(First of all, I’m so, so sorry that this review arrived the time it did. It could’ve been finished and posted earlier, but a tumultuous combination of uni work, procrastination, and a temporary job made me chuck this review in the backburner)
Usually, when it comes to reviews, I often keep them short, simple and intend not to give too many spoilers away; they’re just merely opinions that I have in regards to the narratives and I don’t want to turn them long-winded either. Also, there are going to be a fair amount of spoilers in this review, so read at your own risk.
!!Disclaimer!!: this review ain’t for the faint-hearted and contains sensitive material. If you or somebody you know (such as a family member) has been affected by the genocides and war crimes of World War II, or if the topic of war and death is upsetting to you, please proceed with caution. Or otherwise, you can spare yourself from reading the post altogether if it’s beneficial for your wellbeing.
Without further rambling, let’s get right into it!
So picture this. It’s a fine day in a Californian town. There’s a young, middle-school aged boy with blonde hair and bright blue eyes, pedalling along on his bicycle. He stops at a residence where an elderly German migrant lives. The old man is decrepit and alcoholic, and then the young boy drops a bomb on him: I know you were a Nazi.
Then, hell ensues (because this is a Stephen King story, remember? Nobody gets to BE HAPPY).
So the boy in question is Todd Bowden, and firstly we’ll take a look at his character for a moment. In the novella, he is described as a bright, cheerful boy who is the epitome of a ‘golden boy’. He excels in academics, plays sports, and is noted to be an overall good kid. Todd’s a person that you’d want your son to be like, or your boyfriend or best friend, right? After all, he is an apt pupil. But alas my dear friend, much like many things in life, appearances are just that– appearances. Beyond the facade of altruism and perfection, Todd Bowden is a nightmare. If we were to transport ourselves into this story as mere observers in the neighbourhood where little ol’ Todd is biking along, we may see that despite that all-American boyish appearance, we may see that his eyes have some sort of cool emptiness– a cold intensity that mismatches his warm exterior. There’s something just off about this kid. But once we’d get talking to this guy, you find that he’s charming, nice, and rather sweet. We then brush off those thoughts.
Perhaps Stephen King wrote this particular character this way because he wanted to kind of break the trope of that typical all-American boy; the type that Ron Howard would play many moons ago. There’s also that reoccurring theme of appearances and deception that is present in bajillion other stories written. It’s not a new concept, but it is one that hasn’t died because this is still an issue that occurs today! There are and were Todd Bowdens that roam this planet. Charming on the exterior, malignant on the interior.
Speaking of appearances and deception, we have the other “protagonist”, Arthur Denker. Or should I say, Kurt Dussander. He’s an alcoholic old man who emigrated from Germany at least a couple of decades before Apt Pupil was set (the 1970s). As it turned out, ‘Arthur Denker’ is just an alias for a man that was responsible for many deaths and painful memories for survivors. He was actually an S.S. official who was in charge of a concentration camp back in WWII and rather than being subjected to the Nuremberg Trials, he escaped scot-free. Again, nobody but Todd and himself know this, and he had managed to keep this as a secret until now.
So what we have here is that Stephen King wrote two particular characters; a youth and an elderly person. Typically, these are the type of people we as adults (the primary audience of King’s works) would see as vulnerable and as people to feel sympathetic towards. No. He took all of that and twisted them into a wicked form– both characters are antisocial, perhaps we could go as far as to say that they may even be sociopaths. Now, we can’t feel sorry for either party and if we do we’d be conflicted; they are both malevolent and are much more similar than they thought.
Todd gives Dussander an ultimatum: do as I say, or I will air your dirty laundry. Scared, Dussander submits to the younger boy’s demands. For example, one thing he has to do is to wear an imitation S.S. Uniform and perform the goosestep march. He also tells Todd about the horrific things that occurred in the camp. Sickening as it is, Todd gets excited about all of this. Eventually, this intrigue with Nazis takes a toll on Todd’s grades, and this is when Dussander reclaims the upper hand; you’ll improve your grades boy, or I’ll tell everyone the real reason why you’ve been flunking. Now, the two protags have trapped one another in their own tangled webs and whatever humanity they have left in them ultimately perishes.
(From here, there will be some discussion about the deeds that both Todd and Dussander do. Again, I will warn you that this is going to be sensitive material.)
Eventually, Todd’s obsession with Dussander’s war crime stories and Nazism becomes insatiable. He wants more and more and more! As he grows older, he does improve his grades (but he rigs his report cards, however), charms and impresses the people around him, gets a girlfriend, and while he doesn’t visit Dussander as much anymore, that urge for excitement still continues to grow. To cope with bizarre, disturbing nightmares, Todd begins to kill people; both literally and in his imagination. Around this time, his sexuality begins budding, and personally, in my opinion, these bits of the novella weirded me out. He has wet dreams and gets his rocks off (as hormonal teenagers do), but with anything that involves some kind of sexual matter in this novella, there is a subtext of sadism. There is a point he reaches in which he cannot climax unless he imagines doing sadistic things (he goes home and gets off after pretending to shoot unsuspecting drivers on the road). When orgasms aren’t enough for Todd to get his dopamine fix, do you know what he does next? You guessed it: he kills some more!
I’m going to go off a tangent here for a short moment, and if you’re familiar with history regarding World War II, let’s have a look at Todd’s physical appearance. Caucasian, blonde hair, blue eyes… ‘Aryan’ according to Hitler’s definition of it. It’s not a coincidence that King wrote Todd Bowden’s appearance this way as some sort of twisted irony.
While Todd is experiencing this change, Dussander also experiences change, or rather, a reversion of character. Perhaps the interactions with Todd have awoken the sleeping Nazi within him, and much like Todd, Dussander has an urge to kill. He begins by ‘gassing’ animals in the oven (oh dear), then eventually, he moves onto human victims. Both Todd and Dussander target a particular group of people; derelicts, or in the novel, they’re referred to as wine-os. They both do this because they want to suppress the vivid dreams they both experience… but why? Why the homeless and not other types of people like people walking home from work at night (this is just one example)? Possibly another reason for Todd and Dussander offing homeless people is because ‘they’re just a problem anyway’, ‘nobody will miss them’, or that ‘they’re not needed’. Let’s think about this in regards to historical context. What were the reasons why the Nazis wanted to eradicate the Jews (as well as other groups who did not fit the ideal Nazi standards)? They believed that these people were inferior, they were ‘vermin’, they weren’t needed in their vision of a ‘perfect world’. Does this sound familiar? It’s messed up, I know, but that was their delusion put into action. So, in a way, it’s observable that the killings of the homeless people most likely parallel the Holocaust that occurred in the War.
To add insult to injury, there is also the growing anti-Semitism in Todd. He begins to show covert contempt towards people that are Jewish; his own girlfriend included. He picks up on traits that are supposedly ‘Jewish’. However, these prejudices that Todd has are based on the negative traits that the Nazis (and sadly, some people today) touted against the Jews– i.e. their physical attributes, behaviour, their surnames, etc. Of course, not all Jewish people look and act a particular way or have a particular name.
Oh, and I forgot all about the third player (the “antagonist”) Ed French, the guidance counsellor. I felt sorry for the poor bugger, he was only trying to help. Anyway, he’s the character that Todd had to see because of his failing grades. In order to deceive Ed, Todd has Dussander pretend to be his grandpa. But ultimately, Ed gets suspicious of Todd and decides to investigate. He calls up Todd’s grandfather, but for some reason, the man doesn’t remember having a chat with Ed (yet he seems too young to be having dementia), and here’s the clincher: he doesn’t speak with a mild German accent. Then shit hits the fan when he figures out that Todd had been manipulating his report cards this whole time. Ed’s role in the story is to be the character that has suspicions of the whole situation (Todd’s parents, on the contrary, are hopeless), therefore, being one of the catalysts that royally screw up Dussander’s and Todd’s doing.
Then, they end. The end. (No more spoilers for you! Read the story!)
So, what did I think about this novella? Well, personally I think that this is another typical horror story from the King of Horror, Stephen King. I read Stephen King novels for entertainment and usually, I don’t find his stories too scary, but this particular novella did disturb me. Instead of killer clown entities, dead pets coming back to life, or possessed cars from the 50s, the monsters featured in this story are none other than humans. Perhaps this hits close to home for me is because (a) the other mentioned villains are pretty much impossible to witness in real life, and (b) killings of this nature have and do happen. Especially there’s the fact that Todd seemed charming and an ‘all-round good guy’, albeit a little weird to people, but lurking underneath the surface is an entirely different person. Do you know what other people fitted this description? SERIAL KILLERS! Additionally, there is also the true horror story of the Holocaust mentioned in this story as well. It’s a story that disturbed me because this could become true. The killings of the derelicts also made me quite upset; they are humans too, and yes, while it’s only fictional, I’m still angered that the protagonists were doing such things.
Because we are naturally inclined to sympathise with protagonists, I will reiterate that it was quite unnerving reading a story that has despicable protags. The hatred and wickedness coming from these protagonists seemed too real for me and found it a bit disturbing. Sometimes, authors can get into trouble whenever they’d write a sexist/racist/any other form of bigot character, but those fictional characters often do not reflect the ideas of the author themselves.
Overall, Apt Pupil did mess me up. The main characters are vile and malignant, and in my opinion, scarier than the monsters in other Stephen King stories. I can’t say as to whether I like the plot or not, but kudos to Stephen for triggering feelings of frustration, horror, and disgust. Because they did trigger these feelings when I read this novella, I can say that this is a well-written horror. I would definitely recommend this novella to fellow Stephen King fans, as well as readers that are interested in just… humans, and I’ll explain why in Part 2 of this increasingly long post.
With a whole heap of other Stephen King stories and novellas next line to be read and reviewed, hopefully, we’ll be seeing stories of the same calibre (minus the Nazis).
Anyway, that’s all I’ve got for you today. Stay tuned for future posts; but bear in mind, I’ll be quite busy in the next coming weeks. Since the semester is coming to an end, there is a lot of work I’ve got to catch up with and… life happens. So I’ll love you and leave you all. Until then, adios, my reader friends!