Saturday, December 6, 2008

Requeum for a Literary Agent

A tall man with wavy dark hair, a genial smile, and mischievous eyes sparking behind rimless glasses, he disarms you as he welcomes you into the cavernous living room, its shelves bulging with lurid and energetic covers from pulp fantasy and science fiction magazines. The room actually smells of pulp , ink, and the unique odor of mildewed paper. There is a sensuality to it that evokes the throb and drone of the rotary presses, whirring out newspapers by day and pulp magazines by night. Nothing prepares you for the explosively dreadful puns with which your host will bombard you at every opportunity. Worse yet, you recognize individuals you thought of as just slightly less than Greek or Norse gods and goddesses; they are the men and women who wrote the fantasy and science fiction stories you took into your being the way a kidney patient undergoes dialysis. Van Vogt. Sturgeon. Leigh Brackett. Henry Kuttner. C.L. Moore. Heinlein. Zelazney. And of course Bradbury, the only one in the room notably drinking milk instead of something shall we say more fermented.

You are in another world, a riotous collision of the worlds of all these men and women, orbiting about the picnic spreads of sandwich meat, bread, beer, wines. Lewis Padgett, one of the funniest writers alive, snarls as you are introduced to him. You look like a beer drinker, he observes, and there is already not enough beer.

Your host is Forrest J. Ackerman, although he has already warned you he does not use the period after the J; people should know it is James and they should know, he insists, that James does not require a period. He gives you a lap around the room, pulling names out of crowds of individuals. Hal Clement. Bob Bloch. John Campbell, who launches into a long serenade to the virtues of Chilean wine, effective, he says, and cheap. Here, Herb Gould; you might want to send him a story now and then. Pays good money. Curt Siodmak. Lured away from his true calling by the movies.

These and more were his clients, many launched into their careers by what he referred to as Ackermischief and Ackermanagement. In time, you appeared in magazines with the, lured them into your office when you were acquisitions editor for a Los Angeles publisher, variously spilled drinks on them or had drinks spilled by them on you at the Ackermansion or one of the other venues for collegial gathering. They all spoke of Ackerman as though he had pulled a sword from a stone, which in a sense he had.

You all had tales of fantasy and magic that seemed to emit from him like those misty miasmas of cheap sci-fi movies. Your own time of magical thinking began when you walked to his house to deliver a sheaf of manuscripts for which you had elegant expectations beyond your own ability to pay for gasoline. He insisted on a lunch of thick-cut liverwurst on a yeasty pumpernickle, enhanced with sliced pickles and a bottle of Pabst Blue-Ribbon beer, which you were only too willing to oblige him in the offering. Thus the magic began but two days later, when Clarence, the mailman, asked you to sign for a special delivery, you saw more tangible proof of the effect. The return address was Ackerman's and the contents was limited to a check for some wildly satisfyig amount in the range of fifty dollars, drawn against his bank, with a notation linking a magazine called Posse with the title of one of the stories in the sheaf of manuscripts. Every weekday for the next two weeks, a special delivery arrived from him with some similar notation, referencing magazines such as Gent and Dude and Amazing Stories. You became aware of more names of more authors trickling through the Ackermansion, names of authors you grew to read with admiration. You also became aware of Ackerman signing you up for nonfiction assignments which you discovered only after editors of various publications called to remind you of deadlines which you hadn't realized you'd had.

Through it all, Ackerman's mischievous humor, buzzing about like flies at a picnic, before what you like to think of in retrospect as a sort of defining moment. I can get you a considerable sum of money for a story called "I Was a Teen-aged Werewolf," FJA related, to which you muttered some riposte about working for blood money. But he was serious, just as he'd been a month or two earlier about having a sure sale for a story titled "The Naughty Venusienne." There is in fact a motion picture, I Was a Teen-aged Werewolf, the writing credits going to a pair of Ackerman clients and there is indeed a book, The Naughty Venusienne which FJA himself had to write because, as he said sadly, none of his clients believed him. He was many things to many people and like all remarkable sorts, his like will not be seen again. He drew remarkable people to his presence, made them feel the world of storytelling and writing and fantasy had blended into an endless party. He invited you in, took a lap around the room with you, introducing you to an ensemble cast the likes of which you had not seen before. True enough, you were young and impressionable, believing you could take on anything that came your way. In some measure, because of Forrest J. Ackerman, your first literary agent, you are still young, impressionable, confident in the belief that you can take on anything that comes your way. Hail and farewell, Forryack.


Lori Witzel said...

The way you wrote about him charmed me -- and then I got to that liverwurst sandwich, and the walls of space and time collapsed, leaving me in the Ackermansion quietly riding a dust-mote, inhaling the smell of pumpernickel and watching the magic swirl around you both.

Thanks for that.

Kate Lord Brown said...

Sorry for your loss Shelly. Blood money ... ha! Sounds like a wonderful guy.

Marta said...

It's a shame that we don't all get to know someone like Forrest J. Ackerman. At least we have you.

A lovely memory.