Book Review – Apt Pupil

Apt Pupil is a novella by Stephen King that comes from the short story collection Different Seasons.

It was published in 1982, and tells the story of a young Southern California teenager named Todd Bowden who discovers that his elderly neighbor, a supposed German immigrant, is actually a wanted Nazi war criminal named Kurt Dussander, who was personally responsible for committing horrible atrocities in the Holocaust.    

However, rather than reporting Dussander’s whereabouts to the authorities, Todd instead blackmails the Nazi into becoming sort of like his own personal historian. Todd is a bit of a strange kid. He’s obsessed with WWII history, in particular the Holocaust, and instead iof being repulsed by Dussander’s past actions, the kid is instead enthralled. Even inspired, to a degree. 

However, the blackmail goes both ways, as the Nazi Dussander turns the tables on the kid later. See, the longer the kid has known Dussander, the more complicit he has become in keeping him from being brought to justice. Furthermore, as an “all-American” kid, with potential and college prospects, Todd risks having his future and reputation destroyed forever due to his association with an older Nazi. 

With their hands on each other’s throats in a sense, Dussander and Todd are forced into an uncomfortable alliance of secrecy over a period of four years. Ultimately, Dussander’s real identity is found out through a coincidence, and Todd, now age 17, is forced to reconcile with not only how he protected a war criminal, but his own very twisted dark side.

It’s nice to every once in a while be able to read an old Stephen King story. Because, when you ignore all the films, especially the newer ones that have been made of his works, and how slick and clean they all look, you can really appreciate just how good of a writer Classic King really was. 

King is at his best when he’s exploring the darkness of the human heart. He may be categorized as a horror writer, but really, his best work looks into human nature itself. But he’s also a great plotter, always ratcheting up the tension like an ever-turning corkscrew.

When Todd’s grades begin to slip at school, the boy forces Dusaander to act as his grandfather for a meeting with the guidance counselor. 

Apt Pupil is unusual. A story about a young kid associating with a Nazi war criminal on its own would probably be enough. But King throws in the wild card that both Todd and Dussander start murdering homeless vagrants and bums around town. For me, it was sort of like smashing two concepts into one. And I was never entirely sure exactly what precipitated both of them to start killing. I never got the sense of Dussander being a serial killer. For sure, he was a brutal Nazi war criminal. But his crimes were state-directed, not necessarily ones he set out to do in order to satisfy his own desire for bloodshed. 

For Todd, his turn toward killing felt like it came out of left field. I was expecting something more along the lines of Dussander influencing the boy into killing, mirroring how the Nazi war machine, and Hitler’s propganda, tranformed Germany into a genocidal state. King, however, doesn’t go for subleties here. So essentially, what we have here is the story of two psychopaths meeting each other, and more or less provoking one another’s propensity for murder and violence. All while ironically occuring in an idyllic Southern California suburb.   

Apt Pupil is a worthwhile King novella to check out if you haven’t already. A few interesting facts: King started writing Apt Pupil immediately after The Shining. And the novella is placed right before another King classic, The Body, which of course became the film Stand By Me

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