In his short story "The Smoker," how does David Schickler use a Gothic setting to create an environment that forces the exploration of the subconscious?
1. What characteristics are given to the physical setting of the work(s)?
2. How does the setting force tension within the character(s)?
3. How does the Gothic setting force or create a resolution?
David Schickler’s short story The Smoker qualifies as “gothic” in that it combines a sense of foreboding or danger intertwined with a romantic angle. Read as an individual story, as when it was published in The New Yorker, The Smoker stands on its own as a bizarre, surrealistic tale about a high school English teacher thrust suddenly into the macabre but not unwelcome world of the Bonner family. Read as part of the short story collection into which The Smoker was included, Kissing in Manhattan, it assumes an even greater association with gothic literature. The common element running through Schickler’s collection is the prestigious, old-world apartment (or condo) building in which the author’s characters live or visit. The Preemption, the name of the building, suggests the seizure of the initiative ahead of one’s competitors, and the Bonner clan, as Schickler’ protagonist, Douglas Kercheck, will discover, is determined to preempt his entire life.
The Preemption, as noted, is an old-world building with a “tall black doorman with an oval scar on his forehead” who escorts Douglas, having been invited to dine with the Bonners, whose nineteen-year-old daughter Nicole is one of his students and who appears to be infatuated with the teacher, to the “ancient Otis elevator, the hand-operated kind,” that will carry Douglas not only to the Penthouse, where is expected, but to his apparent destiny as well. Once inside the Bonner’s apartment, Schickler reinforces the gothic tone that helps establish the sense of foreboding he instills in Douglas’ mind:
“The elevator doors closed, and Douglas was alone, moving. The mahogany walls smelled like something Douglas couldn’t place, a medieval monks’ library, maybe, or the inside of a coffin.”
With this setting, one can reflect back on the earlier, seemingly innocuous details Schickler provides. Douglas teaches pretty, vivacious and highly intelligent high-school girls at St. Agnes, a private school for the wealthy. While each of his students is unique in her own way, it is Nicole, a year older than the others, who stalks Douglas with a disturbing pattern of activities, as in this comment:
“It was Nicole’s habit to do this, to call out random, intimate specifics from the world around her and bring them to Douglas’s attention.
“She is organized, clever, and kindhearted, and once she knows what she wants she will pursue a thing—a line of argument, a hockey ball, a band to hire for the prom—with a charmingly ruthless will.”
This “charmingly ruthless will,” the reader discovers, portends strange developments for the unsuspecting teacher.
The combination of physical setting and descriptive passages regarding characters combine to give The Smoker an unsettling feeling. As the story progresses, the bizarre idiosyncrasies of Schickler’s characters add to the tension, as with the large, muscular, jovial but somewhat menacing Samson, who repeatedly but good-naturedly(?) punches Douglas in the arm, and the meeker – or so it initially seems – mother, Paulette, who annoyingly repeats her observations (“The teacher, the teacher,” “Sidecar, sidecar,” “Empty, empty”). Even the cat, John Stapleton, is on the act, as when Douglas excuses himself to use the bathroom only to be surprised that it is occupied by the cat, which dutifully flushes when its finished.
The gothic setting in The Smoker contributes considerably to the tension in the story. The well-stocked library from which Nicole selects a novel each night, the menacing atmosphere of the penthouse, all plays an important role in establishing atmosphere. Note, for example, Schickler’s most detailed description of the Bonner’s abode:
“The Bonner penthouse was the kind of lair that nefarious urbanites like Lex Luthor occupied in films. The huge main room had a high ceiling and a marble floor. Lining one entire wall were shelves bearing leather-bound books that, for all Douglas knew, could be traced to the same monks’ library he’d smelled in the elevator. Also in the room were two hunter-green couches, a hearth with a fire, a glass table laid for dinner, an oaken door that opened onto a study, and three tall windows.”
These old-world, antiquated settings are common features of gothic literature as well as of horror stories in general. The reference to psychotic criminal-genius from Superman, Lex Luthor, is no accident or inconsequential detail. On the contrary, Schickler employs this analogy to further establish that Douglas has entered a realm from which he may never escape. That this emotionally-insulated English teacher signs on to the Bonner’s agenda only provides the surprise needed to evoke reaction.