Gordie LaChance is a young teenager living in a small town in Maine in 1960. Gordie has had a rough family life for about a year since his older brother Dennis ("Denny") was killed in a vehicle accident in the Army. Gordie looked up to his brother, who treated him very well but his parents are still deeply in shock over their older son's death and haven't begun to recover. Gordie's father often chides his younger son about the friends he has, suggesting they're slow-witted or feeble. Gordie's best friend, Chris Chambers, comes from a broken home with an extremely abusive alcoholic father and where the boys are expected to become delinquents like his next older brother, Billy. Gordie is hanging out with Chris and their other friend Teddy Duchamp in their treehouse in a vacant lot on a very hot, late-summer day. While they play poker, Vern Tessio bursts in with exciting news: he informs his three friends that he has overheard his older brother Billy talking with his friend Charlie Hogan, about the location of the corpse of Ray Brower, a boy from Chamberlain, a town 40 miles or so east of Castle Rock, who has gone missing, while going out to pick blueberries with one of his mother's pails. The four friends decide that they will find it so as to be famous. They figure that Brower had lost his way along the railroad tracks and had been hit by a train. The boys make plans to tell their parents they'll be camping out behind Vern's house while they walk about 30 miles along the railroad tracks to find Brower's body.
The boys set out the next morning. Along the way, they trespass at the town dump and are chased by trash-man Milo Pressman's dog "Chopper". Chopper had long been mythologized as the most feared dog in town but when they actually see the famed dog, it turns out to be an ordinary mongrel of only average size. They tease the dog and Milo through the dump's fence until Milo insults Teddy's father, who'd stormed the beaches at Normandy during World War II and had lost his mind. Some time before the story begins, Teddy's father had become enraged with Teddy for a minor accident and had held both of Teddy's ears to their hot stove, causing Teddy severe deafness. Teddy himself becomes enraged with Milo and tries to climb the fence to attack him but he's dragged off by his friends.
The boys later come to a high railroad trestle. Everyone in the group is wary of crossing the bridge lest a train come along but Teddy insists they can make the crossing safely and not have to walk five miles upstream to the nearest bridge. When the boys reach the halfway point, a train comes and Vern and Gordie are forced to run for their lives, just barely making it across. Chris and Teddy seem to be more admiring of them after they were nearly killed.
While at a resting point the boys cook some of the hamburger they'd bought along the way and talk about varying subjects. Chris predicts that Gordie will grow up to become a famous writer. Gordie regales his friends with a story he'd recently wrote about an obese boy who enters a pie-eating contest. "Lardass" Hogan, who has been picked-on his whole life for being overweight, seems to be winning the contest until, having drunk a full bottle of castor oil beforehand, vomits all over the contestant next to him. As a result, the entire line of contestants begins vomiting and the crowd follows. Gordie's friends are very impressed with his ability to invent such a detailed and entertaining story.
The boys grow tired with their hike but press on, at one point walking through a powerful thunderstorm. They come across a peaceful pond and decide to go swimming. While they frolic in the water, they discover it's rife with huge leeches and spend a panicky few minutes picking them off each other. Gordie sees the biggest leech clinging to his scrotum, pulls it off and faints. His friends rush to his aid and they continue on.
When they finally find the spot where the body lies, a gang of bullies led by John "Ace" Merrill arrive just after they do. The rest of the gang is composed of Vern's older brother Billy, Charlie Hogan, Chris' older brother Richard "Eyeball" Chambers, Norman "Fuzzy" Bracowicz, Jack "Jackie" Mudgett, and Vince Desjardins. The older boys are upset to see the four friends, and during an argument, Chris pulls a gun belonging to his father from his rucksack and fires into the air and then threatens Ace, the leader of the gang. Ace tries to reason with Gordie, saying Denny would see things differently. Gordie is so infuriated that he insults Ace. After a brief standoff Ace realizes that Chris is serious, and the older boys leave. Having seen the body, the boys realize that there is nothing else to be done with it, and return home without further incident.
The older boys ultimately decide to phone in the location of the body as an "anonymous tip" and it is eventually found by the authorities. Some days after the confrontation, Ace and Fuzzy break Gordie's nose and fingers and kick him in the testicles, and are on the verge of harming him more seriously when they are run off by Gordie's neighbor, Aunt Evvie Chalmers. Chris's brother breaks his arm and "leaves his face looking like a Canadian sunrise". Teddy and Vern get less severe beatings. The boys refuse to identify their assailants to the authorities, and there are no further repercussions.
The narration then goes into fast-forward. It describes the next year or so briefly, stating that Teddy and Vern drift off, befriending some younger boys whom they can lord over in the treehouse. In high school, just as Chris predicted, Gordie begins taking college-preparation courses. Unexpectedly, so does Chris. In spite of abuse from his father, taunts from his classmates and distrust from teachers and school counselors, he manages to be successful with help from Gordie.
The final two chapters describe the fate of Gordie's three friends, none of whom survive past young adulthood. Vern is killed in a house fire after a party. Teddy, while under the influence of alcohol, crashes his car and he and his passengers are killed. Chris, who became an outstanding high school and college student and was in his second year of law school, is stabbed to death after trying to stop an argument in a fast-food restaurant. Gordie also tells how after he'd become successful he caught a glimpse of Ace Merrill in their hometown. Ace'd become overweight and looked somewhat haggard, having shed his tough-guy persona years before.
Gordon is the only survivor, continues to write stories through college, and publishes a number of them in small literary journals and men's magazines. His first novel becomes a best-seller, and a successful film. At the time of writing about the events in 1960, he has written seven novels about the supernatural. Gordon is also revealed to be a veteran of the Vietnam War and the counter-culture of the 1960s, occasionally referred to in the flash-forward narratives during the main story.
References to Stephen King's works
- Another story from Different Seasons, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption is referenced in this story; Shawshank is described as one of Maine's state prisons.
- Ray Brower, the boy who went missing and the reason Gordie, Chris, Teddy, and Vern took the camping trip to Back Harlow Road, is from Chamberlain, which is the setting for the King's first novel Carrie. Carrie, which takes place over ten years later but was written eight years earlier, features a reference to a Teddy Duchamp, but he is clearly not the same person as the Teddy of the novella.
- Jerusalem's Lot, from the novel Salem's Lot is referenced when the boys first listen to Gordie's Lard Ass story.
- The novel Cujo is referenced when Gordie compares the dog Chopper to Cujo. Aunt Evvie Chalmers is a minor character in Cujo, which is set twenty years later.
- A Constable Bannerman is mentioned in the story. It does not appear that the constable is same Sheriff George Bannerman who appears in Cujo and The Dead Zone.
- Ace Merrill and Vern Tessio later appear in "Nona" a short story from the collection Skeleton Crew.
- Chapter nineteen includes an unnerving encounter with a Wendigo, making similar sounds to those described in Pet Sematary.
- Ace Merrill also appears in the last King novel set in Castle Rock, Needful Things, as Mr. Gaunt's employee. Ace remembers the happenings of The Body. Aunt Evvie appears again in a flashback narrative told from the perspective of her niece Polly, one of the major characters in the story.
Accusation of plagiarism
In Lisa Rogak's unauthorized biography Haunted Heart: The Life and Times of Stephen King, a friend of King's, George McLeod, claimed that King had cribbed the idea from a short story McLeod had written, but her claims are disputed by King. McLeod requested a portion of the royalties from The Body and Stand by Me; King refused. McLeod sued, which ended their friendship. Since then, King has refused his fans’ requests to read their manuscripts for advice; King has claimed that he is concerned that there may be further accusations of plagiarism.