THE valley of the river Frome, meandering through the Herefordshire countryside west of Ledbury, is the setting of the latest chilling novel by county author Phil Rickman.

The Cure of Souls, published in hardback by Macmillan this week, is his ninth novel and the fourth to feature his engaging creation, Rev Merrily Watkins.

This thirtysomething female vicar with a volatile teenage daughter was introduced in The Wine of Angels, published in 1998.

Readers' reactions to the character were so positive that Phil began to look for a way to feature her in a new book.

"The problem is that a village vicar is unlikely to be involved with murder more than once. Then I realised that the answer was staring me in the face . . . a role which, to my knowledge, had not yet been given to a woman priest."

As a result, when the next novel, Midwinter of the Spirit, opens, Merrily has been appointed deliverance minister - the new name for exorcist - for the Diocese of Hereford.

All of Phil's books have an element of the supernatural, but they are far from being "horror" and the author freely admits to flinching when he sees them classified thus in bookshops.

"Horror is all about gruesomeness and blood, and that is not what I want. People are put off by the label, and I would like to attract readers who also read people like Ruth Rendell."

But while they avoid the blood and guts which seem more or less compulsory in the horror genre, Phil's books give way to none in the fields of mystery, suspense and knife-edge tension.

"With the Merrily books, I'm writing what I call spiritual procedurals. I like police procedurals and I wanted to follow the conventions of crime novels. The supernatural is there, but you won't find the murderer is a ghost."

Most of Phil's books are set in the Herefordshire/Marches/mid-Wales area - he lives near Hay-on-Wye.

"I used to read these books written by Americans, which would have neo-pagans doing Celtic rituals in California. I thought, why not bring it all back where it comes from? There is so much folklore, so many myths and stories."

The Cure of Souls will be available from bookshops on Wednesday, December 5. The same day, the previous Merrily Watkins mystery, A Crown of Lights, is published in Pan paperback.