The Riddle House stands on a hilltop in Little Hangleton. Much mystery has arisen around it. Fifty years ago, its inhabitants, the Riddle family, were killed in a most mysterious manner, leaving no signs of bodily harm, seeming almost as if they had been frightened to death. The villagers instantly suspected Frank Bryce, the Riddles' stiff and misanthropic gardener, and even after he was questioned and found innocent, the villagers still mistrusted him, and the village boys often bothered him.
One night, fifty years later, the elderly Frank is refilling his hot water bottle to ease the soreness of his joints, when he sees a bright light inside the Riddle House, and he immediately knows that the boys have set a fire. He limps over to the house, lets himself in with his spare key, walks up the dusty staircase, and stands in the hallway next to a room, where he overhears a conversation between two voices, one high pitched controlling one, another nervous submissive one. Frank overhears the controlling one, who reveals his name to be Lord Voldemort, telling the other one, whom he calls Wormtail, that he must wait for the Quidditch World Cup to end before capturing a boy named Harry Potter.
Wormtail suggests using a different boy, but Lord Voldemort refuses. Wormtail pleads his loyalty by reminding his master that he brought him Bertha Jorkins, whose information proved quite useful before they had to kill her to prevent her from talking. Frank is horrified at this news, and is frightened when a thick, twelve-foot long snake slithers past him and into the room and begins hissing back and forth with Lord Voldemort. At this, Lord Voldemort calls Frank into the room and kills him in a single flash of green light; at that moment miles away, the boy named Harry Potter awoke in the night.
Harry Potter, a fourteen-year-old wizard, wakes to feel the scar on this forehead throbbing in pain. He looks around his dark room in alarm, remembering that the last time his scar hurt him was when Lord Voldemort was nearby. The book proceeds to explain that Lord Voldemort was the leader of the dark side of wizardry, the murderer of Harry's parents, and reason why Harry even has the scar. After murdering Harry's parents, Lord Voldemort turned on Harry with the same curse, which miraculously rebounded and stripped Voldemort of his power, leaving Harry with a scar and no parents.
Harry paces the room, debating what to do. He cannot tell the Dursleys, his relatives with whom he lives, because they detest his presence as well as magic. He cannot tell his best friend Hermione, because she would find it alarming and want him to inform Dumbledore. He cannot tell his other best friend, Ron, because Ron would think it was a false alarm. Finally, Harry decides to write to Sirius Black, his godfather whose escape Harry assisted in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Black has been wrongly imprisoned for killing thirteen people in addition to turning Harry's parents over to Voldemort. Harry and his friends discovered that this work had actually been done by Peter Pettigrew who is also known as Wormtail. Black was innocent. Harry writes him a short letter and walks down to breakfast.
Chapter One's narration departs from the stylistic conventions of the previous three Harry Potter books by establishing dramatic irony and abandoning Harry's point of view. In the other books, we understand the story from Harry's eyes, but we never see Voldemort without Harry to mediate. However, in this book, when Harry is awakened from a dream but is unable to remember the details, we have a better idea of what is happening than he does. This beginning is more sophisticated than that of the other books. Furthermore, the book begins by describing the murder of an innocent person. Deaths have rarely been directly depicted within these books, so this scene takes the terror of Voldemort's potential to a new and more threatening level, and leaves us more uneasy than usual, less certain that everything will end well and fairly.