by Stephen King
Along a residential street in the suburban town of Wentworth, Ohio, a paperboy is suddenly shot by a mysterious stranger in a red van. The neighborhood’s panicked civilians run for shelter while author Johnny Marinville attempts to contact the police. However, an otherworldly force prevents the call from going through. Two other colorful vans, each driven by mysterious and odd strangers, later appear and kill three more residents. Former police officer Collie Entragian directs the affected residents and corrals them into the homes of victim David Carver and veterinarian Tom Billingsley. Only two residents remain indoors the entire time, seemingly unfazed: Audrey Wyler and her autistic nephew Seth, whom she has been caring for since the death of his family two years ago, remain silent among the chaos.
During a trip to a mining town in Desperation, Nevada, an evil, otherworldly being named Tak took possession of Seth's body after it was released from a mine. Implementing strong mental influence, it later killed Seth’s parents and siblings. Tak then forced Audrey's husband to commit suicide. To survive, Audrey took refuge in a mental construct of her creation, modeling her safe place after a favorite retreat. Seth, meanwhile, is sent into the deep recesses of his mind while Tak is in control and suffers poor hygiene and nutrition as a result of the creature’s neglect. Despite his autism, Seth displays a gifted mental strength that is likely the reason Tak was drawn to him in the first place. It also helps keep his mind intact while Tak is in control.
Tak is the source of the vans, which are derived from the cartoon MotoKops 2200, which Seth watches religiously. Seth also often watches a Western movie named The Regulators, and Tak eventually transforms the neighborhood into an Old West landscape with no way to escape, as some of the residents soon find.
After several other people are killed in various ways (including Collie, who is mistakenly shot by a neighborhood teenager), Seth ingests a laxative administered by Audrey. This causes Tak to leave Seth's body temporarily as it cannot stand witnessing the boy defecate. Audrey takes this chance to go across the street to the Carver's home and she explains the situation to the others. She slips back to the house with Johnny to try to rescue Seth before Tak returns, but Cammie Reed follows, with a gun. Distraught over the death of her son earlier, Cammie kills Seth, and mortally wounds Audrey as Tak tries to re-enter the boy’s body. Tak’s attention is then diverted to her and it enters Cammie’s body instead. However, she cannot hold up to Tak the way that Seth could and her body is destroyed as a result of the possession. Tak leaves her in the form of smoke and dissipates in the wind. The vans disappear and the landscape is returned to its normal state. A short epilogue in the form of a letter reveals that Seth’s and Audrey’s spirits have taken up residence at the meadow from Audrey’s mental sanctuary, and live there happily in what is implied to be an alternate parallel paradise.