Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Tale of the Ackerfish

If you haven't heard, the broad field of science fiction and fantasy lost a legendary figure last week: Forrest J. Ackerman, perhaps best known as the editor of "Famous Monsters of Filmland" magazine, and as one of the world's foremost collectors of science fiction, fantasy and horror memorabilia.

Those things are only a little of what Forrey was, and what he meant to our genres. In his time, he was a writer, editor, literary agent (for many major writers, including L. Ron Hubbard), and translator (bringing the countless Perry Rodan books to the United States). He coined the dreaded term "sci-fi." He's reportedly the first person to wear a costume to a science fiction convention, giving launch to every cosplayer on the planet.

Okay, it starts to become clear why Forrey was to some, as infamous as he was famous. But his importance to the history of the sf/fantasy/horror genres, both in print and film, can't be overstated.

And what made Forrey great wasn't all the professional things he did in the field, really. It was that, through it all, Forrey was a fan. An uber-fan. The god-king-500-pound gorilla-high-wizard-United-Federation-of-Nerdery-atomic-supreme-Dalek of fans.

He did fannish things, only on a scale comparable with the pyramids. Fans have collections of book, or comics, or toys. Forry had the "Ackermansion" a home jammed with a massive collection of books, pulps, posters, and original film props, masks, models and costumes. Fans write fanzines. Forrey (in 1958) started "Famous Monsters of Filmland," a newsstand publication jammed with pictures and writing about genre films (mostly horror and fantasy, but a smattering of science fiction as well).

It was through Famous Monsters of Filmland that Forrey entered my life, as I discovered it hidden in the back of magazine rack of a little drugstore in Geneva, Alabama. I flipped through its pages, wide-eyed at creatures, sights, wonders and horrors, most of which were completely alien to me.

It's impossible for anyone born after the 70s to understand what this magazine meant to a generation. If you want to find out about films, or see them, it's easy. You've got cable, DVDs, the internet, pay-per-view, satellite, a zillion ways to access them.

But Famous Monsters of Filmland came along at a time before the internet. Before DVDs, or VHS, or even Beta. It was before Cable. It was at a time when television often meant a tiny, blurry, black and white picture selected from no more than an handful of channels, and in most areas, far less.

If you missed a movie in the theaters, you missed it, unless it eventually ran on TV, jammed full of commercials and cut to shreds by the censors. And I missed a lot of genre movies as a kid. Pretty much all of them, as a matter of a fact.

I lived in a tiny Alabama town, barely more than a wide spot in the road. I was miles (which might as well have been light-years) from the nearest theaters. On rare occasions I'd go to a movie with my family, or with family friend and sometimes baby-sitter Linda Miller (hi, Linda!), but rarely did I get to see the space-ships and monsters that I craved.

So Famous Monsters of Filmland was a window on a world I only barely knew existed, films I knew mainly through tiny ads in the monthly schedules that the local drive-ins printed and distributed everywhere. From those schedules I had only titles, and maybe a tiny picture of slogan to go with it.

In the pages of FMOF I could see pictures and read about the plots, special effects, and actors. I became obsessed with some of the images I saw there, and waited patiently until the movies that spawned them showed up on TV in some late-night or Saturday-afternoon time-slot. I might have eventually seen those films anyway, but FMOF told me what to look for, which films might be worth fighting my parents to stay up late or missing a sunny Saturday afternoon's playtime to watch TV.

It's certainly not the only thing that fanned my interest in science fiction and fantasy, but it was a major early influence on me.

Ironically, I don't think I bought many actual issues of the magazine. Maybe I preferred to spend my money on the comic spinner rack next to the magazines. Or maybe it was just that my mom considered the magazine to lurid and scary and discouraged me from buying it. I really don't remember. But I'd always pick it up off the rack and flip through it when the druggist wasn't looking. ("This isn't a library!")

My interest in FMOF waned after a few years. We moved to bigger towns where I had better access to theaters, and often more TV channels (some of them those wonderful independent stations that tended to cram their schedules with old movies). I got older, became more independent, and was able to stay up to catch the late-shows where genre films often played. But Famous Monsters of Filmland played a critical role in priming my interest.

I wasn't alone. A whole generation of people like me were also reading the magazine. Some, like me, went on to become writers. Others became makeup artists, prop-builders, costumers, and film directors. Out of its lurid covers and pulpy black-and-white pages came an army of genre creators, who unleashed countless pop-culture wonders and terrors upon the world.

Flash forward thirty years ago. I'm a struggling but published writer of science-fiction, fantasy, and horror, attending conventions to chase editors, make contacts, and learn my craft. My wife Chris and I are at a Westercon in Seattle, where we're approached by our friend, con-runner Richard Wright (who we sadly also lost a few years back). He asks if we'd like to attend the Locus Awards banquet. The convention has had to buy a minimum number of banquet tickets, and there are extras. Would we like a pair for free?

Starving writers don't turn down free food (even rubber chicken), and we gratefully accepted. We also figured we might make some contacts.

We didn't know many people in the field back in those days, and the few people we did know were sitting at already-full tables, so we got a table by ourselves. I'd seen Forrey's picture many times, and I knew he was at the convention, but until that point in time, I hadn't seen him. So I recognized him when he walked in late, accompanied by another old-time fan (whose name now unfortunately escapes me). They looked around for some place to sit, and we asked if they'd like to join us. Maybe to my surprise, they did.

I don't remember a lot of specifics about the banquet, but Forrey was charming, friendly, and talkative. We quite enjoyed their company, and I was a bit dazzled to be sitting across the table from someone who had so influenced my youth.

But one thing I'll never forget about the banquet were the table decorations. For reasons that escape me, the place-settings consisted of some kind of beach/luau kitsch, and at the end, we were encouraged to take anything we wanted as with us. At our table we all laughed about that, as we'd spent a good deal of time making fun of it all. There was certainly nothing there that any of us wanted.

But then, I had an inspiration. I'd not thought to bring a camera, so I couldn't get a picture with Forrey, but there was a way I could get a remembrance. I grabbed a cheap, ceramic fish from the centerpiece, held it out and said, "Forrey, will you sign my fish?"

He stared at it, puzzled, then laughed and took it. We found a ball-point pen somewhere, but it wouldn't write on the glazed part of the fish. Forrey turned it over and signed it on the unglazed bottom.

We've carried that fish around for years, through multiple moves, two states and three cities. It's usually been on display somewhere in our house, an incongruous item amid all the books, comics and sci-fi toys. I drew attention to itself. Visitors would ask why we had that ugly little thing, and I'd always pick it up, turn it over, and tell them the story.

When I learned of Forrey's death, it was in my living-room, sitting on a bookshelf. I knew exactly where to find it. The Ackerfish.

Some day, when we're old and gone, I imagine our our kids will be going through our stuff, and they'll see this ugly little fish, and maybe they'll throw it away without a second thought. But I hope not. It's an artifact. A link with an important bit of history that shouldn't be forgotten.

It's appropriate, somehow, that of Forrey Ackerman, collector, keeper of things, curator of whole genres, I have an object, an artifact to remember him by.

Goodbye, Forrey, and thanks for the fish.

1 comment:

  1. What a lovely story and a great memory to have of a great man. SF really needed Forrey Ackerman when it was an infant genre way back then and we are all indebted to him.

    I'm really glad that he turned out a nice guy when you finally met him. We often get advice not to try to meet our heroes as they will disappoint us. However, it's not been my experience yet, and it clearly wasn't the case with Mr Ackerman.

    We will long remember him.