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The high elder of fantasy fans

Forrest J Ackerman enacts a scene of mock-horror.  

Bruce Weber

Pop culture enthusiast who propelled the popularity of science fiction is dead

New York: It’s a common claim that someone is the world’s biggest fan of such-and-such. Elizabeth Taylor’s biggest fan… The world’s biggest country music fan… Hardly anyone takes such a designation seriously, except, perhaps, when it comes to Forrest J Ackerman, whose obsessive devotion to science fiction and horror stories was so fierce he helped propel their popularity. Indeed, he was widely credited with coining the term sci-fi.

Ackerman died on Thursday in Los Angeles at age 92.

In the cultural niche defined by monsters, rocket ships and severed body parts, Ackerman was decreed by acclamation to be its leading citizen. He was a film buff, an editor of pulp magazines and anthologies, a literary agent for dozens of science fiction writers and an amateur historian. No one has evidently disputed his claim that he created the expression sci-fi.

He was also an omnivorous memorabilia collector who once turned a former home of his overlooking Los Angeles into a sort of scream-a-torium. Thousands of science-fiction fans made pilgrimages to the house, a repository of more than 300,000 books, posters, masks, costumes, statuettes, models, film props and other artefacts. (He sold the house years ago to pay for mounting medical bills.)

“He was the world’s biggest fan,” the writer Stephen King said. “If you had been to his house, you wouldn’t doubt it.”

Ackerman’s appetite for science fiction embraced the highbrow as well as the low. His favourite film, he often said, was Fritz Lang’s futuristic masterpiece from 1927, Metropolis. He had seen it nearly 100 times. In 2002, when he received a lifetime achievement award at the World Fantasy Convention, he shared honours with one of the most admired writers of fantasy and science fiction, Ursula K. Le Guin, whose The Other Wind was named the year’s best novel.

But Ackerman spent most of his time in the arena of pop culture. Between 1958 and 1983, he wrote and edited Famous Monsters of Filmland, a seminal black-and-white magazine heavily illustrated with photographs from Ackerman’s collection. The magazine emphasised the scream-worthy features of movies and was fond of groan-worthy wordplay. “Menace, Anyone?” was a typical title. But it also conveyed the idea that language was flexible and that using it could be fun.

The magazine fired the imagination of generations of young horror fans, including King and the filmmakers George Lucas and Joe Dante (Gremlins).

“When you think of the size of the business, the dollar amount, that has sprung up out of fantasy, the people who made everything from Star Wars to Jaws,” Mr. King said, “well, Forry was a part of their growing up. The first time I met Steven Spielberg, we didn’t talk about movies. We talked about monsters and Forry Ackerman.”

Forrest James Ackerman (he used his middle initial, but without the period) was born in Los Angeles on November 24, 1916. His father was a statistician for an oil company. He saw his first science-fiction film in 1922: One Glorious Day, the story of a disembodied spirit that takes over the soul of a tired professor, played by Will Rogers. Four years later he discovered science-fiction magazines, starting with Amazing Stories, and began collecting them and science-fiction memorabilia. His collection eventually included more than 40,000 books and 100,000 film stills. — New York Times News Service