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.

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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).


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.

Her Letters To Lovecraft: Margaret Sylvester

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.

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