*This review was written as part of The Stephen King Project*
Apt Pupil (1982) is a novella by Stephen King which originally appeared in Different Seasons, a collection of four novellas. Set in California, Apt Pupil follows Todd Bowden an all-American, golden schoolboy as he enters into a parasitic relationship with Arthur Denker after discovering that the old man is actually Kurt Dussander, an infamous Nazi war criminal. As the novella progresses, both characters become increasingly degenerate as they (re)explore their mutual inner darkness.
Todd Bowden is one of the most unlikable characters I have ever encountered in fiction. In him we witness the evolution of a sexual sadist, psychopath. This is triggered by his discovery of magazines about the Holocaust in a friend’s basement, and continues to develop during his callous friendship with Denker/Dussander. Denker, however, has suppressed (with much success) his monstrous habits until Todd enters his home and infiltrates his darkest memories, drawing his past self to the surface.
Their relationship is built on mutual hatred. Todd initially appears to regard Denker with a sickly mix of disgust and curiosity. Meanwhile, Denker loathes Todd for breaking into the vault of his death camp memories. Each character feeds off of the other’s misery, taunting, threatening and torturing each other relentlessly. Just when one character appears to have the upper hand, the other gains control in a twisted sadomasochistic game of terror. Their game has no safe word and no limits. For example, one day, Todd brings Denker an SS uniform and orders him to model it. Denker submits to the humiliation, marching and acting in accordance with Todd’s orders. However, Denker regains control as he begins to accept his old skin, and goose-steps with deep gratification until Todd, afraid, begs him to stop.
Another aspect of their relationship that interested me is Denker’s refusal to refer to Todd by name. He is always simply “the boy,” and several characters notice this. Perhaps Denker views Todd like one of those he imprisoned and tortured during the holocaust, just a number, just another body placed under his antagonistic radar. Perhaps Denker cannot call Todd by name because that would endow him with an intrinsically human quality, that of being a recognisable individual.
Overall, I find this novella extremely absorbing. Apt Pupil is an examination of the progression of evil, and the presence of sleeping monsters that can be awakened within even the most accomplished and seemingly sincere citizens. Although only 178 pages, the story explores a range of issues such as race, gender, homoeroticism, homophobia, sadomasochism, and Nazism. At it’s centre, I believe the message to be that history endures. even the most deeply buried pasts can easily resurface. Denker’s position in the Holocaust can never be erased and Todd’s seething evil is aroused through knowledge of this heinous history. Most symbolic are the dead bodies that Denker buries in his basement. The old man’s house (double entendre alert!) appears, outwardly, to be in order. However, the stench of his sins rise as relentlessly as his memories. As André Malraux says, “man is not what he thinks he is, he is what he hides.”