Apt Pupil

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This article is about the novella. For the film adaptation, see Apt Pupil (film).
"Apt Pupil"
Author Stephen King
Country United States
Language English
Genre(s) Psychological thriller
Published in Different Seasons
Publisher Viking Press
Media type Print (Hardcover)
Publication date 1982

Apt Pupil (1982) is a novella by Stephen King, originally published in the 1982 novella collection Different Seasons, subtitled "Summer of Corruption".

Format of the story[edit]

Apt Pupil consists of 29 chapters, many of which are headed by a month. Set in a fictional suburb of southern California called "Santo Donato", the story unfolds over a period of about four years, with most of the action taking place during the first year and the last months. It is the only novella in Different Seasons to be narrated in the third person.

Plot summary[edit]

In 1974, Todd Bowden arrives at the doorstep of elderly German immigrant Arthur Denker, accusing him of being a wanted Nazi war criminal named Kurt Dussander. The old man initially denies the allegation, but eventually acknowledges his true identity. But rather than turning Dussander over to the proper authorities, Todd asks to hear highly detailed stories about his crimes, having recently become interested in the Holocaust. However, Todd still threatens Dussander with exposure should he refuse his demands. Over the next several months, Todd visits Dussander daily under the pretext of reading to him, all the while badgering him into revealing more details of his atrocities. Todd soon gives Dussander an SS Obersturmbannführer's uniform, forcing him to wear it and march on command.

As his relationship with Dussander continues, Todd also begins to have nightmares and sees his grades slip. After being confronted by his father about his grades, he forges his report cards before giving them to his parents. Eventually, Todd becomes in danger of failing several courses. This causes Ed French, Todd's guidance counselor, to seek an appointment with the Bowdens. Todd and Dussander concoct a ruse, having Dussander go to French's appointment while posing as Todd's grandfather, Victor. Dussander falsely claims that Todd's grades are the result of problems at home, and promises to make sure his grades improve; French believes Dussander's story, but notices that Todd's "grandfather" does not mention him by name.

Knowing that Todd has been doctoring his report cards and knowingly socialized with a war criminal, Dussander blackmails Todd into spending his visits studying. With great effort, Todd is able to sufficiently improve his schoolwork. Since he no longer has any use for Dussander, Todd resolves to kill him and make it look like an accident. Todd had earlier claimed to have given a letter about Dussander to a friend; if anything should happen to Todd, the letter will be sent to the authorities. However, before Todd can kill Dussander, the old man claims to have written about Todd's involvement with him, and put his statement into a safe deposit box that will be found upon his death.

Over the next few months, Todd murders several homeless vagrants; he finds that committing murder somehow helps with his nightmares. As years pass, Todd's visits to Dussander become less frequent. He loses his virginity, but finds sex unsatisfying compared to the thrill of murdering local derelicts. When circumstances do not allow him to continue his serial killings, he picks a concealed spot overlooking the freeway and aims at people in passing cars with his hunting rifle. Dussander, suffering from his own nightmares, has also taken to killing the homeless for essentially the same reason as Todd, burying the bodies in his basement. Despite the link between them, Dussander and Todd are not immediately aware of each other's exploits.

One night, when Dussander is digging a grave for his latest victim, he has a heart attack. He summons Todd, who buries the body and cleans up the crime scene before finally calling an ambulance. At the hospital, Dussander happens to share a room with Morris Heisel, an elderly Jewish man who recognizes "Mr. Denker", but cannot place him. When Todd visits Dussander in the hospital, Dussander admits he was bluffing about the bank deposit box, as was Todd's threat about his letter. Dussander has read about the homeless men murdered by Todd, and tells the boy not to get careless. Dussander declares that "we are quits."

A few days later, Heisel realizes that Denker is Dussander, the commandant of the camp where his wife and daughters died in the gas chambers. An Israeli Nazi hunter named Weiskopf visits Dussander, telling him that he has been found out. After Weiskopf leaves, Dussander steals some drugs from the hospital dispensary and commits suicide. When Dussander's identity is revealed to the world, Todd convinces his parents that he didn't know about Dussander's past. Meanwhile a police detective named Richler, accompanied by Weiskopf, interviews Todd and is not so easily convinced. A vagrant recognizes Todd as the last person seen with several of the homeless victims, and notifies the police.

Meanwhile, French meets Todd's real grandfather. French brings up their previous conversation, but the real Victor Bowden obviously doesn't recall their meeting. French becomes suspicious and checks Todd's old report cards, finding that they have been tampered with. Later, he identifies the late Kurt Dussander as the man who met with him about Todd's grades. French confronts Todd, who responds by fatally shooting him. Todd then takes his rifle and ammunition to his hideout by the freeway. He embarks on a shooting spree, resulting in his death at the hands of the authorities five hours later.

Connection to King's other works[edit]

  • Kurt Dussander remembers using a "bank in the State of Maine" to purchase stocks under an assumed name. He goes on to say that the banker who bought them for Dussander went to jail for murdering his wife a year after he purchased them. He even references Andy Dufresne by name — he remembers the name because "it sounds a little like mine." Andy Dufresne is a central character in Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, the novella preceding Apt Pupil in Different Seasons.
  • When confronting Todd about his murders, Dussander mentions a serial killer named "Springheel Jack". This killer is the focus of "Strawberry Spring", a short story published in the King collection Night Shift (1978).
  • The guidance counselor Ed French mentions his hotel room is number 217, the same as the famous Overlook Hotel room in King's The Shining.
  • There is an incident with a blue jay in Apt Pupil that mirrors events in two other King novels. Whilst cycling, Todd spots an injured blue jay on the ground, with its beak 'opening and closing' slowly. The bird symbolizes Todd's innocence and his mother. In Roadwork, Barton George Dawes tells a similar story about owning a rifle to a story told by Audrey Wyler in Desperation, In Desperation, Audrey says "The year I was twelve, my old man gave me a .22. The first thing I did was to go outside our house in Sedilia and shoot a jay. When I went over to it, it was still alive, too. It was trembling all over, staring straight ahead, and its beak was opening and closing, very slowly." In Roadwork, Dawes is thinking about .22 single-shot rifle he had as a boy. "He (Dawes) had wanted that rifle for three years and when he finally got it he couldn't think of anything to do with it. He shot at cans for a while, then shot a blue jay. The jay hadn't been a clean kill. It sat in the snow surrounded by a pink blood stain, its beak slowly opening and closing." In all three stories the breed of bird is identical, as is the detail about the beak 'opening and closing' slowly.

Adaptations[edit]

  • In 1995, Chicago's Defiant Theatre staged a full scale adaptation of the novella at the Preston Bradley Center in Chicago, IL. The novella was adapted and directed for the stage by Christopher Johnson. Veteran stage and film actor William J. Norris starred as Kurt Dussander.
  • Sony Pictures released a film version of Apt Pupil in 1998. The film was directed by Bryan Singer. Brad Renfro stars as Todd and Ian McKellen stars as Kurt.[1] The ending of the film is significantly different.
  • The song "A Skeleton in the Closet" by the metal band Anthrax is based on the story.
  • The Family Guy episode "German Guy", is loosely based on Apt Pupil. In the episode, Chris Griffin meets an elderly puppeteer who is revealed to be a Nazi war criminal whom Herbert, Chris's friend and an elderly pedophile, had an encounter with during World War II.

Also note[edit]

Several characters notice that Dussander is careful never to mention Todd's name. The German word for "death" is "Tod."

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

References[edit]

  • Stephen King, Summer of Corruption: Apt Pupil (published in Different Seasons), Viking Press, U.S.A., 1982.