Richard Matheson, my father, and me

by Alexandra Sokoloff

I was at the Horror Writers Association Stoker Weekend last weekend (you’d think that it would be a BREAK in touring to be in one place for three days straight, but I’m still recovering).

It was a fabulous time, but the truly transcendent moment for me was meeting Richard Matheson.

We all meet authors all the time, now (and in Hollywood, directors and actors, too). And I’ve had many episodes of fan girl limerence. But there are certain people who loom so large in your conscious and subconscious and unconscious being that even when you’re in the middle of a perfectly adult conversation with them, they don’t seem quite real. They are simply mythic.

Richard Matheson is that for me.

There are several layers of that, too. Obviously the man is a giant in the genre of supernatural thrillers, combining horror, the psychological thriller, mystery, suspense, fantasy and sci fi into one classic novel and novella after another, that spawned one classic film after another: THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN, I AM LEGEND, WHAT DREAMS MAY COME, A STIR OF ECHOES, HELL HOUSE, DUEL, NIGHTMARE AT 20,000 FEET – and pretty much every TWILIGHT ZONE episode that springs to mind when you think of the series.

I read those books so early on I can’t even tell you how old I was… they were always there in the shelves of our house because those were among my Dad’s favorite books. Even before I was old enough to understand them I was drawn to the covers with images of a man battling a giant spider with a needle that was for him as big as a sword… that creepy, twisted Hell House… some terrible creature on the wing of a plane.

So Matheson is for me inextricably linked with my dad. He is my father’s age, and has the same luminosity of spirit along with those dark imaginings, and together they shaped my own tastes in reading and later in writing.

Dad has given me many other writing gifts besides Matheson. That library of his included everything Bradbury, Poe, Burroughs, Le Fanu, Stoker, Shelley and Asimov ever wrote, plus the complete Alfred Hitchcock Presents series of anthologies, and many other lesser-known fantasists.

Dad grew up in Mexico City after his family had fled first Russia and then Tokyo (after losing everything in the Tokyo Earthquake). Put mystical Russians in a country like Mexico and the combined total of magical realism is truly off the charts. So even though Dad grew up the son of a scientist and dedicated himself to science himself, he has a love of the ghostly that has nothing to do with the laboratory. I and my siblings grew up with campfire stories of La Llorona (Mexican ghost) and Baba Yaga (Russian witch) and Quezacoatl (Aztec feathered serpent god) that Dad made sound as they’d really happened just a few days ago. It’s no wonder that my grip on reality is a little – loose.

But at the same time I learned from his scientific bent (he’s a biologist and geneticist) and love of research. Even though I write fantastical situations, I have to believe they really could have happened that way, so I’m obsessed with how and why paranormal events actually occur in real life, and how I can bring the most realism to the spooky scenarios I write.

I was also blessed that from the beginning my father never had the slightest doubt that I was every bit as smart and capable as any boy out there, or, truth be told, clearly superior. I never, ever had any feeling that I was second best because I was a girl. That should be a given, but even now, NOW, it’s still not how many young girls grow up, and I’m grateful to have been raised that way as a matter of course.

One of the greatest joys I have as an author is that my father takes such pleasure in my stories. Not the fact that I’m a writer; it’s nothing so material as that. He just loves what I write, and reads my books over and over again, just as he read Poe and Matheson and Bradbury. And that is an amazing thing – that I’M now on my father’s shelves, with all of those giants that he introduced me to.

I was so thrilled to meet Matheson on Father’s Day week because it brought something full circle for me. My dad opened the door to this fantastical world to make it possible. Those worlds and those giants, and this magical author world as well, are real to me now, because of him.

Thanks, Dad, and I love you beyond worlds.

So, ‘Rati, what was on your fathers’ shelves? What gifts did your Dads give you that made you writers? And/or – tell us about a legend you’ve met!

And a very happy Father’s Day to all the Dads.

– Alex

(In a fit of overextension, I’m also guest blogging at The Lipstick Chronicles today, and if you’re in L.A., I’m signing at the great The Mystery Bookstore in Westwood at 11 am.)

23 thoughts on “Richard Matheson, my father, and me

  1. J.D. Rhoades

    So, ‘Rati, what was on your fathers’ shelves?

    John D. McDonald.

    tell us about a legend you’ve met!

    I met Harlan Ellison once. He gave me hell when he discovered the stamp from a used bookstore on my copy of AGAIN, DANGEROUS VISIONS until I pointed out that, at that time, the book was out of print and I couldn’t have bought it new.

  2. R.J. Mangahas

    You met Richard Matheson? You’re really lucky then. I absolutely love his writing. I myself have not met any legends, but there’s still time, right? :-]

    My dad read a lot of Earl Stanley Gardner. I think the most important gift my dad gave me for being a writer is his bullheadedness and determination that makes me want to keep pushing ahead in accomplishing my goals.

  3. Brett Battes

    My dad (also a scientist…he’s a retired physicist) LOVES to read. On his shelves were Isaac Asimov, Authur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, James White, and dozens of other great sci-fi writers. They became my favorites when I was young.

    I was there when Ray Bradbury got his star on the Hollywood Blvd. walk of fame. Didn’t actually meet him, but it was great just being there!

  4. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Hah, Dusty, that’s pure Harlan. And it could not make more sense that your father read McDonald. No influence there, right?

    And Earl Stanley Gardner makes total sense for R.J, too. This is already more illuminating than I anticipated!

  5. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Oh, yeah, that, too. A true character.

    Charm and temper often seem to go together, don’t they? Maybe because people have to develop charm to keep people coming back after outbursts of temper.

  6. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Fantastic, terrific, awesome post!
    A great tribute to your father. I can imagine the feeling you must get when you see your novels on his shelves.
    My father…well. He was a doctor, and he didn’t read a thing. My best memories are the times we watched Star Trek and Night Gallery together. He did influence my writing- when he died, by his own hand, he gave me things so important to write about that it couldn’t be masked in poor writing. Gave me an urgency and depth that I might never have had if he were still alive. So on Father’s Day I thank him for that unexpected gift.
    I would loved to have grown up in your household, with a Russian/Mexican mythologically fantastical backdrop to pull from. It gives you a unique, singular voice.

  7. Louise Ure

    "My father…well. He was a doctor, and he didn’t read a thing."

    Mine, too, Stephen. The only books on the shelf were medical texts.

    But he gave me a love of words with his crossword puzzle obsession and that counts for a lot.

  8. Tammy Cravit

    My father read all sorts of stuff, so nothing specific stands out in my memories of his shelves. Well, that’s not true — I have clear childhood memories of the Annotated Sherlock Holmes in a 2-volume cardboard case right next to his Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary (the one that comes with a magnifying glass). What he gave me wasn’t so much his love of any specific author as it was a love of books and reading and learning in general. And what he taught me was the power of language to tell stories and to persuade. (His career was, and is, in the advertising/marketing business).

    As for legends I’ve met — the most memorable one, which came from a newspaper article I wrote, was Sue Grafton. Lots more info, photos, and a copy of the article (which ought to be of interest to anyone who’s read "Q is for Quarry") can be found here.

  9. toni mcgee causey

    My dad was a truck driver, and he did it well. (He won the 1990 National Truck Driving Rodeo–a sort of Olympics for drivers.) He retired, and then went back to work as a Safety Supervisor for another trucking company. And retired again.

    I remember him working incredibly long hours, and having to pretty much maintain everything himself (cars, lawn mowers) and doing all of the physical stuff around the house. But he always had a book by his chair. The Travis McGee novels. Tony Hillerman (he loved Hillerman). Both my parents read in the evening–they were a tremendously positive influence. He also loves to tell stories, and I grew up thinking everyone’s dad has crazy stories–I didn’t really realize how unusual he was ’til I was in my teens.

    I’m very proud of what he made with his life. Very proud he is my dad.

  10. Sara J. Henry

    Alex, thanks much for sharing this. My (nuclear physicist) dad introduced me to Kenneth Robeson’s Doc Savage reissues and soon after decided I was old enough for John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series – pretty heady stuff for a 12-year-old fresh off Encyclopedia Brown and Beverly Cleary. He’s been gone a long time, but I like to think that somehow he knows that I’m writing novels now and how grateful I am to him for handing me books that opened up a whole new world.

  11. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Tammy, Sue is one of my heroines, because she always says she started that Kinsey Mullhone series as her "Fuck you" to Hollywood.

    I can relate!

    Sherlock Holmes, well, yes… essential Dad library.

  12. Alexandra Sokoloff

    This is all a blast from the past. Pari, my Dad has every single James Bond ever written.

    (It’s maybe a little worrisome that that was one of my first introductions to sex.)

    Goethe – I didn’t know about until college.

  13. Sara J. Henry

    And when I raided my dad’s collection I found Ian Fleming, Donald Hamilton (Matt Helm), Alastair MacLean, Rex Stout, Leslie Charteris (loved Simon Templar), AA Fair, Louis L’Amour (yikes, all those Sacketts) – and of course devoured them all.

    What a great trip down memory lane.

  14. BCB

    My dad was a HS English teacher and debate coach. By the time I was halfway through middle school, I’d read every novel in the entire HS curriculum. And then some. One summer, perhaps I was 13, I read straight through all of Shakespeare’s collected works. I still maintain that that "language" is so much easier to grasp when read all at once like that. But there were so many books at our house. Always. And magazines — from The New Yorker to Christian Science Monitor to The Nation (great crossword puzzles) to Psychology Today to– I can’t even remember them all. But I read all of it. With no censorship and, best of all, no sense of obligation to read.

    The absolute best book my dad ever "turned me on to" was the dictionary. No, I’m not kidding. Every time I encountered a word I didn’t know, I’d ask him what it meant. Because, c’mon, I knew he knew. Without fail, he’d say, "Look it up." And then he’d hand me the dictionary. He kept it there beside his favourite chair. Completely, totally, absolutely Pissed Me Off. And I will forever be grateful to him for that. He fostered my love of words and language and fed my thirst for knowledge. A thirst that, to this day, is never satisfied.

    Wishing a Happy Father’s Day to all those men who fill that role.

  15. Alexandra Sokoloff

    BCB, I completely agree about reading Shakespeare all at once. It’s like language immersion of any kind.

    And I laughed out loud at the dictionary story – my mom kept Websters beside the kitchen table, and reading definitions aloud was part of any meal.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *