Stephen King strikes out on an unlikely course in this novella and follows it through all the way to a chilling conclusion. Thirteen-year-old Todd Bowman seems like a perfectly healthy and happy boy. He’s good at sports and does well in school (hence the “apt pupil” descriptor) and his successful, happy parents love him to pieces. After a magazine article piques his interest in the Holocaust, Todd makes a shocking discovery. A local old-timer is actually a Nazi war-criminal named Dussander living in America under a false identity. Armed with as much proof as he can gather Todd makes a shocking and fateful decision. Rather than turning in the old man, he goes to confront him in person. Todd isn’t interested in seeing justice served or in the accolades he could earn for his discovery. He just wants to hear what it was actually like. He wants the old man to tell him all about the Holocaust: how it worked and how it made him feel.
At first the old man is reluctant to dredge up the past but when he realizes that Todd has him over a barrel he capitulates. Under the guise of reading to a lonely old man losing his eyesight, Todd and the old man spend many afternoons together reliving life in the camps.
In spite of his keen interest these sessions have a severe impact on Todd, resulting in nightmares and slipping grades. As he spends more and more time with Dussander the old man manages to turn the situation to his advantage, catching Todd in a trap wherein they both must rely on the other to avoid the consequences of their actions.
King is unsparing in depicting Todd’s downward spiral. He describes Todd’s dreams and his increasingly evil thoughts in vivid, uncomfortable detail, making it abundantly clear that something is wrong with Todd, deep down. However much the reader might have sympathized with Todd as a child with promise, King is determined to wear that down and expose the darkness within.
As Todd goes further along this evil path the suspense becomes a matter of whether there is any way he can escape from under Dussander’s thumb and, if he even could, would it matter? Was it meeting Dussander that corrupted this All-American Boy, or was the evil present all along, looking for a conduit?
If you’re familiar with King’s work you can probably guess the answer, but that doesn’t make the conclusion any less disturbing.