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Calvin Beck (left) and Forrest Ackerman meet at a convention, circa 1972

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CALVIN AND THE CASTLE

By James H. Thompson

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    Though it had its antecedents, the format of the monster-movie magazine emerged almost fully-formed in the late 1950s with the appearance of Famous Monsters Of Filmland, from publisher James Warren and editor Forrest J Ackerman, upon whose success a number of other like publications flooded the market over the next several years. Among these was a one-shot in 1959, The Journal Of Frankenstein, edited by Calvin T. Beck. These magazines had been commercially inspired by the television ratings bonanza of a large number of key Universal horror films (other companies quickly followed) to local broadcasters in packages such as Shock and Son Of Shock, a process that enabled those stations to develop their own horror host for the movies, adding entertainment and potential marketing values for that station. True monster fans always had an appreciation for films of the past. The ‘monster mania’ had preceded the monster mags by several years with the kickstart provided by a massively successful re-release of King Kong in 1952, trailed by a very prolific Cold War-infused science fiction film explosion that decade. It was shortly before Ackerman’s magazine arrived on the scene that AIP was beginning what would become its very substantial run in producing films of the fantastic.

    Arriving a few years after Calvin Beck’s Journal was a new effort from him, Castle Of Frankenstein, the black-and-white interior pages of its first issue being based in the photos/captions/puns model similar to that of FJA and seemingly targeted at that point toward a younger monster fan market. The masthead listed a pretty spare staff of contributors at that point, with Larry Ivie as Consulting Editor, and a pseudonymous identification of editor and publisher. Editor ‘Baron Victor Frankenstein III’ was a choice of name that dovetailed with the magazine name, but also Beck’s intent: to create a new Frankenstein, as it were. The given publisher for CoF #1 was Charles Foster Kane, seemingly a fantasy alter-ego for Beck, who would make other Wellesian references in CoF in the years ahead. The magazine would run through 1975.

    Though Beck’s byline was prominent in the magazine, the production and other creative input that took CoF over the subsequent years even more toward the eclectic required a lot of work by others, importantly including Bhob Stewart, Michel Parry, Joe Dante, Ken Beale, Lin Carter and Barry Brown. There were very certainly others. The writers in this group are known as well for their other works, and Brown for his film acting, but apart from his writings in CoF (and quite apart from the characteristics of such other magazine figureheads as Ackerman — or even Hugh Hefner), Beck would assume a profile in his magazine that was basically limited to his words. Apart from a few obscure photos of Beck in costume, which showed little of the person behind those words, Beck’s other visual appearances in CoF tended to be limited to cameos in cartoon panels and the like. Years before CoF, Calvin had come from a science fiction fandom background, one that was immersed in the written word, including his own published letters to SF pulps — and so in CoF, Beck in visual form was obscured while his real personality came through in his writing, choice of subject matter, and open enthusiasm for the work and the works of others. Keeping their own links to the fandom network obvious in the forefront, Beck and Stewart both frequently featured material supportive of it: fanzines (of many types) were reviewed in quantity, while convention information, material from amateur films, and fan-produced comic strips also appeared in the magazine.

    Castle Of Frankenstein became known by the mid-1960s under its own distinct format. While the horror, science fiction and fantasy film coverage would always be the leading content of any CoF issue, the magazine was adding more content related to comic books and strips. Comics and cartoons had appeared early on in the magazine’s run; a vampire comic story by Larry Ivie in issue #2 was quite vivid and based in the EC mold (and for black-and-white horror comics, it preceded Warren’s Creepy #1 by two years). The increased coverage of the comics industry and fandom included things like interviews with Jim Steranko and Stan Lee, fanzine reviews, a few vintage comic strip reprints, and reviews of then-new comic book releases, and was certainly strongly associated with Bhob Stewart’s interests. It proved to be a good editorial choice, but CoF also covered (to varying degrees) old-time radio, movie serials, European surrealist films, fantasy on television, politics, and more. Fantasy literature was reviewed in depth in the magazine by Lin Carter, the writer who soon would have his own connection to the comics industry via his Spider-Man television scripts and Marvel’s use of his Thongor character. Stewart did comics work himself, and Castle Of Frankenstein also began an increased use of fantasy artwork, both then-new and reprinted. Hannes Bok, Virgil Finlay, Frank Brunner, Ken Kelly and Berni Wrightson were among the graphic artists whose work appeared in the magazine. Other writers included J. Ramsey Campbell, Richard Lupoff, William K. Everson, and others which emerged from the ranks of fandom.

    With the wider profile and prolific activity of many of those who contributed to his magazine, Calvin Beck maintained his role as the publicly-obscure head of a popular newsstand publication that drew upon the interests of the fan network. CoF appealed to monster movie fans, nostalgia buffs, stop-motion animation enthusiasts, hardcore SF fans, comic collectors, and others. In recent years, there has been discussion of author Robert Bloch allegedly basing the Norman Bates character in his Psycho novel in part upon Calvin Beck and what he witnessed of the effect and presence of his mother, Helen (who, unlike the equivalent in Bloch’s book, was then quite alive) upon her son. It’s a fascinating — if late coming — anecdote, and possibly quite true, although Beck certainly didn’t act out any Ed Gein-style fantasies. He was, however, married to imagination: that of the films and novels of the fantastic, and that included a fan’s devotion to the macabre. His baronial pseudonyms — those of Frankenstein and of Kane — were telling fantasies, but they also defined his aims. Both were analogies and symbols of power. The model of Frankenstein was appropriate: the magazine was the result of pieces from different sources that fit together aptly to form a new whole. The reference to Charles Foster Kane was more amusing, but showed Beck’s interest outside of genre films and fiction. Beck sure didn’t have the business acumen of Kane, as mail-order customers sadly learned, and he didn’t found a publishing empire, but he started and maintained a magazine that was successful, and one which required the talents of others to fill each issue. Even if the head honcho of CoF may have been peeking from behind a mask, interpreted in caricature, or hiding behind the occasional artfully-chosen assumed name, he didn’t hold back in prose. Between the material from others — even the ‘Movieguide’ entries alone! — and Beck, most issues had a novella’s worth of reading.

    Later CoF issues, with a relative surfeit of contributors, allowed room for Beck to climb aboard his soapbox more frequently in print, typically in his ‘Headitorials’, which often deviated from the other content to provide readers with extended commentary that included his view on politics. Antiwar and anti-Nixon protests were among Beck’s chosen subject matter in these essays, though he also worked in examples of satire, in a manner recalling Jean Shepherd. Among published reader letters, a few seemed to prefer only material on monsters and movies, while many seemed to agree with Beck’s inclusion of his outside views. In retrospect, the Headitorials showed Beck displaying a lively style of writing, displaying emotion, and taking chances in presenting material appropriate to the era but seemingly out of context for a monster magazine — yet fitting for CoF. (While a magazine such as Famous Monsters was for years expressly written for children, CoF had certainly since its initial few issues been intended for and written toward a more mature readership that may have been more tolerant of broader subject matter than might an 8-year-old reading FM, though it was Ackerman’s efforts that brought his photo-intensive kids’ magazine to a large number of adult readers).

    Castle Of Frankenstein lasted a bit over a dozen years, with just twenty-five issues and one annual (in 1967), a very sporadic rate that made each issue highly-anticipated, if not always easily-located. CoF’s very spotty retail distribution was obvious to many readers, and commented upon by Beck in editorial remarks, though nothing really seemed to change. Over the duration, the magazine came out on average of two issues per year; in its final year, CoF (with a lot of apparent effort from Bhob Stewart) actually reached quarterly status, something that had been approached only in the mid-1960s, meaning that certain years basically had just one issue. Beck had other plans, including at one point a companion magazine, but the erratic schedule of CoF and the curious manner in which it was distributed — there were even hints at one point that people had reported copies were not reaching stores, but somehow diverted to collectors’ shops at far above retail — meant that things could not last. Castle Of Frankenstein’s mid-1970s demise tied in with a decline in the horror film industry overall, at approximately the time when Hammer dropped its prolific activity and new horror films began to be produced in fewer number than they had over the previous couple of decades.

    The end period for CoF was quite productive, with several issues and the appearance of the 1975 book, Heroes Of The Horrors, still one of the key works about horror film actors and credited to Beck. It was rather successful and well-reviewed and was a quick acquisition for many school and public libraries across the US. This was followed in 1978 by Scream Queens; as with the final issues of CoF, this book had material from Beck, Stewart, and Brown. For whatever reason, despite good reviews the followup was not as widely publicized. After that, Calvin T. Beck in published print basically became more obscure than ever. Perhaps it was his design, perhaps he perceived things that he found unattractive, but he left behind no biography, no published photo record of himself, no self-mythology of the sort others in the publishing industry have cultivated themselves. Whatever his quirks, questionable business activities, or relations with others, he wanted his writing to be the point and the memory, and it’s to Beck’s great credit that his writing tends to focus away from himself: he was a fan, and as fans do, he liked to share what he liked. That’s why CoF came about, and that’s why to know about Calvin T. Beck, one must become familiar with how he chose to present himself in Castle Of Frankenstein. As a writer, not a personality.

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For further reading:

  • An Interview with Calvin T. Beck

  • An Interview with Bhob Stewart

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    Text Copyright © 2015 James H. Thompson

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    F L I C K H E A D