Dallas' Book Report: Apt Pupil by Stephen King (1982)
Stephen King is a master of horror, but nothing is more skin-crawling than reality. While we are on the topic of fact, World War II was worse than any ghost, ghoul, or goblin story. And speaking of World War II, the Nazi's put even the most notorious of slashers to shame. And some of those monsters still walk among us.
That is what Stephen King's novella Apt Pupil explores and does so—ubiquitous of King—with terrifying deft. The plot of Apt Pupil is simple: a teen boy finds out that one of his neighbors, Mr. Dussander, is a former SS member. The war criminal who is responsible for the deaths of thousands. The boy's demands are straightforward; he will not turn the old Nazi over to the authorities if he tells him everything about the camps. The boy, Todd Bowden, is an A-student, a model citizen, and lives with his loving mother and father. A picture-perfect slice of the pie that is 'The American Dream.' But he also has a deep fascination for the horrors of WWII. He decides that who better to teach him the horrors of Nazi atrocities than if he heard it from the source. What starts as blackmail quickly turns into a game of cat-and-mouse where both become model students in the study of evil.
Apt Pupil is the kind of thriller that can be best described as a slow burner without losing a brisk pace. A tough balancing act, to say the least. King has a way of making the impending horror less of a lurking shadow and feels more like a creeping pestilence. While reading Apt Pupil, I felt dirty at times, like the wickedness of Mr. Dussander and Todd's subsequent corruption was rubbing off on me. Forget Pennywise or the imposing atmosphere of the Overlook Hotel, having a discussion with an old Nazi in his kitchen would mess with my psyche! Why Dussander is not on more lists as a great in King's works, is beyond me. Dussander has a way of bending everyone around him to his will, even going so far as warping Todd to commit some vile acts himself.
I think that is the most unsettling thing about this story; The length King goes to show how innocence can be tainted. Todd starts off as a wide-eyed, curious boy, and slowly the reader watches him turn into an abusive and unfeeling monster. Dussander watching his sociopathy work on Todd, spurs him to relive his glory days via murdering unsuspecting victims. Like some kind of vicarious revenge for losing the war, disgraced, and having to escape Germany—Dussander kills animals and those he deems unfit for society. Such a vile man.
And without giving anything away, this novel has one of the bleakest endings I have ever read.
Apt Pupil is a chilling reminder that you do not need vampires, haunted houses, or evil clowns to make a monster. All you need is a susceptible mind and the right kind of mental toxin to craft a villain.