Helen Dunmore – poet, short story writer and, in her novel The Siege, empathetic recreator of the extreme resilience required to survive the blockade of Leningrad – seems a world away from Hammer horror films.

Yet she is one of the first literary names to be signed up for a new publishing venture, Hammer Horror. There are no vampires or skeletons in The Greatcoat but Dunmore has produced a ghost story that is all the more disturbing for being set among the mundane round of daily life.

It is a period piece, set in and a few years after the Second World War. Isabel Carey, newly married, is finding it difficult to settle into the Yorkshire town where her husband, in his first job as a GP, is increasingly absorbed by his patients.

Dunmore's picture of ration-book, 1950s housewifery is crammed with visual detail of limp-eyed herring and tweed suits. It unrolls like a film to a soundtrack of Lancaster bombers and the Light Programme. This is such stock fare for "women's fiction" of the 1950s and 1960s that it hovers close to banality until one night, searching for something to ward off the bone-deep cold, Isabel discovers an old RAF greatcoat in a cupboard and lays it on top of her bed. She sleeps well but is woken by an insistent tapping and discovers a young RAF pilot outside the window. The haunting that follows makes this novella one of psychological suspense. Its territory is the emptiness that threatens to engulf the lonely and so must be filled. This is what enables Alec, the wartime pilot caught forever between 26th and 27th "op" of the 30 he must complete before leave, to move into Isabel's life, claiming her attention, her loyalty and laying siege to her reason.

This is a deceptively slight tale that catches the reader as well as Isabel off guard, revealing the slipperiness of reality and the inherent weakness of attempting to pin it down with steak-and-kidney puddings or even the undeniable solidity of a living, laughing baby. The explanation, when it unfolds, is one of human shortcoming, but leaves unanswered the question of what happens to the unfinished business and unfulfilled promises locked in the minds and hearts of those left behind.

The Greatcoat is a gentle tale as war stories go but exposes, all the more searingly for that, the corrosive half-life that lingers on in homes and hearts long after hostilities have ceased.

Ghost writing