When Dr Faraday is urgently called to Hundreds Hall, he is both curious and nostalgic. Nearly thirty years before, he had visited the house with his mother, who had once worked there as a maid. As a ten year-old boy, he had been deeply impressed by the grandness of the house and of the Ayres family. But as he approaches the Hall on an unusually hot summer afternoon in 1947, Dr Faraday immediately recognises that much has changed there, as it has virtually everywhere in post war Britain. The crumbling house and its overgrown gardens are badly in need of maintenance, and the Ayres family is clearly struggling to maintain some semblance of their former way of life as well-respected country gentry.
So begins Dr Faraday’s friendship with the remaining Ayres family (the dowager Mrs Ayres, the spinster daughter, Caroline and the son and heir to the estate, Roderick), a relationship complicated by his lingering class resentments, by his growing attraction to Caroline and more importantly, by the oddness and drama of events that begin to occur in the house as the hot summer gives way to a dark and gloomy winter.
The Ayres family is left in a demoralised state after a shocking incident at a party. Roderick seems particularly badly affected, becoming anxious and secretive, and while Dr Faraday believes his behaviour to have its roots in nervous exhaustion, there are hints that there may be something odder at work. Betty, the maid, believes the house to be haunted; Caroline is uneasy, and Mrs Ayres is troubled with memories of her first child, Susan. Soon Roderick’s behaviour tips over into something more alarming and the house begins almost to take on a life of its own, even Dr Faraday’s scientific assurances are challenged.