A young hero or heroine falls under the shadow of the dark power.
In the first hundred pages of this book, we get the sense that something isn't quite right with Jack Gladney's life. Something is constantly looming in the background, and this thing is Death. No, not the sickle-wielding Grim Reaper—just the idea of croaking.
Jack himself doesn't seem to realize it, but the fear of death is always lurking behind his life. He talks to his wife constantly about how he hopes he'll die before she does. He also says to his Hitler Studies class one day: "All plots tend to move deathward" (6.51). He doesn't know why he says this at first. But as the story unfolds, we find out that both Jack and his wife Babette are obsessed by their fear of death.
For a while, all may seem to go reasonably well. The threat may even seem to have receded.
Toward the end of the novel's first section, Jack gets bogged down in family stuff: Wilder keeps crying for no apparent reason, and Jack's daughter from a previous marriage, named Bee, is coming to visit. Things seem to be going well at the Hitler Studies department, and Jack is working hard on his German for an upcoming conference. Thoughts of death go away for a while.
But eventually it approaches again in full force until the hero or heroine is seen imprisoned in the state of living death.
Enter the "Airborne Toxic Event." A crazy chemical spill in a nearby train yard forces Jack and his family to evacuate their home and leave town. While escaping, Jack unintentionally exposes himself to the poisonous chemical, Nyodene D. He later finds out from an evacuation official that he (Jack) is probably going to die from his exposure to the chemical. No one can tell him when the chemical will kill him. They can only promise that it will eventually… probably around the time that Jack would have died of natural causes anyhow. But this knowledge turns Jack nearly insane with paranoia over the question of when he's going to die.
This continues for a long time. When it seems that the dark power has completely triumphed…
Jack gets another piece of bad news: it turns out that his wife Babette is also deathly afraid of dying. She's so scared of death that she has sold her body to get experimental pills that can erase one's fear of death. Jack wants to find the man who gave Babette this fear-erasing drug, both because he wants to kill the man and because he wants some of the man's drugs to help his own fear of death.
But finally comes the miraculous redemption: either, where the imprisoned figure is a heroine; or, where it is the hero, by a Young Woman or a Child.
Jack finds the mysterious drug pusher, whose name is Willie Mink, and shoots him through the gut. After the initial thrill of shooting him has worn off, Jack regains his conscience and takes Willie to a hospital. In the book's final scene, Jack recounts a story about Wilder, Babette's three-year-old, crossing the highway on his tricycle. The story shows Jack just what a great (and dangerous) thing it is that children don't have any fear of death.