It’s kind of sad when you find yourself writing about the death of a hero. This year saw the passing of not one, but two of mine. Earlier this year, it was Gary Gygax. Now, it’s Forrest J. Ackerman, who died on December 4th.
Among the people who’ve inspired me and set me on the path I’ve followed through life, Forry was one I encountered very early in life. Ray Harryhausen was first, but Forry followed soon after — I couldn’t have been more than 6 or 7 when my dad brought home a copy of Famous Monsters of Filmland, the magazine Forry created and edited for so many years.
I’ve always wondered if my dad read the magazine himself (which implies that he had some secret horror-movie-fan life I was completely unaware of!) or if he just bought it and gave it to me with no clue what was in it — my guess is he just knew I was a sci-fi and horror freak, even as a kid, and figured there was no harm in indulging that interest. “Hey, my kid loves King Kong and there’s the big ape on the cover of a magazine. Bet Warren’ll love it.” Yeah, that sounds right.
Whatever my father’s motivation, he kept giving me issues of Famous Monsters for years — I actually never bought a copy for myself. They always came from my dad. It was kind of private and mysterious and probably especially cool as a result. But as much as Famous Monsters established a personal bond between me and my father, it established another bond — between me and Forrest J. Ackerman. Reading Famous Monsters was as much a journey through Forry’s mind as it was a lesson in Hollywood history. And Forry’s mind was a very cool place, at least to a young kid.
He was funny, witty, a punster, and he loved the same stuff I did! An adult thought horror movies were important and worthy! How cool was that? Thanks to the Ackermonster, I was able to submerge myself in the world of Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolfman, the Creature from the Black Lagoon — the world Forry knew better than anyone, the world he loved to share with fellow fans. And Forry led his fans into all sorts of strange and uncharted territory.
Nowadays, when everything’s available on DVD, it’s hard to remember a time when it was nearly impossible to see Lon Chaney films or stuff like Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or Metropolis or The Old Dark House (look it up…). Forry introduced me and a generation of film fanatics to all sorts of obscure stuff.
But it wasn’t just what he shared with us, it was HOW he shared it. I mean, the man had a way with the language that was witty, goofy, endearing, adolescent, exhilarating, all at the same time. His puns were legendary. He was an adult who expressed himself with the unself-conscious enthusiasm of a kid. Which, of course, made him an uber-nerd (before being a nerd was cool) and which made it okay for oddball kids like me, who loved stuff other kids didn’t understand, to be uber-nerds, too.
But the nerdiest — and coolest — thing about Forry was the fabled Ackermansion. The guy had an incredible collection of film memorabilia. And all you had to do to get a look at the collection was to show up at his house for a private tour. Ho-Ly-Cow! Can you imagine? Forry opened his home full of the Coolest Stuff on the Planet to anyone who knocked on his door.
He had King Kong’s hand and the Thing’s arm… he had Dracula’s cape and the freakin’ robot, Maria, from Metropolis. In his house! Do I have to say how jealous I was? I didn’t have the opportunity to visit the Ackermansion myself, when I was a kid. And, to my everlasting regret, I was too shy or something to visit as an adult — even though I spend a fair amount of time in Forry’s old neck of the woods.
Thankfully, I did have an opportunity — two, in fact — to tell Forry how important he was to me and how he changed my life.
The first time was at WorldCon, in Anaheim, in 2006. He was speaking there, and there was a zero per cent chance I was going to pass up an opportunity just to be in a room with the guy. There were probably thirty people in the crowd, a pathetic turnout at the World SCIENCE FICTION convention, when you consider the guy coined the term “sci fi,” but I didn’t care. By the end of his talk, my face hurt from smiling so hard. Forry was obviously frail, physically, but he was still sharp as a tack and funny and full of incredible stories. I was completely entranced and, after his talk, I pushed through the mini-crowd of people surrounding him and stammered out my thanks. (Emphasis on “stammered” rather than “thanks” — I was pretty over-awed.)
Earlier this year, I had another opportunity to see Forry, at ComicCon in San Diego. (I blogged about this in my August 3rd post, “The San Diego Zoo.”) He seemed even more frail this time and you could sort of sense that he might not be around much longer. That made his talk poignant, of course, but he was still surprisingly sharp and still hellbent on entertaining his audience. This time, I stood on a pretty darn long line to get his autograph and probably annoyed a bunch of people behind me by going on at length, heaping praise on him for all he’d meant to me. He thanked me for my kind words and took up a pen to sign the photo and the book I’d brought with me. His hand shook as he scrawled his autograph and I didn’t dare to look to see what he’d written until later.
“Beast Witches! Forrest J Ackerman”
A pun! Just like the old days. The guy still had it, right to the end. Man, I’m glad I had the chance to tell him how much I appreciated him. The world’s a poorer place for his passing.