Mr. Forrest J. Ackerman -- a.k.a. Forry, 4SJ, FJA, Dr. Acula, Mr. Monster, the Poor Man's Vincent Price, etc. -- is the world's biggest monster fan! His unique career has spanned almost the entire history of science-fiction, and his creation in 1958 of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine sparked a 1960's monster craze that brought nearly-forgotten greats like Lon Chaney, Bela Lugosi, and Boris Karloff back to life for a whole new generation. We can think of no better person to introduce our WONDER Monster Issue than our dear "Uncle Forry" and we hope that those of you who haven't had the pleasure will read this interview and grow to love him as we have.
WONDER: Forry, what's it been like to be such a father figure to so many wistful fantasy fans over the years?
FORRY: It is certainly gratifying. I met a young man here today who just couldn't say enough about how much I had influenced his life. He said he'd patterned himself after me. Young Stephen King sent me his first story at age 14. I looked over it and said, "Well, I don't see any talent here...I think this fellow will end up as a bricklayer." Just kidding. He's laying gold bricks these days. It's rather strange, since I never had any children, that I seem to have acquired thousands of "children"...these that I've influenced. Actually, I often feel that what I've done with my own life is to pattern myself on other people. Whatever I see in a Boris Karloff or someone else that people appreciate I say to myself, "Well, all right...I'll be like that part of Boris Karloff. Or that part of Isaac Asimov. Or Ray Bradbury." And so I feel like the Frankenstein monster: put together with different bits and pieces of other people's personalities. I don't know exactly what I had to start with...
WONDER: Well let's go back to the beginning and talk about that. What did you have to start with? How did your interest in monsters and fantasy begin?
FORRY: Well, I grew up very much under the influence of my maternal grandparents. They took me to see as many as seven films in a single day. The first movie I ever remember seeing -- in 1922 -- was a fantastic one called One Glorious Day. It was about a little boy who died and went to heaven -- but then they kicked him out because he made such a nuisance of himself! We in the audience could see him, but to the people in the picture he was invisible. When a man would go to light a cigarette, the kid would blow it out. In my tiny mind I found that very amusing. Fortunately, Lon Chaney-- "The Man of a Thousand Faces" as they called him--began his great career about this time and my parents took me to see everything Lon Chaney ever appeared in. On the literary side, one of the turning points in my life was in 1926 when I was nine years old. I went into a store in Los Angeles that had a newsstand (I'm afraid it was still standing until the Rodney King riots last year) and I laid eyes on the cover of the October 1926 issue of Amazing Stories magazine, edited by the great Hugo Gernsback. There was a sort of "lobster man" on the cover and he seemed to be saying to me, "Take me home little boy. You will love me!" That was the start of a lifelong love affair with science-fiction...and also with Frank R. Paul's artwork. He painted that cover, and of course many others for Gernsback publications.
WONDER: That's right, for nearly twenty years before Famous Monsters first appeared you were known as "The World's Greatest Science-Fiction Fan."
FORRY: I still AM the World's Greatest Science-Fiction Fan! It's true that although I've been associated with monsters for a good many years now, my first love was always science-fiction. But I don't really draw any hard boundaries between the categories of fantasy, science-fiction, and horror. They're all concerned with taking us out of the here and now for a glimpse of the possibilities. I'm interested in the sense of wonder. Man is an inquisitive creature with a simian itch to find out the answers to the questions he wonders about. I figure I have only one life to live and so I want to cram as much of the universe into that life that I can during that period...even if it's only armchair travel. This idea has been important to me for almost 70 years now...something I share with two good friends I've had for nearly as long...
Ray Harryhausen, Ray Bradbury, and I go back a long way...back to the 1930's when we met at regular meetings of the Los Angeles Science Fiction Society. Ray Harryhausen was busy in his father's garage at that time, teaching himself stop-motion animation. And Ray Bradbury stood on the street corner every morning for two hours selling newspapers in order to get the money to rent a little hole-in-the-wall garage where he took an old typewriter and never let a day go by without forcing himself to turn out 5000 words. I'll never forget that on the day he was married, Ray Bradbury stood before a furnace and burned two million words of Bradbury manuscripts with which he was not satisfied. The heirs of people like H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard would scour their belongings looking for tiny scraps of unfinished manuscripts which they could publish or turn over to some writer to finish and make a fast buck off of. Ray has always cared more about the opinion of posterity than the potential of making a fast buck in the present. He said that if he died of ecstasy on his wedding night he didn't want his well meaning friends to publish that two million words. When Ray was a teenager and he wanted to take a girl out on a date, it could be done for a dollar. Most movies were twenty-one cents, plus a nickel each to ride the streetcar, and then five cents for a bottomless tub of popcorn--instead of the five dollars you pay today. Well, I was always good for a buck. He'd bring me a book, I'd pay him a buck, and he'd have his date. One day in 1933 he must have had a real heavy date because he came to me and wanted two dollars for a book! So as an excuse for the extra dollar he brought me a copy of the novelization of King Kong--supposedly written by England's top mystery writer Edgar Wallace, but actually ghosted. I looked inside and saw that it had Edgar Wallace's signature in it. Well, I didn't stop to wonder how a teenage kid like Ray Bradbury had got the autograph of an author six thousand miles away in England (I hadn't heard of Wallace's having been in California) and so I paid him his extra dollar.
Twenty-five years later, on my birthday, I invited a lot of friends over. Actually, my house was a lot smaller then and I had so many friends over that we had to have five birthday parties; Friday night, Saturday matinee, Saturday night, Sunday matinee, etc. Well, Sunday night Ray Bradbury was among those present. And he attracts fans like a magnet attracts iron filings--they were all around him. Suddenly, his eye happens to light upon that copy of "King Kong" he'd sold me twenty-five years before. He kind of blushed and then he gingerly took it off my shelf and sort of shamefacedly crept over to me and said, "Forry, I have a terrible confession to make. I wrote that Edgar Wallace signature in your book." And I said, "You dirty dog! Give me back my dollar!" (Much laughter).
And so in the ensuing days I thought to myself, "Well, I bet Ray really regrets that he sold me that book in the first place. King Kong is one of his favorite films." And by that time the book was already a collector's item and worth rather a lot. So I decided to shop around and find him one. Before long I did find one--and right before I gave it to him I opened it up and wrote, "To Ray Bradbury--from the REAL Edgar Wallace!"
I think I was always loaning Ray money back then. In 1938, I loaned him money to finance his fan magazine called Futuria Fantasia. He filled it with good stuff--a lot of his own work and pictures by the artist Hannes Bok. I lent Bradbury fifty bucks so that he could spend three days and nights on a Greyhound bus in 1939 traveling to the first World Science Fiction Convention in New York City. It took him a couple of years to pay me back...but he's one of the few people who ever did.
There were only 185 of us at that first science-fiction convention. It was sort of a lonely thing to be a science-fiction fan in those days and there weren't many of us. Most people ridiculed us as "those crazy idiots who think that man can fly to the moon one day." Well, one of the big events at the convention was a banquet--but only twenty-nine of us could afford it. I couldn't even loan Bradbury the money for it; it was, after all, a dollar-a-plate affair. No food, mind you, just the plate. (Big laughs) Boy, I'm going to keep you guys around...you're a good audience. Anyway, I can still remember the men who sat to my right and to my left at that dinner. The late Willy Ley, the rocket expert, was on one side and L. Sprague de Camp was on the other.
But yes, that was a whole different world. I was a shy introverted kid at that time. I trembled with every clickety-clack of the railroad track as I crossed the country by rail to get there. I remember getting as far as Chicago and then thinking I'd better turn around and go home. I'd already acquired something of a reputation in sci-fi circles as a critic, by this time. Over the past ten years or so I'd had letters of mine published in every major science fiction magazine of the day and was pretty well known to anyone who followed the letters pages. And so I was scared to death that when I got to the convention somebody would notice me in the crowd and ask me to stand up in front of everyone and be recognized or something. I was paralyzed at the thought; it was just too, too frightening. But at the same time...that convention was like a lodestone. The thought of actually meeting...say, Frank R. Paul, the artist, or author Ray Cummings...the idea of seeing Metropolis again in their screening room, and perhaps The Lost World...well, I finally decided I'd have to risk it after all.
And so I went on to New York. And when I got off the train at the end of the line there were half-a-dozen fans standing there waiting for me. I remember young Donald Woldheim as being there (still just a fan--not the important SF publisher he would later become)...but most vividly I remember a 15-year old fellow with a bit of a paunch and dribbling cigarette ash down the front of his shirt. He looked me up and down rather disdainfully and then said, "So you're the Forrest Ackerman who's been writing those ridiculous letters to the science fiction magazines!" That fan eventually became Cyril Kornbluth, one of the greatest science fiction writers of all time. And he punched me in the stomach! I thought, "Well, welcome to Fun City, Ackerman. I should have gone home in Chicago!" As it turns out, I was recognized at the convention and even asked to speak. I instantly got the world's biggest migraine at the thought--but thankfully Mrs. John W. Campbell was there with some aspirin and she rescued me...
Well, in spite of the rocky start I had a wonderful experience there in New York. I'm sometimes credited with starting the practice of wearing costumes at this sort of convention. I arrived at the '39 WorldCon wearing a costume that was sort of a cross between the kind of futuristic hero Frank R. Paul liked to paint and Raymond Massey's get-up from Things to Come. A lot of people told me "God, I wouldn't have the nerve to walk around the streets of New York looking like that!" But I loved it. Little children on the street would point at me and say, "Mommy, look! It's Flash Gordon! It's Buck Rogers!" One afternoon we went over to the 1939 New York World's Fair which was in full swing there at Flushing Meadow. And the Fair, of course, was built on a theme of "The World of Tomorrow" anyway, so I thought I'd go there in my outfit. One of the things they featured at the Fair was a platform with a microphone reserved where visitors from far away places could come up and say a few words in Swedish or Russian or whatever. Well anyhow, I got this quixotic notion that since I could speak Esperanto I'd go up to the stand and announce that I was a man from the future and that I was here for the World's Fair and the World Science Fiction Convention. A lot of my friends asked, "How did you get the nerve to do something like that?" Well, I guess I was a little like Clark Kent. When I got this futuristic uniform on I sort of became a different person and lost all my fear.
I did pretty well at that convention. There was an auction and I paid the highest price for any item there: $10.00 for an original Frank R. Paul painting.
WONDER: And no doubt it's part of your legendary collection to this very day. Tell us how "The World's Greatest Science Fiction Fan" became "Mr. Monster."
FORRY: As I said, way back in the 1920's I began by admiring science fiction editors. First Hugo Gernsback, the Father of Science Fiction, and then later John W. Campbell, who developed it to such a high degree with his magazine Astounding. And also other editors--H.L. Gold and Anthony Boucher. It was a great dream of mine to become the fifth individual on that list--the great science fiction editors. After I was gone I wanted people to say, "What a great science fiction editor Forry Ackerman was."
Well, I came close to fulfilling that dream in the early 1950's. I was contacted in New York by some men who wanted me to edit a magazine to be called Sci-Fi. It was a great opportunity; I wanted to use it to get back to SF first principles and try to get back to stories like those of the "Golden Age." I went right to work and convinced author Raymond F. Jones to do a sequel to Fifty Million Monkeys, and I also got new work from Ray Bradbury and A.E. Van Vogt and other writers who were of the caliber I was looking for. Sci-Fi was going to be a slick magazine--not a pulp--about the size and shape of Playboy, and the budget was very respectable; definitely in line with Analog, etc. The publishers really wanted to get a first look at some really top quality writing. Unfortunately, before they got around to publishing Sci-Fi, they did two issues of a magazine called Smart Money--which turned out to be anything but smart! They went smash and there went my dream of editing a science fiction magazine.
At about the same time a man named Jim Warren was publishing one of the many "poor man's Playboys" that were hitting the market then; this one called After Hours. I was a literary agent representing, as I still do, over 200 different writers. Well, all of these Playboy-type magazines inevitably include a short story or two, many times science fiction or fantasy. So by the time Warren had put out his fourth issue, I'd already sold him several fantasy stories. For each issue of After Hours Warren picked out a theme--you know, "The Girls of Vienna," "The Women of Paris," that sort of thing--and so one day I sold him on the notion of "The Alien Girls of the Other Planets" and "The Women of the Future." And so he went all out and did a science fiction issue. I did a feature for it called "I Was a Sci-Fi Addict" and also one called "Scream-O-Scope," about horror movies. And so you can see that this sort of set the tone for Famous Monsters. We included in that issue a lot of pictures of the "Scream Queens" of the past--Fay Wray, Mae Clarke, and the rest. And somehow it caught on; that issue was really something of a success. But I'm afraid there were some shady doings in the bookkeeping department and so After Hours magazine failed after its fourth issue.
Well, about this time I Was a Teenage Werewolf came out and it made such a sensation at the box office that Life magazine ran an eight page feature about all these new "teenage" movies. Never one to miss a chance to find some money lying around somewhere, Jim Warren had just enough cash and credit left to do a "one shot." I think he would have done it about some Rock 'n Roll singer or Marilyn Monroe or skiing or something, but what with this new monster craze blooming, he thought that perhaps the world could do with one issue of a monster movie magazine. He called me from three thousand miles away and said, "I know you're very serious about this kind of thing, so I don't know what you're going to make of what I'm about to say but...you are about to become the editor of a magazine called...dum-da-dum-dum...Famous Monsters of Filmland!" I held the receiver away from my ear and said, "Do I have to put my name on it?" (Laughing). So he came to Los Angeles and we rushed out the first issue. He sat opposite me at a table and for twenty hours I was sitting behind a smoking typewriter. I was afraid the typewriter was going to die of lung cancer, it was smoking so badly. And Jim Warren held an imaginary sign in the air in front of me the whole time that said, "Forrest Ackerman, I am eleven-and-a-half years old and I am your reader. Make me laugh!" If I turned out something that he didn't think would make an eleven-and-a-half year old kid laugh...why, back to the typewriter I went.
It didn't hit the stands all over the United States immediately--it came out just in New York and Philadelphia at first, as a trial run. And the week it came out in New York there was a big snow storm--about three feet up around the newsstands--and so we were thinking, "Doom!" Nobody's going to go out to buy our little magazine...they won't go out for Life or Time in this weather! But at the end of four days we got 200 fan letters! They started coming in at rate of 50 a day just from New York and Philadelphia. And so Jim said, "Wow! If it goes like this all over the country...Forry, do you think you have enough material to squeeze out just one more issue?" And I said, "Jim Warren, you don't know me very well. I don't happen to believe in re-incarnation but if I did somehow keep coming back to this world I could keep your magazine running for five hundred years!"
To tell you the truth, I originally had no earthly intention of doing 190 issues of a magazine aimed at eleven-and-a-half year old boys who wanted to laugh. Like I said, I assumed this Famous Monsters thing would be a one-shot. I didn't suppose that it would ever go beyond the first issue. What I really wanted to do was a magazine called Wonderama. Wonderama was a dream of mine. It was going to give really full-fledged coverage of the great fantasy films; Frankenstein, Dracula, King Kong, Metropolis. I was going to provide information on the cast & crew, quote the reviews, and give some of my own opinions...sort of an encyclopedia. But there were thirteen potential distributors for such a magazine at the time and every one of them turned the idea down. They just couldn't see any merit in Wonderama. But Famous Monsters took off like gangbusters.
A couple of months after that first issue came out, I was in a swimming pool full of people who didn't know me from the proverbial Adam and I overheard one mother say to another, "You wouldn't believe the magazine my kid brought home the other day...full of all these crazy monsters!" And she said, "There was this picture of a mummy and the caption said the mummy fell into a swimming pool and became an instant mud pie!" And everybody at the pool was cracking up and I thought, "Geez, that came out of my fingers about six weeks ago."
FM seemed to be a formula that worked. But after a while, the eleven-and-a-half year old boys were fifteen-and-a-half or twenty-and-a-half and then they began to complain about, you know, why didn't the magazine grow along with them? What they weren't realizing was that every month there was a new crop of eleven-and-a-half year old boys. It would have been ideal if you could have two magazines--one for the kids who were growing up and one for the youngsters. But I had to try to hit a happy medium there between the two ages.
WONDER: Was your later Spacemen magazine intended to reach this older age group?
FORRY: Yes. Spacemen was about twice as much work for me to do, but I got paid about half as much. And...well, by the time we'd done eight issues the publisher finally said, "I'm not doing this to be a philanthropist! This magazine is costing me money." So he dropped it. It was a little ahead of its time I guess; ten years or so later Starlog magazine did the same idea, with success.
WONDER: Famous Monsters rode the crest of a sort of nationwide "Monster Craze" there in the early/mid sixties, didn't it?
FORRY: That's right. The same Life magazine article we saw inspired an enterprising TV distributor to create the famous "Shock Theatre" package of films and to release it to TV stations across the country. This was the first time that the original Universal Monsters films were ever shown on TV. All over America "Shock Theatre" programs sprang up. And so at last there was an opportunity for young people who hadn't been around back in the 1930's for original classics like Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Invisible Man to see these pictures for the first time. I'm not sure how many of these kids realized that the films they were seeing were nearly 30 years old...all TV was in black & white in those days and so there wouldn't have been any easy way for a young boy to have understood that. Certainly they responded to the films as if they were new. And so FM was in the right place at the right time. We didn't have VCR's back then and so having a magazine full of stills was the next best thing...and fortunately, I had over 35,000 stills already by 1958. I started my collection in 1930 with a set from Just Imagine. My grandmother bought that set for me as a Christmas present and that sort of opened my eyes for the first time to the fact that after a film was gone I could still have a record of it to keep. Eventually I had big sets from Frankenstein and The Mummy and The Old Dark House and King Kong and pretty much everything. In fact, I became pretty well known to all the still distributors in Hollywood--this 15 year old kid going around town looking for all the stills and pressbooks for whatever was the latest fantasy or horror film to come out. At that time, absolutely nobody gave a darn for all this material...once the picture had come and gone they simply threw it all away. Well, it was a good thing for me that I rescued a lot of it because my still collection became the backbone of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine.
WONDER: In 1964, at the height of FM's popularity, you took a cross-country road trip to the World Fantasy Convention. You visited quite a few FM fans along the way, didn't you?
FORRY: I sure did. Over thirteen hundred boys & girls wrote asking me to stop and visit them, which I did. I remember one boy who had written saying, "Mr. Ackerman, if you'll come and visit me, we'll have an audience of fifty for you." So my wife and I went thirty miles out of our way to--I'll never forget it--to the town of Niles, Michigan. When we got there we found an audience of fifty all right...one boy and forty-nine sheep! That was our audience! Well, he entertained us, that's for sure. He had his sheep running up and down the hill...
Then there was the time when we--my wife accompanied me on the trip--when we were running rather late getting to one of our scheduled stops; one particular fan's house. And I said, "Well, we'll never get there. We're still two hours away and it'll be one o'clock in the morning before we arrive." So we stopped and I phoned ahead and said, "We're two hours away...we'd better see you in the morning." Well, it turns out that this was to be a group of older fans--mainly eighteen and nineteen years old--and a bigger group than we were generally used to. And so they said, "No, no! We'll be glad to stay up 'til whatever time you arrive." So when we got there they took us up under the eaves of the house; they had created a nice little movie theater all their own! They had bought about nine real seats from a theater that had given up the ghost and they sat the two of us down and showed Lon Chaney in The Phantom of the Opera. These fellows provided musical accompaniment to the film and they even had the curtains part and rise...the works.
Well, I'm afraid my poor wife had been doing most of the driving that day and it was now about 2:30 in the morning. She sat there fighting to keep herself awake. And so one of the fans brought her in a cup of scalding hot tea. She was sitting there with this tea in her lap and just as Mary Philbin took the mask off of the Phantom my wife fell asleep and the tea went in her lap and Lon Chaney got the greatest scream he ever had!
I remember one other amusing incident. We went to New York--it was either in the Bronx or Brooklyn--to visit a little boy who lived in an apartment. His mother very nicely had sandwiches and Cokes ready for the little group of kids that her son had invited over to see me. He had eight or ten of them there. When I got there he sat me in the middle of the room with a semi-circle of chairs all around and the idea was that the kids would ask me any questions they had in mind. So, one little boy, for example, would say, "Oh, Mr. Ackerman...were you really frightened when you first saw The Phantom of the Opera?" And before I could open my mouth, my little host would say, "Oh, don't you remember? Mr. Ackerman said on page twenty-seven of his 19th issue of Famous Monsters that when he saw Phantom of the Opera he..." and he told the whole story for them. And then another kid would ask, "Mr. Ackerman, when you first saw Frankenstein did..." and before I could open my mouth the little kid would answer the question! I began to wonder, "Well, am I even here? Am I invisible? They don't need me--this little boy has all the answers..."
By the way, I do remember the day I first saw Frankenstein. It was opening day when it first appeared in 1931 and they had an ambulance parked out in front of the theater. Inside the lobby there were uniformed nurses in attendance. I remember that during the performance a lady suddenly shrieked and ran up the aisle and out of the building. Of course, I had to stay and see the film two or three times and, oddly enough, at each showing the same lady shrieked during the same sequence and ran out three times! (much laughter).
WONDER: Over the years you've personally met most of the greatest names in the history of horror and fantasy, haven't you?
FORRY: Yes, and it's been a tremendous privilege. I was able to go and see Boris Karloff making one of his last two or three films. It was a horribly low budget affair. Most of the picture was being made in Mexico but Karloff was too sick to travel and so they shot all of his scenes at a really awful so-called studio in Hollywood...with the intention of cutting him into the finished film that came up from south of the border. I remember that Karloff would get out of his limo directly into a wheelchair equipped with an oxygen tank and he had braces on his legs and half a lung...he really was in a bad way, but what a trouper. We fans almost ruined one of the scenes being taken. We hadn't read the script and so when the mad doctor working in his laboratory suddenly clutched his chest in agony and keeled over we almost rushed into the shot to rescue him! We didn't realize at first that it was just some more of Boris Karloff's consummately good acting.
Some of your readers may go far enough back with Famous Monsters to remember an article we ran called "Monsters Are Good for My Children" by Mrs. Terry Pinckard. She is a lady who adopted a little Korean War orphan that had been abandoned by his G.I. father and then she raised him right on a good diet of monster movies...especially Boris Karloff films. And so eight year old Ricky was just crazy about Boris Karloff. Knowing this, I volunteered to take Ricky to the set to meet him. Well, we arrived and Boris was sitting in his wheelchair between takes, looking rather exhausted to tell the truth, and so I was a little reluctant to bother him by asking for one more autograph...but he was always up to it. He brightened up and invited us over. The magic moment came and eight year old Ricky walked up to meet his idol. You'd have thought I was taking him to see Santa Claus; he had just the same look of awe mixed with fear, swallowing and trembling. But he came forward and said, "Mr. Karloff, I've waited for this moment all my life!" (laughter). Boris smiled and had the photographer come over for a picture.
Peter Cushing is also a wonderful person to meet. I think it was 1974; we had one of the original Famous Monsters conventions in New York City and Peter Cushing came over from England to be our guest of honor. Peter was a real sweetheart. During the visit it had been arranged that the two of us would appear on a late night TV broadcast called "The Horror Hall of Fame." It was live, and it wasn't over until about 1:30 AM. As we finally came out of the TV studio together we found that there was a little group of Peter's fans waiting outside to see their hero and get his autograph. Well, he graciously obliged for some time but we soon realized that we needed to get back to the hotel. So he very apologetically begged off. I felt pretty privileged as we got into the same limousine together but I thought to myself, "Uh oh. This is it--the moment of truth, when the mask of kindliness will fall off and the real Peter Cushing will appear and probably start griping about 'the bloody mobs, why can't they let a poor old man alone,' etc." But no. He was genuinely concerned about the fans. He said, "Oh Mr. Ackerman, I do hope we didn't disappoint them too badly. I hope they understand that we really do have to get back to the hotel." Well, I tried to reassure him that it was all right. Then, the next day, he was scheduled to speak at the convention. And I want you to know that for ten minutes after he got up to speak he just couldn't calm the crowd down. They were yelling and hooting and hollering and stamping and standing on the chairs to applaud him. Finally, he got them calmed down enough to be heard and he quietly said, "Have you ever felt unwanted...?"
After the speech it had been announced that he would sign autographs for 45 minutes. Well, at the end of an hour and a half there was still a long line snaking around on itself and finally one of the organizers went up to him and said, "Peter, they know you just volunteered 45 minutes and that you've already given twice that. I'm sure they'll understand if we call it quits now." But he said, "No, no, my boy. They've come for my autograph and they shall have it." You know, the wonderful thing about getting Peter Cushing's autograph was that...well, when I was growing up in Hollywood I used to hang around the studios sometimes and so I got to see quite a few typical autograph sessions. I remember seeing Gary Cooper and Marlene Dietrich and Judy Garland--just all sorts of stars. But mainly I remember that after they'd given their signature I could have reappeared two minutes later with a machine gun and mowed down the whole crowd and if you'd asked say, Gary Cooper if he'd seen me before he couldn't have said...most of these stars were simply scribbling their name on an endless stream of notebooks and photos. But with Peter Cushing everybody gets eye-to-eye contact. He always takes some trouble to notice and comment upon some personal quality of yours--maybe you have on a tie he admires or you're wearing something his cousin in England would like. He's quite a gentleman. You go away feeling you've really had a moment of a great man's time.
I really do my best to meet the people whose work I've admired and to let them know personally how much they mean to me. I went to the World Fantasy Convention several years ago in Providence, Rhode Island...which was the great horror writer H. P. Lovecraft's home town. Well, it was about eight o'clock in the last evening of the convention and I suddenly realized, "Gosh, H. P. Lovecraft's grave is here. I really ought to go and pay my respects." I had no transportation but some fans at the show volunteered to drive me out to the cemetery. And so before long we got out there...and it was pitch black and the graveyard was closed. The gate was locked. I was pretty crestfallen and was ready to give up and go home--having made a 3000 mile journey to Providence without seeing his gravesite. Well, one of these fans said, "No, no, come on. We'll climb over the wall!" So that's what we did. When I got up on the top of that wall however, it looked pretty far down. I thought, "Boy, if I jump down there I bet I'll twist my ankle or something" but these fellows were already calling out "Jump! Jump!" And so finally I did. The minute I hit the ground the lights came on in the caretaker's bungalow off in the distance. The door opened up and he came out with a lantern...but worse, his dog came out, too! It started barking ferociously and then it started running toward all of us. Well, we all fell down flat on the ground--we didn't think they'd seen us yet--and soon we were crawling along like commandos in the dirt thinking "Oh my God, this beast is going to come up and BITE all of us!" But the minute the dog got to us it simply stopped and started wagging its tail and licking us like a cute little puppy wanting to make friends. But the caretaker wondered, "What in blazes is going on out there?" He kept coming with his lantern and finally we all decided that the most valorous thing would be to give up and show ourselves. So we all stood up like captured German soldiers in WWI shouting "Don't shoot! Don't shoot!" but it must have looked to him like corpses were rising from their graves! But the moment we mentioned the magic name of H. P. Lovecraft he knew what was going on and he became very friendly and cooperative and took us right to the spot. One young lady who'd come along had brought a collection of Lovecraft's short stories and she had this nice idea that we'd each walk up to his grave and read a paragraph or two in his honor. I'm afraid that's the closest I ever came to meeting him...not in life but in death.
WONDER: Speaking of meeting people, how did you meet your wife Wendayne? She shared your interest in science fiction...
FORRY: She sure did. We have a major department store called The May Company in Los Angeles. When she came over from Europe her first job was as a clerk in the book department there. She had a fellow clerk with her and the two girls had agreed that if they saw somebody coming they rather liked they'd say, "Well, lay off this guy...he's mine." So I got chosen before I even laid eyes on my wife. And her first words to me were "May I help you sir?" and her last words, just before she died--on the last day, she said "Help me." (Ed note: Forry's lovely wife of over 40 years was murdered by carjackers in 1992). But when we first met, I came along with a towering armful of books to buy. And when she asked if she could help me I said, "Oh, where did that interesting accent come from?" It was a mixture of German, French, and British. And her response, which she could never believe in later years (I teased her about it for forty years or so) was this: here I am, a potential customer, and what did she say to my question?-- "Well, my ancestors were highly civilized when yours were hanging by their tails from trees." Well, naturally, I never spoke to her again! I wanted to call the manager and have her fired! My God, what a thing to say!
But that really intrigued me. It developed that her father had been a book publisher and also sold second-hand books, so she was thrilled to find a man whose home was packed to the gills with volumes. A couple of years ago, the mayor of Los Angeles sent four librarians around and after they'd picked their eyeballs up off the floor and put them back into their sockets they went to work and eventually told me that I have 50,000 books!
I can just see that your next question is going to be, "Mr. Ackerman, surely you haven't actually read all those books?!" Well, I want you to know that I've read every last word in my collection. When I get a new book I turn to the last page...and read the last word. (laughs and groans).
WONDER: Setting foot in the Ackermansion and actually seeing your collection is probably the holy quest of many a monster fan...
FORRY: Yes, as you know, my house is absolutely filled with memorabilia...it's something of a museum. After all, I've been collecting the stuff since 1926. Like nature, I abhor a vacuum. I've started hanging things on the ceiling. And then I have the Garage Mahal--son of Taj--also completely full. Every Saturday afternoon that I'm at home I have an open house. I'm still amazed that so many people have heard about me; they just keep coming. I started keeping a guest book in 1953. I'm really proud of the names in that book: George Pal, John Carradine, Fritz Lang, Vincent Price, many more. That first year Bela Lugosi came to visit and he wrote just one word--"Amazed!" If you were to look at all the comments in those books--from 1953 to 1993--you'd see phrases like, "Incredible," "Astounding," "Unbelievable," "Gnarly," "I want to live here," and so on. The best comment I ever got was from a youngster back east who wrote from 3000 miles away and about six months in advance asking to come for a visit. Well, he came, he saw, and was conquered I guess. He wandered around in my house in a state of shock, but he left without a word. I thought, "Well, he'll go home and write me a 27 page, single space, typewritten letter expressing his awe and wonder." But in the meantime I thought I'd go and look at the guestbook and see how he liked it. So I opened it up and under comments he had written simply, "Fair." I thought, "Fair?" From the look on his face you'd have thought he was at the Taj Mahal or something! But no, just "Fair." I often wonder if that boy grew up to be Don Rickles!
But it's true, visitors to the museum are a lot of fun. When I've got a little group there--especially if there are ladies in the group--I ask, "Which of you is the bravest?" And, of course, everyone points at the most cowardly person in the group and says, "She is! She is!" So I take her by the hand and, after assuring her that nothing is going to jump out and bite anybody, I make her close her eyes and then I stand her in front of my life-size, seven foot, very realistic Frankenstein. And let me tell you, we get some great screams. I bet the neighbors think that people are regularly murdered at my house on Saturdays. I also like to take visitors down to my basement...down to where I keep all my horror props. Several hundred of them...you know, horror faces and corpses, that sort of thing. I keep a corpse in a coffin down there and a mummy. And so sometimes I ask the group, "Anyone brave enough for a trip down to...Grislyland?" The other day a little five-and-a-half year old boy was along and when he heard this he said, "I think I'd better wait until I'm six."
WONDER: Forry, give us your opinion about some of the current things going on in horror movies. What about the current trend toward gore movies--"splatter films," as they call them.
FORRY: It doesn't mean much to me. Famous Monsters was about affection for monsters and monster movies. People quit having any affection for monsters when "Freddie" came along and the "Chainsaw Massacre" and all that sort of thing. Kids could see that Frankenstein wasn't really bad--it was just that people threw sticks and stones at him. I visited Boris Karloff in his flat in London and he told me that he got all kinds of sympathetic letters from little boys and girls from as far away as Australia, saying, "We know you aren't bad! Those people were mean to you and that's why you reacted the way you did."
WONDER: So there's a real difference between what Universal was doing with their classic monster movies and what the present-day horror filmmaker is up to?
FORRY: Oh, definitely. I...well, in a way, I'm glad that I'm not editing Famous Monsters anymore because I'd be really hard pressed to...I wouldn't want to bring out a periodical like GoreZone or Fangoria. Those magazines obviously have their following...but my ideals are really rooted in the 1920's & 30's, I guess. I once thought to myself, "Supposing someone came up to me and said, 'Forry, you can save just thirteen years of these fantastic films. You can't skip, hop, and jump--once you start you have to go thirteen years and...then stop.' " I think I would start about 1923 and finish up in 1936--and then I would feel that I had pretty much the best of them. The Phantom of the Opera, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Lost World, The Thief of Bagdad, Metropolis...and then you'd move on into the early talkies; Frankenstein, Dracula, King Kong, The Invisible Man and so on. Yes. That was just a time when everything seemed to be falling into place. It's very like what happened with science fiction literature for about ten years. From about 1940 to 1950 we had Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, A. E. Van Vogt, Henry Kuttner...these great, classic people who were at the height of their abilities. And that doesn't look like it's ever going to happen again. A similar thing was happening in the 1930's with the Universal Studios monster films. We were fortunate enough to have talents like Tod Browning, Claude Rains, & James Whale all in the same place at one time. Nowadays we've probably seen the end of people like that.
No, I really don't go in for all this gore. It's funny, but--unfortunately--I actually make a cameo appearance in just about the goriest movie ever made. It happened while I was a third of a world away down in New Zealand... and a young man was going to make a horror film while I was there. He asked me if I would do a little cameo. I'm only in the picture for about four or five minutes but by the end I'm just about the only human being in the cast who isn't covered with blood, or had their eyes poked out, or tongue torn loose, or their head chopped off! I wouldn't send any of my friends to see it but it's called Brain Dead. I think the original shooting title they were using when I was there was even more descriptive--at that point it was called "Unstoppable Rot!" (laughs). I used to be something of a compleatist about trying to see every horror movie that came out, but I don't bother with these gore movies. I've got too few years left in my life to waste time on this sort of thing. Considering that I have over 1300 videocassettes at home with four movies on each of them...well, like I said, life's too short.
WONDER: We often wonder if maybe people will finally get tired of the gore and go back to basics...back to imagination and characterization and all the other things that made the classic monsters so legendary.
FORRY: I would sure hope so. I used to look for a new generation of young fellows--like yourselves--to move into filmmaking and then get back to those first principles. But most of the young people who make horror movies today are in it solely for the money--they follow the "trend of the times." They offer me parts in their pictures. I read the first two or three pages of the script and there's so many four-letter words and so much gore that I think to myself, "You know, the only reason I bother to make these little cameos is so that I can send my friends to see them...and I wouldn't want to send a friend to see this." The same is true of my friend Robert Bloch. He's the man who wrote Psycho...and so he gets sent these same kinds of opportunities. But he won't appear in anything really gory, either.
WONDER: Well, Forry, we can't tell you how happy we are to have been able to share all this wonderful time with you. You've been a great example to all of us and a grand "Uncle" for a bunch of crazy, wayward monster nuts! Thanks so much!
FORRY: Don't mention it. And Kong-gratulations on your magazine!
Reprinted from WONDER #7. To order your copy of this original 60-page "All-Monster Spooktacular", visit our BACK ISSUES PAGE.
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