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 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
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
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