Editor Spotlight: Betty M. Owen & Margaret Ronan

How young is too young to read H. P. Lovecraft?

Fear and horror are universal. No matter how old—or young—the audience may be. Yet weird fiction and supernatural horror have not always been universally available. From the 1920s to the 1950s, copies of Weird Tales might expect an audience of both teens and adults. Expensive hardcopy Arkham House editions were no doubt beyond the range of most teens; and the Armed Forces Editions no doubt weren’t read by anyone below recruitment age. In the 1960s and 1970s, paperback editions of H. P. Lovecraft’s fiction were beginning to be available in bookstores, but these were mostly marketed toward a grown-up audience: Lin Carter included two Lovecraft collections among the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series.

Yet there was a younger audience for horror fiction. Not necessarily the more sexually explicit or gruesome horrors of the shudder pulps, or the sophisticated psychological horrors like Robert Bloch’s Psycho, but there was certainly a market for spooky stories—and not stories bowdlerized or dumbed down for a younger audience either.

Enter Scholastic Book Services.

Scholastic started out in the 1920s publishing educational magazines aimed at a younger audience; as the company grew and diversified, they moved into book publishing as well, aiming affordable cheap paperbacks at a school-age audience, through book clubs and mail-order catalogs. By the mid-to-late 1960s, Scholastic began to offer original anthologies of supernatural horror fiction, mostly reprints of older material, and the number of reprint editions of individual titles suggests that they found some success.

Screenshot 2021-12-14 3.31.48 PM

Betty M. Owen was a Scholastic editor whose credits include Stories of the Supernatural (1967), Nine Strange Stories (1974), Teenspell (1974), The Ghostmasters: Weird Stories by Famous Writers (1976), and StarSreak: Stories of Space (1979).

11 Great Horror Stories was the first Scholastic anthology to include a Lovecraft story, and “The Dunwich Horror” is featured prominently. Probably the first introduction to Lovecraft for many young readers.

Owen as an editor has a light touch; while she selected and arranged the contents, she had no introduction or opening remarks for the stories, so her reasoning is opaque to us. However, Lovecraft is not in bad company, front of a queue that includes Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker, John Collier, and L. P. Hartley. Considering Owen would got permission from Arkham House to use “The Dunwich Horror,” and how prominent it is on the cover, we can assume that someone at Scholastic thought it was the real selling point of the book.

Among Scholastic’s associate editors was Margaret Ronan—who, before she married and took her husband’s name in 1940, was Margaret Sylvester, who as a teenager corresponded with H. P. Lovecraft. Ronan was a prolific editor and writer for Scholastic, first in their magazine Practical English and later especially prominent for her film reviews. Her work for Scholastic would include a combination of fiction anthologies and nonfiction works on macabre subjects, with titles like Astrology and Other Occult Games (1974), Hunt the Witch Down: Twelve Real Life Stories of Witches and Witchcraft (1976), Death Around the World: Strange Rites & Weird Customs (1978), House of Evil and Other Unsolved Mysteries (1978), The Dynamite Monster Hall of Fame (1978), Master of the Dead (1979), Curse of the Vampires (1979), The Dynamite Book of Ghosts and Haunted Houses (1980), and Dark and Haunted Places (1982). Yet the book Margaret Ronan is most remembered for is The Shadow over Innsmouth and Other Stories of Horror (1971).

Shadows1

Ronan centers her editing on her personal experience with Lovecraft, drawing forth an anecdote from his letters to her. The portrait she paints of Lovecraft is an informed one—the reference to Fritz Leiber, Lovecraft’s Selected Letters, and the repetition of the “black magic” quote suggest that Ronan was fairly current on Arkham House releases, which was the focal point of Lovecraft studies at the time—yet it is also a sympathetic, affectionate portrait:

He looked like a writer of weird sories. He was tall and gaunt, with a bony face that could have been a composite of the faces of actors Boris Karloff and Max von Sydow. But although the face might at first seem forbidding, the eyes gave away the real man inside. They were warm and friendly, interested in everything and everybody.

The choice of stories in this book is odd. “The Shadow over Innsmouth” is one of Lovecraft’s most iconic stories, but also a fairly long novella; “The Festival” is a classic alternative to the Christmas ghost story, and “The Colour Out of Space” and “The Outsider” are among Lovecraft’s best work. “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs” is an odd choice, but Ronan highlights Lovecraft’s connection with Houdini in her brief foreword to the story. “In the Walls of Eryx,” co-written with Kenneth Sterling, is very outside the norm—and “The Transition of Juan Romero” is far from Lovecraft at his best, with Ronan herself noting that it is “Short, and to the point!”

We don’t know what constraints Ronan operated under in selecting these stories, or what criteria she went by; budget for licensing the stories from Arkham House or limits on pagecount are both probable. Yet for the intended audience, this isn’t a terrible selection, and at a cost of only 75¢ was very affordable: Ballantine’s The Doom That Came to Sarnath (1971) was 95¢ for 208 pages. Any kid that got a copy was getting a good deal.

WW4Scholastic continued to publish magazines, even as they continued to expand their book sales beyond book clubs and mail-order catalogues into book fairs at schools. One of their odder offerings was Weird Worlds, a pop-culture/comic magazine edited by R. L. Stine (as Bob and Jane Stine).

Weird Worlds #4 (1980) includes among its features a reprint of “The Outsiders.” Ronan is present with articles on The Omen (1976) and UFOs; whether she had any hand in getting Lovecraft into one more Scholastic publication or not is unclear…but it would have been one more chance to give a younger audience that first taste of the Old Gent.

Children’s literature, like pulp fiction, tends to be ephemeral. Kids grow out of it, childish things are put aside. Scholastic books, generally unavailable in stores, cheaply printed and bound, and hard-used by the young readers, survive only because they were sold in such vast numbers that many still turn up at garage sales and thrift shops, and are often overlooked. These books are not, for the most part, expensive collectibles…but they did play their part in spreading Lovecraft’s legacy to a new generation.

Toward these pen friends he was unfailingingly generous—not only with what little money he had, but with his time and his encouragement. Without this encouragement, many of us would never have gone on hoping and trying to be writers.
—Margaret Ronan, The Shadow over Innsmouth and Other Stories of Horror


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard and Others and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos.

Deep Cuts in a Lovecraftian Vein uses Amazon Associate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s