It had started when packages of Universal Pictures’ horror films were released to TV stations, in those pre-video, pre-cable, pre-digital days. To see something then you had to wait for it to come on. I still remember the excitement we felt.
But, how is it that we were hipped to this particular action, as the Beatniks of the time might say?
One man, the coolest of the cool, really deserves most of the credit.
His name was Forrest J Ackerman. He was the editor of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine.
We Monster Kids would haunt the magazine racks of drugstores and convenience stores, hoping to run into a copy of this publication, which had anti-status in the adult world of the time. Teachers would confiscate (and often summarily destroy) copies found in a student’s possession.
Today I’m sure most teachers would be gratified to find kids actually reading anything.
But in those times, what educational philosophy there was abroad in the land centered on cutting down jungles, rather than irrigating deserts, to use pedagogical terms created by C.S. Lewis.
The idea was that children could go wrong by reading the wrong things. Pop Culture and comic books were heavily discouraged, thought to inculcate Juvenile Delinquency, whose black-leather jacketed spectre haunted the guardians of Right and Order.
Anyway, Forrest Ackerman put out Famous Monsters. Its pages were a love letter to the fantasy cinema. The layout was avant-garde and striking. The covers were often magnificent oil paintings by Basil Gogos, the Rembrandt of Monsterdom.
All in all, a heady package. Ackerman wrote using a playful, pun-filled style, but with real love for the subject matter.
He lived, as every Monster kid knew, in Hollywood— as he called it, “Horror-wood, Karloff-ornia.” His house, stuffed with a lifetime collection of Science Fiction and Horror movie memorabilia, was known as the Ackermansion. For Monster Kids it was a Lourdes, a Mecca– a place to make a pilgrimage to, if one was blessed with extraordinary good fortune.
I always wanted to go, but, alas! I lived in far-off Illinois.
However, far later in my own life, after I landed in California, a girlfriend of mine who lived in Los Angeles did me the incomparable favor of taking me to the Ackermansion itself.
I realized that childhood dream.
I followed “Uncle Forry” as he toured the fans through his delicious labyrinth for the umpteenth time, something he devoted a sizeable part of his life to doing.
There my eyes beheld such wonders as the dinosaurs from King Kong, the model lighthouse destroyed by the Rhedosaurus in The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (American precursor to Godzilla) and the model of the U.S. Capitol destroyed by the titular vessels in Earth vs. the Flying Saucers. I saw the head of the Metaluna Mutant from This Island Earth (1955).
After all those years, I was in Monster Heaven at last.
And there was more in this place. Acting as private guards, adoring, troll-like monster fans deliberately blocked wandering pilgrims from the doors to some of the “Mansion’s” rooms. But looking over the shoulder of the hulking form of one of them, I scoped out a shrine of another sort, where flickering votive candles and flowers surrounded an altar to Greta Garbo, decorated with many photographs and movie stills.
Oh, Ackerman was passionately devoted to the cinema in all forms. He, a worshipper in the movie-house dark, was the High Priest of an enthusiastic following, an army of acolytes.
An Esperanto-speaking futurist and would-be language reformer, Forrest J helped create our contemprorary cultural landscape. The term “sci-fi,” for example, was his, extrapolated from “hi-fi,” the most au courant music reproducing technology of the day. Also an agent for some working science fiction writers, he had on the site the greatest, most comprehensive collection of Pulp and Science Fiction magazines in the world.
At the very end of his life, he lost it all, house and all, sold to pay medical costs.
But what he did for a generation makes him, in my opinion and that of countless others, one of the architects of today’s living culture.
What would he have made of the New Yorker’s All-Science-Fiction Issue, which came out just last week?
[Silhouette on unrecognizable guest in the doorway of the dark industrial interior, via Shutterstock.com.]