Towards a Theology of Proximity

*This post contains an inexcusable amount of spoilers*

As a senior in high school, I was assigned to read Stephen King’s novella “Apt Pupil,” from King’s highly successful compilation, Different Seasons ("The Shawshank Redemption" and "Stand By Me" were inspired by two others novellas found in this work). I became enchanted with King, and he — with the possible exception of H.P. Lovecraft — has grown to be my favorite horror writer, and one contemporary write who I hold in the highest esteem. The project which came along with the short story was to examine the various thematic strands which I could come across. Having recently become a Christian, I was drawn to the insights this work could provide Christian living.

The story focuses on the relationship between a young American boy growing up in the fictional Californian suburb of Santo Donato and a former Nazi doctor and Death Camp director. Todd Bowden, the teenager on whom most of the plot focuses, came from a good family, and from an early age grew to be fascinated by the history of the Second World War. Learning about the Holocaust lead him to discover the aged, lonely German immigrant who lived down the road is a wanted war criminal. Kurt Dussander, dubbed the “Blood Fiend of Patin,” has been living in isolation in California for approximately a decade, after spending many post war years on the run in Cuba, Berlin, and unknown locales in South America. It is in the summer of ‘74 that Dussander hears the knock of a caller on his front door, the first one in months. The young boy at his door talks his way into the house, and reveals he has certain, compromising knowledge about the man who has been masquerading as Arthur Denker. Mr. Denker, Todd claims, is no widower who emigrated after retiring from a German automobile plant, but is none other than the “efficiency man” of Himmler himself.

Where the most experienced Israeli agents have failed, a thirteen-year-old with a paper route has succeeded: Dussander has been found out, and the following minutes, he believes, will hold his fate. The demands of Todd are simple, yet unexpected. Not money, not recognition, but information is what he desires. Dussander’s response, “You little monster!” proves to be prophetic. Despite this, in some strange way, Dussander grows fond of his new companion with time. As the two embark on their increasingly dark journey, we see their descent is mutually harmful. Todd’s grades begin to slip and his “gosh-darn” diction quickly turns crass and vulgar. Dussander, having awakened long-slumbering memories, is plagued by nightmares inspired by his days in the Death Camps. As time progresses, their physical and mental healths and habits continue to deteriorate.

Dussander and Todd find that the only way to cope with their symptoms is to feed their respective diseases. Dussander turns to the drink (more than usual) and harming animals, while Todd forges his report cards and contemplates harming those he encounters on the streets. Eventually, both begin reach the telos their actions had been pointing towards: the taking of life. The nightmares cease, grades begin to be commendable once more, and both even see dramatic health improvements. But under the surface, King wants us to see, hate begins to fester. Dussander wishes cashiers and people at the bus station find themselves at the mercy of wild beasts, and Todd finds himself struggling to hide his malicious thoughts towards his parents and teachers. But most significantly, the two harbor enmity towards each other. As time progresses, the reader will notice that our main characters evidence more and more behavior which seeks to foreshadow the novella’s ending (one part of the story I am not willing to spoil!).

When I was a senior in high school, I saw some truth in those pages. The assignment I did to accompany the reading was to explore the theme of proximity to evil, and what that meant for Todd and Dussander. I noted how the hate of one would feed of the other's, and vice versa. Todd had a promising childhood, having come from a kind family with the means to put him through college. Dussander would likely have lived out his days in silence. Instead of continuing down those respective paths, theirs crossed by pursuing one another. By opening up doors either best left closed or peered into with the utmost caution, they were drawn farther and farther down the hallways which were presented.

Three years later, I find myself reading the story again, and thought I’d take a stab at offering a theological reflection on “Apt Pupil.” Jesus tells us that what goes into a person does not defile, but that what comes out are the things which have the potential to alienate us from God and our communities. While we could make the argument that Todd and Dussander are not separating themselves at first from human flourishing because they are only taking things in, and only later begin to put bad things out, this is obviously not the case. I believe that is because the two are choosing to place their identities in malevolence. Instead of seeing habits and ways of thinking as the things which we put in (like “unclean” foods), in certain circumstances perhaps we ought to view them as who we are becoming. My personal takeaway from this story will be to examine my thoughts, and prayerfully seeking to make sure most of them are geared more towards the things of the Kingdom, such as the "setting free of captives", care for the marginalized, and comfort and hope for all.