Apt Pupil (from Different Seasons) – Stephen King

You know those books that come around every once in a while that, when you finish reading them, you have to take a step back, take a deep breath, and really examine your life? Apt Pupil is like that.

Todd Bowden is your prototypical all-American boy. Handsome, blond, athletic, intelligent, and upper-middle class, Todd wants for nothing—except, perhaps, the sort of knowledge that you don’t get in school. The sort of knowledge that only one person he knows can bestow upon him; the sort of knowledge that, once he owns it, will change him forever.

Arthur Denker—née Kurt Dussander—is your prototypical lonely old man. He lives alone in a small house in a quiet Caifornian suburb, not far from Todd. But Todd knows there is more to Denker than meets the eye: he knows about the torture, the deaths, the post-World War II manhunt that Denker has eluded for decades—and he wants to know more.

I’ve read enough Stephen King in my life to be more or less unmoved at “scary” or “disturbing” stories. I’ve gotten very good at compartmentalizing them and keeping them where they can’t get to me. Apt Pupil broke down all those defenses.

It’s not the sort of story you tell around a campfire, with wolves howling in the dark. It’s not a story of pure good versus pure evil—there are no young children fighting a clown in the sewers. There’s only Todd, a 13-year-old boy, who is intrigued by the Holocaust’s tales of torture and death. Intrigued by the men and women who committed atrocities so gruesome that they still haunt our collective consciousness. Intrigued by the dying moments of millions of people from a generation he can only imagine.

It is this single-minded interest that inspires him to follow Denker for weeks before approaching him and demanding he detail his years as Kurt Dussander, The Blood-Fiend of Patin, in return for Todd’s vow not to turn him in to the authorities. Reluctantly, Denker does so, opening doors in his memory that he had believed to be long shut. It’s not long until the boy and the man are inextricably tied by their knowledge of Denker’s past…and their knowledge of their present.

In some ways, we all share Todd’s fascination with the macabre. That’s what makes Apt Pupil so unsettling. It makes you wonder how much or how little it would take for you to be able to torture, maim, kill—how desperate would you have to be, how deeply would you have to believe in your cause, to justify the murder of hundreds, thousands, perhaps millions of people? How far into madness must you go before you just—snap? How long could you keep up the façade of being a perfectly normal person with a perfectly normal life before the nightmares reach the surface?

Apt Pupil is haunting because we know, deep down inside, that we all have the capacity to hurt—and to enjoy it. We know it’s there, but for the sake of a peaceful and productive society, we bury it. We bury it deep. Apt Pupil will make you question just how deeply it’s buried—and how long you’ll be able to keep it there.


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4 thoughts on “Apt Pupil (from Different Seasons) – Stephen King

  1. I read Apt Pupil around thirty years ago and the story still haunts me. I agree, knowing it is in all of us to behave like monsters is the reason this book is so frightening.

    • As terrible as it is to think about, I think the ability to commit atrocities is a lot closer to the surface than most people want to believe. Think of Milgram’s experiment with the electric shocks—so many people continued to do what they were told long after they felt uncomfortable with it, and some people even enjoyed it. The instinctive thought is “Wow, how messed up would you have to be to go through with something like that?” when really you don’t have to be messed up at all…and that’s the really scary part.

  2. This sounds really good. I’ve not read a lot of Stephen King (shameful, I know). I tried to read The Shining a few years ago but for some reason didn’t finish it. I loved The Dark Tower series though – one of my favourite series of books of all time. I think I’ll give him another go though, I might start with this book! Thanks for posting about it 🙂

    • The Dark Tower series is actually one of the few things I haven’t read of his! Different Seasons is a great collection to start with!

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