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Hollywood

Gods and Monsters: Forrest J Ackerman, 1916-2008

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Mon, Dec 8, 2008 at 7:53 PM


Forrest J Ackerman, who passed away last week from heart failure at the age of 92, may  end up best remembered as the man who coined the term "sci-fi." That's no small legacy in a culture often chronicled in shorthand - Jack Kerouac's "beat generation," comes to mind, or

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Herb Caen's more reductive "beatnik." But Ackerman meant much more to the world of fantasy literature and film than a phrase. In those long decades between the end of silent movies and the advent of videos and DVDs, he was a werewolf John the Baptist, a monster's voice in the wilderness of pop culture when horror and science fiction movies, hampered by unconvincing special effects and poor scripts, were routinely met with critical dismissal.



(Forrest J Ackerman photo by author)



A literary agent (Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov), editor (Famous Monsters

of Filmland), headline punster ("You Axed For It," "Fangs for the

Memory," etc.), eternal background extra (The Howling, Michael

Jackson's Thriller), Ackerman grew up in Los Angeles watching silent

films and reading issues of Amazing Stories. He later helped form a group of

fantasists that included writers Bradbury, L. Ron Hubbard, Robert Heinlein and

pulp illustrator Hannes Bok. The friends spent hours at Clifton's

Cafeteria on Broadway during the Great Depression discussing their

favorite authors and movies.

Ackerman's biggest achievement was launching, in

1958, Famous Monsters of Filmland, a magazine whose appearance coincided with the horror-movie renaissance begun by Britain's Hammer

Films. Less than a decade later the magazine's popularity began

cresting upon a new wave of big-budget, quality sci-fi films (Planet of the Apes,

2001: A Space Odyssey) and thoughtful TV series (The Outer Limits, Star

Trek) that took

advantage of new special effects technologies.

Ackerman's shameless exuberance and profligate use of

exclamation points dazzled me, then a gloomy 11-year-old who moped

about reading his parent's copies of Time and the New York Times. Much

to the dismay of my future friends, Ackerman's incorrigible punning

would rub off on me for the rest of my life, and Famous Monsters'

letters page was the first place my writing appeared in print.



However, despite a laudable dedication to celebrating the

accomplishments of pre-talkies actor Lon Chaney and special effects

wizard Willis O'Brien, Famous Monsters was too often stuck on the Universal Pictures horror cycle of the 1930s, along with

a focus on contemporary, mediocre low-budget sci-fi flicks. There was no aesthetic

discrimination - any late-career drive-in movie made by Lon Chaney Jr.,

the silent star's alcohol-ravaged son, rated as much space as King Kong

or Metropolis.



Then, in 1962, Ackerman's L.A.-based magazine faced unwelcome competition from an

East Coast publication called Castle of Frankenstein, whose cineastes

exuded a cool, low-keyed appreciation for things outre while expressing an

improbable bond with the French nouveau vague. While Famous Monsters

was running spreads on Billy the Kid vs. Dracula and other cinematic

jokes, Castle of Frankenstein's writers were discussing The Seventh Seal

and Repulsion, or annotating the historical and literary antecedents

of Bram Stoker's Dracula.

 Ackerman's magazine would eventually disappear in a sad dust cloud of

legal troubles, having been surpassed, ironically, by slicker

publications whose existence he had helped make possible. He still

reigned, though, in the big Los Feliz hills house that was home to his

Alexandrian library of first edition fantasy books, along with a formidable movie collection  that he began amassing as a boy and which included Bela Lugosi's Dracula ring

and Lon Chaney's makeup kit. For years

Ackerman would spend Saturdays cheerfully leading tours of people

through his home. In some rooms props and costumes lay scattered and

deteriorating, like stop-action animation master Ray Harryhausen's Ymre

creature model from 20 Million Miles to Earth. But elsewhere there were

well-tended shelves of various Dracula editions, and nicely framed art

from such illustrators as Virgil Finlay.

In the end, though, most of

this trove had to be sold to pay legal expenses as Ackerman fought

vainly to regain control of Famous Monsters of Filmland. At least he

lived to see Hollywood become nearly dominated by blockbuster films about

monsters, space travel and super heroes.

Good-night, sweet prince of

darkness.



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