in 1935 would have included mention of her poetry:
Angelus, 1935 East Side High School Yearbook, page 135
There are some indications that Lovecraft may have recruited Margaret for the National Amateur Press Association c. 1936, but if she ever published her “credential”, it is not known where or when. No doubt the letters from 1934-1936 were filled with a mix of Lovecraft’s typical accounts of news & travel and whatever topics that the two found of interest to share and discuss…such as Margaret Sylvester’s graduation from North Side High School in Denver, Colorado, and her aims at higher education.
You missed little Maggie Sylvester by only a few days, since she set out for the metropolis on the 11th. I’m telling Leedle Meestah Stoiling to extend her a welcome. Her address is now 157 E. 57th St., N.Y.C.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 16 Sep 1936, O Fortunate Floridian 360
And little Maggie Sylvester of Denver is in New York for an art course or something–to be addressed at 157 E. 37th St.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 29 Sep 1936, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 649
Leedle Meestah Stoiling cut the Harvard Tercentenary in order to stay longer in N Y with his parents. He tried to see little Maggie, but had to proceed to Cambridge before he could find her at home.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 30 Sep 1936, O Fortunate Floridian 363
“Leedle Meestah Stoiling” was Kenneth Sterling, another of Lovecraft’s young correspondents, with whom Lovecraft would collaborate on “In the Walls of Eryx.” It is not clear where in New York Margaret Sylvester attended art school, but her 2010 death certificate reads: “Some college credit, but no degee.” so for whatever reason she did not graduate. Perhaps she found a job; we know that in 1940 she married Frank Ronan, and took his name as Margaret Ronan. She was employed by Scholastic Publications as a critic, writer, and editor, publishing both anthologies and nonfiction books with a distinct horror bent aimed at the children/young adult market. In 1971 she edited The Shadow over Innsmouth and Other Stories of Horror, which may have been many a teen’s first introduction to Lovecraft, and there she wrote:
With his correspondents, Howard Lovecraft could relax. His letters, written in tiny, crabbed writing, are full of sly humor. Instead of a return address and a date, they could bear such headings as “Black Marsh of Gthath, Hour that the Ooze Stirs,” or “Black Cylinder Floating between Two Universes, Hour of the Burning Galaxy.” In one letter he sent to me, he refers to a description of himself given by a mutual friend: “As it happens, several points in Mr. Sterling’s word-picture are misleading. It is out of my right, not left shoulder that the ropy tentacles grow. What grows out of the left shoulder is one of my four eyeless heads. This head is not to be confused with the one growing out of my right elbow (the one with the green fangs).”
—Margaret Ronan, “A Word to the Reader”
An extract from a single letter to Margaret Sylvester (13 January 1934) was published in Lovecraft’s Selected Letters IV. Arthur S. Koki obviously contacted Margaret Ronan, because he cites and quotes from several of her letters in his 1962 M.A. thesis “H. P. Lovecraft: An Introduction to His Life and Writings.” Most of these are fairly small and give little of the flavor of their correspondence, but two fragments stand out, the first on the death of Robert E. Howard (which occurred on 11 June 1936) and the second on the issue of marriage:
I doubt whether there was any definite cause aside from Mrs. Howard’s approaching death. As I see it, it was simply the disastrous combination of a certain kind of temperament with one sharp blow. Probably it would never have occurred if good old Two-Gun hadn’t been watching sleepless by his mother’s bedside for endless weeks. He was nervously & physically exhausted by those weeks of overwork, sleeplessness & tension–brooding deeply (as shown by poems like ‘The Tempter’) even though putting up a brave front to the outside world. Then came despair–& the consciousness that the fight for his mother’s life was hopeless. With no energy to resist the shock–no fund of healthy life-clinging, nerve-twisting strain–poor REH reacted in what must have seemed the shortest & simplest way. And what a damned shame! But of course I suppose general temperament was a factor. Despite his violent, assertive contempt for the “artistic attitude,” Two-Gun was essentially of the neurotic aesthetic type–that is, a person filled with imaginative concepts of certain conditions unrelated to reality which he would like to see around him, & correspondingly resentful of the pressure of the actual world.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Margaret Sylvester, October 1936, Koki 298-299
I do not regard marriage as a social superfluity, but believe it has extreme stabilizing value in the organization of a state Its advantages are numerous & varied–& are indeed so apparent to the unbiased anthropologist that even Soviet Russia (where no traditional institution is kept up for tradition’s sake alone) is beginning to urge its systematic maintenance & more faithful & universal practice.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Margaret Sylvester, n.d. (Jan 1937?), Koki 212
Presumably, most of the surviving letters from Lovecraft to Margaret Sylvester are in private hands. It is known that there are three letters at the John Hay Library, including the full 13 January 1934 letter that is excerpted in the Selected Letters. Also included is a letter believed to date from February 1937—one of the last letters that Lovecraft would write—with the address given as “Cave of the Crumbling Bones.” A copy of this letter was in the collection of actor Christopher Lee, who brought it out during the episode “Demons” on the series 100 Years of Horror (1996).
We can only speculate how much the correspondence with Lovecraft shaped a young Margaret Sylvester’s life. No doubt she was already on her macabre path, but no doubt too that he gave her encouragement to pursue those interests.
Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard and Others and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos.
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