JEREMY SMITH cosies up with a creepy little tale that proves to be the perfect Book of the Month for the cold winter nights.

THE BOOK: JEREMY SMITH cosies up with a creepy little tale that proves to be the perfect Book of the Month for the cold winter nights.

THE BOOK: At this time of the year when days are short, almost always gloomy, and the nights black, wet and cold (and that’s even before getting started on the dismal delights of February), what every pocket, bedside table and bookcase needs is a classic ghost story.

Odd as it may be, there’s nothing more comforting or cosy than curling up during this dark month with a book promising creaking doors, icy draughts and pale, ethereal figures barely glimpsed as they slip across lightning-streaked moors...

Not the stuff of nightmares exactly, but certainly enough to keep you awake long after sleep should have taken its velvety grip.

And when it comes to authors who can tease every hair up on the back of your neck and leave goosebumps down every arm, there are none better than Susan Hill.

Hill, of course, is most famous for The Woman In Black, probably one of the most celebrated novels of things that go bump in the night (the stage version of which incidentally is one of the most terrifying experiences this theatre-goer has ever experienced).

With The Small Hand, first published last year, she returns to spine-chilling form with a story that manages to charm and chill (to the bone) in equal measure.

Like all good ghost stories, with the notable exception of Stephen King’s The Shining, it is short; only 167 pages of well-spaced type, packaged in such a petite manner, despite being hard-backed, as to make it feel more suited to your coat pocket than the coffee table in your living room.

And that, I think, works perfectly.

This indeed is a book designed to be carried and cossetted, to be pulled out at the bar while awaiting your first pint, slid into as you await your delayed train, and poured over as you wait for your bus to clear the Botley Road evening rush.

Although I should warn you... I read the book in one sitting, two hours, with one small glass of brandy and a piece of left-over Christmas cake. And it was perfect.

I genuinely couldn’t put it down. And what a delight that some of the novel – or novella – is set in present-day Oxford (if I were the owner of The Old Parsonage hotel on the Banbury Road, I would certainly ensure that every guest had a copy in their bedroom).

The Botanic Garden, the High, the Bodleian, all are mentioned with the casual ease of someone who knows these streets and landmarks well (Hill lives a short drive away in the The Cotwolds).

Indeed, one of my favourite passages takes place in the Botanic Garden: ‘And at that moment I felt the most dreadful fear,’ she writes. ‘It was not fear of anything, it was simply fear, fear and dread, like a coldness rising up through my body...’ And it gets better.

As to the story itself, and without wanting to give anything away, it concerns an antiquarian book dealer called Adam Snow, who one day stumbles upon a ‘white house’ and its wild and overgrown garden.

From this simple, almost innocent premise – ‘And then, as I stood in the gathering stillness and soft spring dusk, something happened’ – we are thrown headfirst into a classic ghost story that grips and tightens it hold, right up until its last page.

There are no fanged monsters, no crazed axe murderers or psychopaths waiting to torture their victims.

No, blood and guts maketh no haunting tale. Instead, only whispers of things barely seen and missed, sounds heard and then lost, and goosebumps felt and ignored can truly be said to trouble long after the book cover has been closed.

And that being so, The Small Hand is an instant classic.

THE AUTHOR: SUSAN Hill is a prize-winning novelist, having been awarded the Whitbread, Somerset Maugham and John Llewelyn Rhys awards.

She wrote Mrs de Winter, the bestselling sequel to Rebecca, and the ghost story The Woman in Black, which was adapted for the stage and became a great success in the West End.

Her books include a collection of exquisite short stories, The Boy Who Taught the Beekeeper to Read, and the highly successful crime novel series about the detective Simon Serrailler.

Susan Hill lives in Gloucestershire, where she runs her own small publishing firm, Long Barn Books.

* The Small Hand, by Susan Hill, is published by Profile Books and costs £9.99.