On receiving the news that he has been willed a rare sketch by the Japanese artist Hoku-sai, Howard Barton returns to his old stomping grounds in Northern California. Once there, he quickly, if unexpectedly, falls in with a group more or less led by his eccentric Uncle Roy, the perennially improvident proprietor of a haunted museum. Roy’s group includes his wife, Edith; his attractive daughter, Sylvia; Artemis Jimmers, an aged, oddball inventor; Mr. Bennett, a handyman with a predilection for making and displaying huge plywood cutouts on his property; and, in the background, the “gluers,” called so because of their habit of gluing bizarre decorations and objects on their vehicles.
Feuding with Roy’s group is an equally offbeat gang led by Roy’s landlady, Heloise Lamey, a witchlike old woman who tends a bizarre garden and owns most of the town. Mrs. Lamey’s unlikely gathering of villains includes Stoat, a slick, wheeler-dealer type; Glenwood Touchey, a disgruntled literary critic; Gwendolyn Bundy, a feminist poet who writes of the “existential woman” in “flat verse”; the Reverend White, a hard-drinking preacher; and Jason, a would-be painter. The feud has been accelerated by news of the death of Michael Graham, the old man who owned the sketch and presumably willed it to Howard. As tensions rise and conflicts intensify, the confusion increases and the questions become more and more bizarre. Are the ghosts in Uncle Roy’s “museum” real or fake? Is Graham really dead? What strange inventions is Jimmers secreting in his mysterious tin shed? Is he really trying to conjure up the spirit of John Ruskin? Does Jimmers have the sketch, along with several forgeries? What are its powers, if any?
Rhetorical agitation escalates quickly into acts of strange, often ridiculous, violence. The contesting groups chase each other around like Keystone Kops. Mrs. Lamey’s gang destroys Bennett’s plywood Humpty Dumpty, Howard destroys her clothes drier, Uncle Roy’s museum goes up in flames, and Jimmers’ tin shed is stolen. Finally, Uncle Roy and his wife are kidnapped and their lives threatened by Mrs. Lamey, who demands the sketch along with proof of its powers. Having received the drawing from Jimmers following Graham’s demise, Howard agrees to a meeting. At last, he confronts his hysterical female nemesis in the middle of a raging storm that may or may not have been caused by the sketch.