Sunday, December 07, 2008

Passings: Forrest J. Ackerman--Magazine Editor, Pioneer of Fandom, Favorite Uncle

As I write this, DVDs of many of my favorite horror and sci-fi films sit on a shelf next to me--a library of fear at my fingertips. Exhaustive information about even the most obscure little genre films is just a mouse click away, and horror and sci-fi geekdom is a megalithic, multi-billion dollar industry. Thing is, literally none of it would exist without Dr. Ackula, Forrest J. Ackerman.

Ackerman, who died on December 4 at the age of 92, wasn't a household name to most folks, but he left a massive thumbprint on the horror and science fiction genres. He essentially created fandom, purchasing his first science fiction pulp magazine (Amazing Stories) in 1926, creating the first Science Fiction Fan Club in 1930, and popularizing the term 'sci-fi.' He spread the gospel of the fantastic to the world as a literary agent, editor, sometime author, and was a close friend to everyone from author Ray Bradbury to horror movie icons like Boris Karloff and Vincent Price.

But to me and two generations of horror-hungry kids, he was and will always be Uncle Forry.

Ackerman founded Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, the first periodical to exclusively cover fantastic films, in 1958. From its inception, the monthly mag was never a showcase for incisive cinematic analysis or cogent critical dissection, and Forrest Ackerman never pretended it was. No, FM was Uncle Forry sitting all of his surrogate nieces and nephews on his knee and sharing his wide-eyed awe and joy at fantastic film, in printed form.

Forry's personality imbued every page of the magazine. Many of the photos that covered its pages came from his vast personal collection, and he wrote a lot of his periodical's articles in a genial kid-friendly spirit peppered with loads of deliciously lousy puns ("You AXED for it!"). And he never failed to make fans feel part of the magazine, publishing photos of them on the Letters page and encouraging them to guess horror movie titles from Mystery Photos. One of the highlights of my eleventh year on the planet (1978) was opening FM #143 to see my name proudly printed alongside the couple-dozen other kids who'd correctly guessed the movie from whence the previous month's Mystery Photo arose (incidentally, the Mystery Photo was from Beyond the Door, and of course I still own my dog-eared copy of that issue).

It's hard to convey just how important this magazine was to me, and to so many other nerdy kids back in the day. I first discovered it as a horror-hungry first-grader circa 1973: There was no internet to spoon-feed reams of information to fans; no DVRs, DVDs, no VCRs. If you wanted to drink deep from the flagon of fantastic film, you either hit the first-run theaters, or you checked your TV Guide and made damn sure you were in front of the TV when Night of the Blood Beast aired, once, on one of the six channels sharing space on the analog airwaves. And if, God forbid, you actually wanted to read about (and see pictures from) horror or fantasy movies, there was literally one--and only one--source: Famous Monsters of Filmland.

Every month, I dragged my parents to the Book King bookstore in the Parkland Fred Meyer strip mall for the latest copy of FM, and then the rest of the day would be spent poring over the new issue with the intensity of a papal acolyte scrutinizing biblical passages. Still images from six decades of fantastic cinema--vampires, werewolves, alien invaders, zombies, giant bugs, and all manner of strange and scary things--stared back at me from those pages, ensnaring my imagination. FM irreparably turned me into an obsessive horror archaeologist, shrouded under a makeshift tent of a blanket so as to conceal the cathode glow of the TV as I watched Frankenstein's Bloody Terror into the wee hours of Saturday morning. Yep, I am the freak that I am today thanks to Dr. Ackula and his magazine.

As unassuming as it was, FM's largely non-judgmental style clearly conveyed the wonderfully non-snobby notion that all of horror cinema was a glorious continuum; features about outright (if entertaining) garbage like The Incredible Melting Man and The Giant Spider Invasion sat right beside coverage on silent masterworks like Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. That open-hearted outlook still colors, in the best possible way, my view of the cinema of the fantastic. And I wasn't the only one: Famous Monsters of Filmland amassed a small but devoted fanbase that included Steven Spielberg, Stephen King, Peter Jackson, and Tim Burton (to name a few).

Changing times and decreasing sales induced Forry to quietly fold Famous Monsters of Filmland in 1983, but he continued to keep himself plugged into all things horror and sci-fi--editing short story collections, putting out autobiographical books of his own, and making periodic and welcome cameo appearances in genre films like The Howling and Innocent Blood.

Rita and I had the pleasure of meeting Forry in person twice. The first time was in 1993, at the 35th Anniversary Famous Monsters World Con. We and about ten other lucky fans had breakfast with Forry, and he readily shared stories about Bela Lugosi, Fritz Lang, Peter Lorre, and Ed Wood with robust enthusiasm. He wore Lugosi's original Dracula ring on his finger, and in a gesture worthy of anyone's favorite uncle, he pulled the ring off and let each of us at the table hold it and/or try it on (imagine the paranoid OCD packrats who comprise today's collectors being so trusting).

A palpable melancholy tinctured our second meeting in 2004. Rita and I were on a two-week sojourn to LA and Hollywood, and we'd specifically carved out time to visit Uncle Forry at home. He'd just had a stroke a few months previous, and in 2003 he'd been forced to sell most of his priceless collection of fantasy film memorabilia in a yard sale: An odious toad who attempted to steal Ackerman's intelllectual copyrights in the mid-nineties lost the legal battle, but took Forry's finances down in the process.

The tall, hale, and hearty bon vivant that regaled and charmed us eleven years prior now stood shakily before us, physically enfeebled (per his request Rita helped Forry button up his shirt when he greeted us) but still sharp as a tack mentally. Uncle Forry answered our questions about his old friends Peter Lorre and Vincent Price with joyous enthusiasm (despite the fact that I'm sure he'd fielded such inquiries dozens if not hundreds of times), and let us take in his truncated-but-still-impressive collection of memorabilia. That he let two dorky fans stand within an inch of Lon Chaney's original prop fangs and top hat from 1927's London After Midnight just conveyed how generous he was with his collection, and with his love of the fantastic. Rita and I both hugged him before we left, and I for one embraced him so hard that I'm surprised I didn't crack his ribs. It couldn't be helped: The guy just inspired that kind of emotion in me.

Uncle Forry, I love you and will miss you more than I can possibly say. And fangs for the memories.

1 comment:

Brian Barker said...

Uncle Forry was a great pioneer for the new global language, Esperanto.
Dankon al vi Onklo Forry, pere de http://www.lernu.net