A man named Jack enters a home in the night. He has a sharp knife and he uses it to kill the mother, the father, and the older sister who live there. (No, please don’t shut the book just yet. And please don't leave Shmoop to check out YouTube…unless you want to watch Neil Gaiman read Chapter 1.)
Now Jack is ready to finish the job and kill the baby that’s sleeping in the crib. But Jack soon discovers the baby is not in fact in his crib (insert sigh of relief). So, to be really thorough in his work, Jack leaves the house and follows the baby's smell up the hill to the graveyard.
How did the baby end up in the graveyard? It's time for a flashback. A little while earlier, the baby was woken up by the sounds of his family being killed (though he has no idea what's going on – it’s just a bunch of noise). The baby’s bored, so he jumps out of his crib, goes down the stairs, and leaves his house. Then he toddles up the hill to the graveyard.
In the graveyard the baby meets a kindly husband and wife ghost, Mr. and Mrs. Owens. When Jack comes after the baby, the Owens couple can tell the guy’s bad news. Plus, the kid’s recently murdered family (now all ghosts) comes on the scene all panicked. The baby’s mother begs the Owens couple to adopt her baby and protect him from Jack. They agree, and a mysterious man comes along and makes Jack leave the graveyard.
After much a lot of discussion, the ghosts of the graveyard agree that the eighteen-month-old baby will live in the graveyard with Mr. and Mrs. Owens. He will have Freedom of the Graveyard, which means he can walk through walls and graves, and that he is invisible to most humans when he’s in the graveyard. Mrs. Owens names the baby Nobody Owens (“Bod” for short).
The mysterious man who made Jack leave the graveyard is named Silas, and he agrees to be Bod's guardian. Unlike the ghosts in the graveyard, Silas isn’t dead and he isn’t alive, and he can leave the graveyard. This means he can get food for the baby and anything else the kid might need. (Note: the novel gives us lots of clues to what kind of creature Silas is, but never comes right out and says it. So, put on your Sherlock Holmes hat and try to piece together what kind of being Silas is.)
When Bod’s about four years old, his life starts getting really exciting. He’s learning to read and write, and he makes a new friend named Scarlett Amber Perkins. Scarlett is alive. She comes to play in the graveyard, which also happens to be a nature preserve, while her mother reads nearby. When Scarlett tells her parents about Bod, they just think she’s made up an imaginary friend.
One day, Bod and Scarlett pay a visit to the oldest resident of the graveyard, a strange snakey creature called the Sleer, which guards a treasure: a brooch, a cup, and a knife. (Wait a second – this is starting to sound like Harry Potter…) The Sleer's home is deep inside a hill. To get there, Bod and Scarlett have to go through a burial chamber called a mausoleum (a building that holds multiple caskets) and down a dark passageway. It's a scary and exciting adventure, but by the time Bod and Scarlett make it back up, the graveyard is crawling with cops. The kids have been gone so long Scarlett’s mother mom thinks her daughter’s been kidnapped or disappeared. When Scarlett tells them what actually happened, it only makes things worse.
Scarlett comes back to the graveyard a few days later to tell Bod good-bye, and that she believes in him and thinks he’s brave. She’s moving with her parents to Scotland, though, so she probably won't ever see him again. Sigh.
When Bod is about six years old, Silas goes out of town and he brings in a substitute guardian named Miss Lupescu. Bod is not happy. Miss Lupescu is too strict, and she teaches Bod dumb stuff like how to call for help in any language of the world. Plus, she makes him eat nasty home-cooked food (like beets) even though he's used to Silas only feeding him packaged food (like chips). Bod wonders if the big grey dog he’s seen hanging around the graveyard belongs to her. Bod really hopes that Silas will come back soon.
One night, Bod falls asleep on a grave that’s also a ghoul gate – a place for ghouls to pass in and out of Hell. When he wakes up, there are three ghouls (creatures who live to eat the flesh of the dead) with him. They talk him into going with them through the ghoul gate into Hell. They’re planning to kill him and eat him, of course – that is, unless he wants to become one of them.
The ghouls take Bod prisoner, but, thanks to Miss Lupescu, Bod knows how to call for help in a language called Night-Gaunt (which is, yes, the language of the night-gaunts). Night-gaunts are flying creatures that live in Hell but are on the side of good, not evil. When Bod calls for help, they alert Miss Lupescu that he’s in serious danger.
How can Miss Lupescu rescue Bod? Well, it turns out that she's actually a werewolf. In her werewolf form, she saves Bod from becoming ghoul-meat. After that crazy adventure, Bod learns that Miss Lupescu is called a Hound of God, and she chases down evil people. And Bod learns that all of her boring language lessons were totally worth it.
When Bod is about eight years old, he meets Liza Hempstock, a nice witch who’s buried just outside of the graveyard. When he learns that she was buried without a headstone, he decides he must get her one, no matter what. He knows he needs money to buy a headstone, so he decides to go back to the Sleer and “borrow” the brooch it guards. Then he leaves the graveyard (something he’s not ever allowed to do) and goes to a pawnshop, where he tries to trade the brooch for cash. Does this sound like a bad idea to you?
At the store, the pawnbroker, Abanazer Bolger, realized Bod has priceless, ancient treasure on his hands. When Bod won’t agree to lead him to the rest of the Sleer's treasure, Abanazer locks Bod in a room. Bod overhears Abanazer's talking to his friend Tom and learns that Jack (nasty killer) has been to Abanazer’s pawnshop looking for Bod, and he left behind his business card. Abanazer and Tom argue about whether to use Bod to find more treasure or to sell him to Jack. They're both greedy and really want the brooch for themselves. They end up fighting until they’re both somehow knocked out.
Luckily, Liza shows up and helps Bod Fade, or become invisible to human eyes. Bod uses human skills to unlock the door, and he and Liza go back to the graveyard. Later, Bod uses paint, a paintbrush, and a huge paperweight to make Liza a beautiful headstone.
When Bod is about ten years old, he goes to an event that hasn’t happened in eighty years: the Danse Macabre. The Danse Macabre is a dance where the living and the dead dance together and then forget about it the next morning. Bod has a really good time, but doesn’t like that no one will talk about it after.
Not long after, Bod finally learns that his family was murdered, and that the killer is still after him. Bod wants to find this person and kill him. To prepare himself for revenge, Bod makes Silas sign him up for regular school. (So far Bod has been taught by Miss Lupescu and the graveyard ghosts.) But Bod has to promise to keep things super low-key and not attract too much attention.
But Bod breaks his promise. When he meets school two bullies, he decides to teach them a lesson and permanently stop them. He uses skills he learned in the graveyard to scare them badly. But when he does this, he brings a lot of attention to himself. Silas gets mad at Bod for this, only to get arrested. Luckily, Silas rescues him and brings him back to the graveyard. After that, Bod tries to stick close to home.
When Bod is about fourteen years old, Scarlett comes back into his life. Her mom and dad have split up, and Scarlett and her mom have moved back to England from Scotland. One day after school, Scarlett gets on the wrong bus and accidentally gets let off in Old Town, the town at the foot of the hill that leads up to the graveyard. She remembers she’s been here before, but not the details.
Near the graveyard Scarlett meets a man named Mr. Frost who offers her a ride home. Since it’s raining, and the man seems nice enough, Scarlett accepts the ride. (Uh-oh, Scarlett, you really shouldn't get rides from strangers…) Scarlett introduces Mr. Frost to her mother, Noona. They get along so well that they plan a date.
Scarlet has also met Bod again. As Mr. Frost becomes more involved in the lives of Scarlett and her mother, Bod reveals more of himself to Scarlett. When he tells Scarlett his family was murdered, she decides to find out about it. She learns that his family was killed in the very house where Mr. Frost now lives. She tells Mr. Frost and since he is a historian, he promises to research the murders for her.
Mr. Frost calls Scarlett and tells her he has all the information her friend needs to know. He asks her to bring her friend over so he can show him. Bod agrees to come over. When Mr. Frost takes him upstairs to talk to him in private, he tells Bod that he is the man who killed Bod’s family! As Bod and Scarlett are making their escape, four more men named Jack arrive on the scene. Bod and Scarlett make it back to the graveyard, but all five Jacks are chasing them.
Inside the graveyard, Bod hides Scarlett down with the Sleer then goes up against four of the Jacks. One of them falls into a deep grave and breaks an ankle, and the other three fall into Hell through the ghoul gate. Before they fall in, Bod learns that the Jacks are an old brotherhood. They want to kill Bod because it was predicted that if Bod lived to be a man, it would mean the end of the Jacks. Sounds like good news to us.
When Bod goes down to the Sleer’s place, he finds Jack Frost, the last Jack, with a knife to Scarlett’s throat. Bod tricks Jack into offering to be the Sleer’s master, and then the Sleer wraps him in its snakey coils and pulls him through the wall. Scarlett is shocked to see Jack killed and she calls Bod a monster. Silas takes Scarlett home and erases her memories of the event. He also convinces her mother to move back to Scotland.
The Graveyard Book ends when Bod is about fifteen years old. We see him gradually losing his Freedom of the Graveyard powers (must be puberty), and then leaving the graveyard by himself with money, a passport, and big, big dreams.