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Forry: The Life of Forrest J. Ackerman
Deborah Painter
McFarland, 224 pages

Forry: The Life of Forrest J. Ackerman
Deborah Painter
Deborah Painter has written articles for such magazines as Filmfax and Horse and Horseman. She is an environmental services director for REMSA Incorporated and lives in Norfolk, Virginia.

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A review by Richard A. Lupoff

In all the years that science fiction fandom has been around -- since 1930 or so -- I can think of just three fans who have actually made a career of the hobby. I don't mean fans-turned-pro. There are lots and lots of those, from Marion Zimmer Bradley to Donald A. Wollheim to Terry Carr to Robert Silverberg to Harlan Ellison to... the list is very long. But to stay a fan, to make a profession out of being a fan -- now that's another matter. There was Sam Moskowitz, the self-styled historian of science fiction. And he did a good job of it, too! There was Charles N. Brown, who started publishing a little mimeographed newsletter called Locus and built it into a publishing mini-empire. And there was Forrest J Ackerman. No period after the "J," thank you very much.

Oh, was there ever Forrest J Ackerman. Uncle Forry. The Ackermonster. Dr. Acula. A few people despised him. Thousands loved him. He's been gone for three years now -- born 1916, died 2008 -- and Deborah Painter, a longtime friend of Forry's and sometime contributor to his magazines, has written a full-scale biography of the most Famous Monster of them all. Considering the long-term affectionate relationship between Ackerman and Painter, one would hardly expect this book to present an objective view of its subject. Nor does it. And that's all right. We know what to expect going in. We should not be surprised when we get it.

Painter starts her biography with a quick background sketch of Ackerman's family history, but she quickly gets into the substance of her subject. She introduces us to Ackerman as a boy and moves into a lengthy description of the cultural milieu which formed him, and in which he immersed himself for the rest of his life. There were two major elements in this compound: pulp magazines and motion pictures. While colorful and evocative, this section of the book is regrettably riddled with errors. I counted several dozen in the first half of the book alone. I will not regale you with a long list of these, but I will cite a few of the more egregious:

•   Dorothy McIlwraith is credited with editing Weird Tales in the 1920s. But she did not become editor of that magazine until 1940. Major editors in the 1920s were Edwin Baird and Farnsworth Wright.

•   Ackerman allegedly read Spicy Mystery Stories during this era, but Spicy Mystery Stories first issue did not appear until 1934.

•   The female lead in the film Metropolis is described as wearing a green dress -- but Metropolis was filmed in black-and-white.

•   Ackerman allegedly read comic books in the 1920s, but the first issue of the first comic book, Famous Funnies, was not published until 1933.

•   The author describes Ackerman as reading Thrilling Wonder Stories in the 1920s, but the first issue of that magazine was published in 1936. It was a descendant of several earlier magazines -- Science Wonder Stories, Air Wonder Stories, and finally, simply Wonder Stories -- but TWS as it was often called, made its debut with a cover date of August, 1936.

•   Bela Lugosi is credited with a starring role in the film Ninotchka. In fact he appeared in little more than a bit part -- one scene -- as a petty Soviet bureaucrat.

•   Amelia Reynolds Long is credited with writing "only ten" stories during her lifetime. Her obituary in the Harrisburg (PA) Patriot-News for March 31, 1978, credits her with thirty-four novels and "about 100" short stories. I have been able to locate only thirty-one of those novels and twenty-nine short stories. I cannot vouch for the others, but this output is far beyond that credited by Ms. Painter.

I guess there's a lesson here, and it's a familiar one that is drummed into would-be writers from junior high school onward. Write about what you know about! This maxim is subject to debate when it comes to writing fiction. After all, H.G. Wells never traveled to the year 802,701; Jules Verne never rode a hollow projectile to the moon; Edgar Rice Burroughs never visited Pellucidar. In fact, there is no such place. And as the late Robert Bloch was fond of saying, Agatha Christie made a career out of murder and mayhem but she never shot, stabbed, or poisoned a soul in her life. Even in a work of fiction you can't move Beijing to Brazil or make hydrogen heavier than iron unless you back it up with some convincing rationale. There's artistic license but then there's sheer absurdity. And nonfiction writing, whether journalism, science, or biography, must meet a higher standard of accuracy. In the present book Ms. Painter is a biographer, a reporter of sorts, and it behooves her to get her facts straight.

Here's another howler. Pardon me, they just keep on coming. Speaking of the death of Boris Karloff, the author says, "Karloff passed in the summer of 1969." That one stopped me cold. I remember the day I learned of Karloff's death. I was visiting Kansas City on a business trip and met my boss in the hallway of our hotel. He'd been listening to the morning news and he greeted me with the news that Karloff had died. I remembered the encounter as occurring on a cold, wintry day. That just didn't jibe with Painter's report that, "Karloff passed in the summer of 1969." It was easy enough to pull up the great actor's date of death. It was February 2, 1969. Summer, I suppose, in Australia. But in North America it was midwinter.

All of these errors -- and believe me, there are plenty more -- don't change Ms. Painter's affection for Forrest J Ackerman or alter her touching portrait of him. What they do, however, is undermine her credibility as a biographer. If she got so much wrong, how can the reader trust her about anything?

The fact is that Ackerman was a controversial character during his lifetime and he remains controversial to this day. His chief claim to fame is of course the magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland. This was ballyhooed in the fan press prior to its debut in February, 1958, as a serious magazine with carefully researched articles and archival photographs. It was to be the definitive journal of science fiction, fantasy, and horror films.

When the magazine actually appeared its very title suggested otherwise. The cover graphic was a photograph of a man in a rubber mask (actually, publisher James Warren) menacing a nubile young woman. There were indeed plenty of archival photos in the magazine, but the text was a mélange of corny gags, silly puns, and self-glorification by Ackerman, who not only edited the magazine but wrote most or all of its editorial content.

Ms. Painter asserts that Ackerman's original intention was indeed to publish a serious magazine. The planned title was Wonderama. It was at the distributor's insistence that the title was changed and the entire direction of the magazine was revised downward. The target audience, Painter states, was eleven-year-old children.

Serious science fiction fans were variously outraged or disappointed, but the distributor's decision was right. The eleven-year-olds flocked to Famous Monsters by the hundreds of thousands, eventually by the millions. The magazine was a huge success. It ran for decades, spawned an array of spin-offs and imitators, and after ending its initial run was revived several times.

Was Ackerman a silly, shallow, ego-driven clown, or was he a noble, generous, warm-hearted -- almost saintly -- individual? I suppose he was both. I know that my older son when he was a little boy met Forry at a convention and Forry took down his name and address. A few days later, Ken received a heavy package in the mail. When he opened it, he found a silver-painted plaster bust of the Frankenstein monster. I don't know what became of that keepsake but I do know that Ken loved it and treasured it for many years. Sending that gift was the kind of thing that Forry did.

Copyright © 2011 Richard A. Lupoff

Richard A. Lupoff is a novelist, short-story writer, critic, and sometime academic. His most recent books are Visions (currently in production by Mythos Books) and Quintet: The Cases of Chase and Delacroix (Crippen & Landru). He is also the Editorial Director of Surinam Turtle Press, an imprint of Ramble House.

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