The novel begins on a deathly note. Three months before the main events of the story, the grandmother of the Hooper household dies. Her son Joseph then refuses to live at Warings, the family home, until he owns it, i.e. until his father dies and he inherits it. This tells the reader knows immediately that the relationship between Joseph and his father is poor. Soon afterwards it b ecomes clear that the relationship he has with his own son is no better. Communication between Joseph and Edmund Hooper is limited and a cause of some concern to Joseph.
Edmund's mother died six years previously. This has not made him sensitive to death, and on seeing his dying grandfather he remarks coldly, 'All he looks like is one of those dead old moths'. The lack of feminine influence, coupled with their move to a house in the country (not to mention Joseph's own loneliness) has prompted his father to advertise for an 'informal' housekeeper.
Joseph has high hopes that living at Warings will improve his standing in society and make him feel like a more effective and successful person. The house is in the country and is large and imposing. The exterior is somewhat wild and intimidating with its large rhododendron bushes and yew trees. Inside it is dark and gloomy. The overall impression of the house is that it is a relic of the past, a cold and unlived-in place, which lacks any homely qualities. At the back of the house is the Red Room, which houses a collection of moths amassed by the newly departed grandfather. Edmund is fascinated by them and the chapter ends with him making a secret night time visit to the Red Room. He opens the case which houses the biggest one, the Death's Head Hawk Moth, but as soon as he touches it, it disintegrates leaving nothing but dry dust.
The Kingshaws arrive at Warings. Helena Kingshaw has been appointed as housekeeper and she and her ten-year-old son, Charles, are to live with the Hoopers. Joseph Hooper hopes that this will be advantageous to both him and Edmund. He worries about his son's brooding nature and his own inability to affect him. He assumes that having another boy of his own age around in the long summer holiday will improve life for Edmund. It is also clear that he quite fancies the idea of having some female company and he has chosen Mrs Kingshaw for more than her domestic abilities.
Hooper is unhappy about the new arrivals. He enjoys the privacy of his life at Warings and resents the idea of another boy sharing his space. The first thing he does when Kingshaw arrives is to secretly slip him a note that reads, 'I DIDN'T WANT YOU TO COME'. Kingshaw is equally unhappy about the situation. We learn that his father is dead and he and his mother have no home of their own. Mrs Kingshaw sees this as a new start.
The boys get off to a bad start. Hooper taunts Kingshaw for his family's lack of status, and mocks Kingshaw's stories about his father being a war hero. Kingshaw feels frustrated and paralysed by Hooper's verbal assaults. Hooper wants to establish his superior status as 'master' of the land and he attacks Kingshaw physically, giving him a nosebleed. Despite the adults' efforts to engineer a friendship between the boys, the relationship does not improve. Kingshaw sees chances to take revenge and assert himself with Hooper, but does not take them. Hooper continues to boss him around at every opportunity. Chapter Three
Desperate to escape from the daily torments of living with Hooper, Kingshaw walks into the countryside. However, he is clearly not used to the great outdoors and has difficulties walking on the uneven terrain, frequently stumbling and losing his balance. When he is attacked by a crow he is terrified and blindly runs back towards Warings. Hooper has witnessed the attack from a window in the house and taunts Kingshaw about it on his return. He dares him to return to Hang Woods and Kingshaw is resigned to doing this, despite...