It tells of Sam Peebles and his battle against an age-old fear.
Arriving at the library, which in the past he had driven by many times, Sam finds its outward appearance depressing and foreboding. Inside, the building is dimly lit with old-fashioned electric lamps and a skylight overhead. Several signs scattered about demand silence from those inside. Sam wanders about in search of someone to aid him and ends up in the children’s section. He is disturbed by a series of posters that seem designed to traumatize children into behaving. One poster that catches Sam’s eye in particular depicts a large figure in a trench coat, identified as the Library Policeman, towering over two children with late books. The head librarian, an elderly spinstress-type woman named Ardelia Lortz suddenly appears on the scene to aid Sam. He tells her of his problem and she happily provides him with a book on speech writing and a collection of poems. Although her attitude is friendly, Sam for some reason neither likes nor trusts Ardelia. She issues him a library card and he checks out the books for a week, and as he leaves Sam makes a passing comment about the appropriateness of the posters in the children’s section. Ardelia goes on the defensive and tells Sam the posters are needed to make the children behave, and she all but throws him out of the library with his books.
Sam’s speech is a massive success that garners him new business opportunities. He thanks Naomi for telling him to go to the library, but is confused when she states that the head librarian is a man named ‘Price’. Sam tells her the woman he talked to was named Lortz, and Naomi gives him an odd look. Just as she is about to say something, Sam receives a phone call that abruptly ends the conversation.
A week goes by and Sam is planning to take it easy on his Saturday off, when he plays his messages. Ardelia’s voice speaks from the answering machine, sternly admonishing Sam for being late with his books and giving him until Monday to return them. Her message has an intimidating effect on Sam, but he quickly gets over it. He writes her a letter of apology and includes five dollars as both a late fee payment and possible bribe to mend the wound. However, Sam finds out to his horror that the books are missing. He retraces his steps and realizes that he accidentally put them into a box for paper recycling that is taken away on a monthly basis by ‘Dirty’ Dave Duncan, a homeless wino.
Sam goes to the Angle Street homeless shelter where Dave lives and finds him and other residents drawing posters advertising an upcoming benefit dinner at the shelter. He asks Dave if he took the box, to which Dave says he did and directs him to the recycling plant he brought them to for a profit. Sam thanks him and leaves, but not before noticing and being genuinely surprised by the high quality and skill of Dave’s drawing, depicting a beautiful woman serving food at the banquet who seems oddly familiar to Sam. He goes to the plant and finds nothing left of the books except the binding. With some trepidation, Sam decides to go to the Junction City Library and apologize to Ardelia in person. As he leaves, he suddenly realizes why the woman in Dave’s poster looked familiar—it is Naomi Higgins.
When he arrives, Sam is put off by the apparent lively appearance of the library’s exterior. Going inside, he is further confused, and a bit disturbed, by sudden changes in the building in the week that has gone by: the old-fashioned electric lights are replaced with modern fluorescent lights, and the posters in the children section have been replaced by several encouraging children about the joys of reading. Sam asks two college interns at the library about any kind of remodeling that has occurred recently, but he is told that the only construction they’ve heard of happened years ago. Further, when he asks if they know Ardelia Lortz, they say no, although the name seems familiar to them. Sam leaves, feeling as if he is going insane.
That night, Sam has a nightmare in which he sees Ardelia as a hideous monster stuffing her mouth with red licorice. Dave is in the dream, drawing posters similar to the nightmarish ones he’s seen in the library a week ago. He wakes up and realizes that Dave is the one who drew the posters he saw. He remembers that Naomi had been about to tell him something about Ardelia before and calls her home. He gets her mother instead, who tells him that Naomi is at church. Before hanging up, Sam asks her if she knows of Ardelia, to which Mrs. Higgins angrily tells Sam to stop harassing her about that woman.
Sam goes to the shelter to talk to Dave, but finds the shelter seemingly empty. He looks out into the back lawn and discovers Dave, along with several other people, including Naomi, explaining how she ended up in Dave’s poster. The people appear to be in the midst of an AA meeting. Feeling ashamed for witnessing something he shouldn’t have, Sam leaves a note for Dave asking about Ardelia. That night, Sam receives a call from Dave, who in a terrified tone pleads with Sam not to bring Ardelia’s name into his life again. Naomi picks up on the other line and angrily calls Sam a horrible man for harassing Dave about that woman, and hangs up.
Out of options, Sam decides to head the library the next day and look up any information in the city archives on Ardelia. As he is getting ready, a knock comes at his door. He just manages to turn the knob when the door is forced open, knocking him back and bringing him face-to-face with the Library Policeman from the poster. The figure towers over Sam with a white face and speaks in a hauntingly familiar lisp. He beats and abuses Sam, giving him until midnight to return the books and ordering him to stop investigating things that don’t concern him. The Policeman leaves Sam shivering and wallowing in terror.
Despite his experience, Sam feels that he needs to learn the truth. He goes to the local newspaper archives, but finds the records lacking any information between the late Fifties and early Sixties. He runs into Naomi there, who has been searching for Sam to apologize to him for what she said the other night. He leaves with her and explains his situation. Naomi reveals that what she had been going to tell Sam was that Ardelia Lortz has been dead for many years, which Sam had figured out by this point. She also tells him that Dave has been missing since last night, and she’s afraid he has been drinking again. They arrive at the shelter to find Dave there, having apparently resisted the urge to drink. Sam demands to know everything, to which Dave halfhearted agrees. First, he asks Sam to tell him and Naomi all that he has experienced.
After Sam’s story, Dave reveals his own. Years ago, he had a successful job and was well-respected by his fellow townspeople. Then, Ardelia Lortz showed up in town to become the assistant librarian. Dave was immediately attracted to Ardelia and began an intense sexual relationship with her. As time went on, with Ardelia’s help Dave developed a drinking problem, which he reflects was her way to control him. As time passed, Dave lost his respectable life and friends. Eventually the head librarian died, making Ardelia the head librarian. She revealed to Dave that she killed him by exposing her true self to him, then sucking the life out of him. She commissioned Dave to draw the posters designed to frighten the children into obedience, which he does only after she threatens him. Ardelia would read children stories in the library, although her versions of classic fairy tales were disturbing and nightmarish. Every time a child would become so distraught by Ardelia’s mental abuse, she would take them out to the bathroom and leave Dave with the children. While she was gone, all the children would go into a sleep-like trance that he could not wake them from. One time, he followed her to the bathroom and found a terrifying scene: Ardelia’s face had transformed into a fleshy, mosquito-like face that was sucking a pinkish liquid from the child’s eyes, which he understood was their fear. He returned to the children in time for her not to notice he’d left. Soon, a detective at the police station had become suspicious of Ardelia and begun to investigate. In response, she demanded that Dave kill the detective’s daughter while she takes two children from the library the following day for herself, stating she doesn’t have much time remaining. Dave, powerless to oppose her, went off the next day to find the detective’s house and kill his daughter, but came to his senses and instead called the detective at the station to warn him to protect his daughter. Dave fell asleep in a train yard, and awoke two days later to discover that the daughter was unharmed, but the detective and two children were dead, having been killed by Ardelia before she killed herself, although he knows she is still alive and waiting to return one day.
Finishing his recollection, Dave tells Sam that he has been chosen to act as Ardelia’s newest host body, and that she will assume his identity and move onto another town and start the cycle anew at another library. Sam asks what he can do, to which Dave replies with a plan of his own. He also tells Sam that while the Library Policeman who assaulted him had a scar on his cheek, the one he drew did not, so Ardelia is using a memory from Sam’s past as part of that apparition. If he wishes to stop Ardelia, Sam must face his own Library Policeman.
Using a favor owed by a friend, Dave has Sam and Naomi fly to Des Moines on a Navajo airplane to buy replacement books for the ones that were destroyed. They get the books and return to Junction City. On the plane ride back, Sam has a nightmare and faces a repressed memory of his Library Policeman: as a young boy in St. Louis, he was molested by a lisping man with a scar in a trench coat who claimed he was the Library Policeman. Sam had been eating red licorice at the time and has hated it ever since.
They drive towards the library, but Sam has Naomi stop at a convenience store where he buys several bags of red licorice and mashes it together into a thick ball. They arrive at the library at eight o’clock, just as everyone else is leaving. They find Dave there standing near the rear door, but he is pulled inside by the Library Policeman. Sam and Naomi go in after him and find the monster holding Dave hostage. Sam faces the figure and demands it accept the replacements, the creature releases Dave, hurling him into a wall and causing a fire extinguisher to fall and crack his skull. Naomi is taken by the Policeman, who coughs onto her neck and then frees her. Sam, facing his old fears, confronts the cop for what happened to him years ago and brutally beats it. It transforms into its true form, a fleshy ogre with a long proboscis, and scurries away. Sam goes after it and manages to stuff its proboscis with the ball of licorice, causing it to swell up and explode. Sam and Naomi comfort Dave as he dies from his injuries, and he gives Sam a cryptic final message: “She waits…”
Sam and Naomi attend Dave’s funeral and a subsequent wake at Angle Street. Sam stops on the way to buy a single package of red licorice and a package of Slim Jims, which he gives to some of the residents. He finds Naomi outside, near the train yard where Dave had slept hiding from Ardelia years ago. She tells him how this whole thing has made it hard for her to control her drinking problem, and she feels she will lapse. Sam tells her of a dream he had the other night, where Naomi had transformed into Ardelia. Remembering Dave’s last words, Sam has realized that when the Library Policeman coughed on Naomi’s neck, it deposited a spore of Ardelia that will slowly take over her body and allow Ardelia to live again as Naomi Higgins. Sam tells her to turn around and watch an oncoming train. As she does, he lifts up Naomi’s hair around her neck and finds a small cyst with a heart inside of it lodged against the flesh. He takes a ball of mashed-together licorice and presses it against her neck, all the while Ardelia speaks to Sam through Naomi’s mouth, cursing him and ordering him to stop. He plucks the Ardelia-cyst from Naomi’s neck with it held inside the ball and puts the mass onto the railroad track just before the train runs it over, freeing Naomi and killing Ardelia for good.
Finally able to put this experience behind them, Sam and Naomi walk back to the wake.