The Prologue introduces the setting and the two main characters: William Halloway and James (Jim) Nightshade. Will is two minutes older than Jim, with Will born a minute before October 31 and Jim born a minute after. During this last week of October, the boys will "grow up overnight."
It is October 23rd, and a storm brews in the distance. Jim and James recline on the grass outside their houses. They live next door to one another and are best friends. Will, who has light blond hair, is bright and chatty, while Jim is dark, brooding and silent.
Tom Fury, a traveling lightning rod salesman dressed in "storm-dark clothes", approaches the boys, looking for their parents so he can sell them a lightning rod, but neither set is home and the boys themselves do not have any money. Tom gives the boys a lightning rod for free because he believes one of their houses will be struck by lightning come nightfall. The lightning rod, a "half-crescent, half-cross" shape, is marked with ancient languages. Tom then determines that Jim's house will be struck, and departs. Will convinces Jim to mount the lightning rod on his roof.
After hanging up the lightning rod, the boys race to the library, where Will's father, Charles, works as a janitor. Many nights, Charles will stay up late past his shift, reading books in the library. The library is a magical place to them, and they imagine that they hear screams and yelling, marching and canons; they smell spices and hear the sounds of alien deserts. Charles looks old enough to be Will's grandfather, and according to Will, looks just like himself "in a smashed mirror." Charles gives each of the boys books appropriate to their dispositions, showing Jim "black hat" books featuring villains and Will "white hat" books by Jules Verne and Ghandi. Chapter 2 ends with the boys walking out of the library and talking about the storm. They can't hear it, but Will feels goose bumps on his arms.
Charles remains in the library to lock up, though he feels an urge to run out with the two boys. After he closes the library, he walks to a bar for his "one and only" drink. Meanwhile, the clock strikes nine as the boys walk home into the deserted town. They are spooked by Mr. Tetley, the tobacconist, and Mr. Crosetti, the barber, who weeps with nostalgia at the smell of licorice. Will convinces Mr. Crosetti to leave his barber pole burning all night and takes comfort in the thought of its continued light.
Charles walks out of the bar and sees a man in a dark suit and a palm covered in black fur putting up bizarre advertisments for "Cooger & Dark's Pandemonium Shadow Show" and "The most Beautiful Woman in the World," which refers to a block of ice with an empty space inside about the size of a woman. The boys see the same advertisments later.
The prologue introduces the theme of good vs. evil. What kind of month will October be? Perhaps it will be both. The two boys' names are symbolic. "Halloway" is very close to "Halloween," while "Nightshade" symbolizes Jim's darker nature. The prologue also introduces the coming of age theme as it promises that the boys will "grow up overnight."
Chapter 1 sets an ominous tone for the rest of the novel. The approaching storm signifies the events of the next week that will change the lives of both boys. Tom Fury plays a kind of reluctantly benevolent advisor. He has spent his life walking before storms, and he knows that one is about to arrive. He gives an impression that this one will be particularly nasty. "No ordinary storm.... Yes, bad, here it comes, feel it, way off now, but running fast...," he says as he takes his leave of the boys. The fact that he feels compelled to give away a free lightning rod underscores the danger that he perceives threatening the two boys.
These chapters also introduce a dichotomy between the personalities of Will and Jim. Jim has many features and tendencies that can be called "dark." He is brooding and silent, with dark hair. He also does not appear to care very much for the safety of his house or his family. Will, by contrast, is bright, eager, and caring. Chapter 2 continues to expand on the light/dark contrasts between Will and Jim. Jim is a "black hat" boy, fascinated by descriptions of torture and weapons. Charles recognizes this contrast, as did Tom Fury. While outwardly accepting of Jim's dark behaviors, Charles is also slightly uneasy, almost as if he senses a deeper, darker nature just beneath the surface. As if to emphasize this, Jim is genuinely excited for the arrival of the storm, whereas Will's goose bumps indicate that he is afraid.
Chapter 3 introduces new themes into the narrative: Innocence, Knowledge and Age. Innocence and Knowledge are two additional characteristics that distinguish Will and Jim. Will's innocence will always leave him shocked by the bad things in the world, and will always leave him looking for an explanation. Jim, on the other hand, already knows that there are bad things in the world, and he doesn't ask "why?" Rather ominously, Charles mentions that there was someone else who "knew" before Jim, someone who "had wolves for pets and lions for night conversants."
The novel teems with such sentiments of wonder, magic, and mystery: a psychic lightning rod salesman; a library that screams and smells of spices; the mysterious stripes on a barber pole. Much of this is an idealized view of childhood, but it also represents Will's worldview. It is Will who believes the lightning rod salesman; it is Will who asks for the barber light to be kept on; even the book Will checks out from the library, The Mysterious Island, is indicative of this relationship. It is difficult to experience wonder and mystery if - as is the case with Jim - your personality is characterized more by knowledge than by innocence.
The issue of age is addressed primarily through Charles's nostalgia and feelings of emptiness. Seeing the boys running away from the library, Charles is struck with a sense of loss for the days when he himself was a kid, and "a shadow turn[s] mournfully over" inside him. At the bar, he has a drink of alcohol - the Elixir of Life - not for himself, but for the kid inside of him. Charles feels that the boy inside of him his faded and perhaps even died, and his drink is an attempt to bring it back to life. It is also worth noting that age is also an issue for Will in Chapter 2. Will sees his father is terribly old, and thinks his father looks like himself "in a smashed mirror."
This image, and many others, anticipate the coming carnival, which will combine images of fear, innocence, aging, mirroring, and death in a succinct package. The carnival spirit is already in the air, with its combination of nostalgia and terror, thrills and fears.