CIVIL TO STRANGERS And Other Writings By Barbara Pym Dutton. 388 pp. $18.95

IT'S A CLOSE call to make, whether this ghostly Barbara Pym ("meticulously edited . . . with the author's intentions in mind") is the sort of visitation from beyond that admirers should welcome. Undoubtedly Hazel Holt, the editor in question, was one of Pym's closest friends and has so far done a superb job preparing other of the author's posthumously published writings. However, the difficulty now lies in knowing when to stop.

One could compare Holt to a successful medium who's had to resort to materializing some pretty dubious ectoplasm to keep the seance attendees happy. Using this analogy, maybe the light should been switched on a bit sooner, since we all know it's parlor trick, anyway. The point is, Civil to Strangers contains nothing that anyone but the most diehard Pym pals need to have between hard covers. Perhaps greed is the answer, if the question is -- why couldn't the best parts of this volume simply have been brought out in magazines?

What's really worth a reader's attention here, after all, comprises less than half of the 388 pages assembled, and doesn't exert very pressing claims, at that. Certainly, not permanent ones. On the other hand, just about right for the dentist's office.

To be sure, in Civil to Strangers, the 160-page novel which opens the book and gives it its title, there is a fair amount of Pym-ish pleasure. Holt tells us it was "written in 1936, after the first version of Some Tame Gazelle had gone the rounds of the publishers with no success." Here's how it begins:

" 'Dear Cassandra,' smiled Mrs. Gower, 'you are always so punctual.' She leaned forward, and brushed Cassandra's cheek with her lips. Cassandra responded with a similar gesture, a little awkwardly, for Mrs. Gower was a large woman, and her cheek was rather difficult to reach.

'I always try to be punctual,' said Cassandra with a smile, although the flat, even tone of her voice implied that she had made the remark many times before."

Cassandra Marsh-Gibbon is an unexceptionable young matron residing, along with her husband Adam ("a gentleman of means, who wrote a little poetry and a few obscure novels"), in the town of Up Callow. They live at The Rookery, a name chosen by Adam and about which Cassandra has definite reservations -- in this, as in all other matters, she defers. Her rebellion, such as it is, forms the action, such as it is, of the story.

Naturally, as in any fiction by Barbara Pym, plot is a minor factor in our enjoyment. More important are the mood of genteel irony, the coziness of the settings, the droll ways in which the characters reveal themselves. And, it is made clear once again here that from the first Pym's voice (more about which in a moment) was distinctly her own.

Along with Adam and Cassandra, who are quite appealing, the inhabitants of Up Callow include the usual sorts of subjects: a rector and his family, a shy curate, a professor's widow, an aging bachelor, an inept coquette. Decidedly out of place in this group is the genial but altogether exotic foreigner (a Hungarian!) who moves into the village and develops a crush on Cassandra. For a few pages, his courtship is amusing -- as is Cassandra's discomfort and Adam's egotistical disregard -- but, quickly, the joke wears thin and the rest of the novel is catch-as-catch-can. Her jaunty tone is maintained, but Pym loses her balance when off her home turf, once Cassandra and Adam find themselves on separate trains heading east to Budapest.

The same problem exists in the second short novel included in Civil to Strangers, one which plunks her usual types of people down in Helsinki, as members of the small expatriate colony there. Of interest only to someone writing a dissertation on Pym's development (Holt points out "the first appearance of Miss Moberly, {Pym's} generic name for all such autocratic and difficult old women") it is, quite simply, flat.

NEXT COMES what Holt dubs the "Home Front Novel." Set in wartime England (Pym worked on it in 1939 and then again a bit in the late '60s), it has its moments and, early on, will give all fans a frisson of recognition when they encounter this sentence: "Excellent women, thought Canon Palfrey, always busy doing something." For the uninitiated, it should be explained that Pym called her 1952 book Excellent Women, and the notion of these ladies, ever occupied with virtuous tasks, is one of her favorite conceits.

In case you've wondered what might have happened had Barbara Pym and not Ethel Lina White written the novel upon which Alfred Hitchcock based The Lady Vanishes, an attempt at spy fiction is also included here. Again, a single word -- this time, muddled -- will suffice. As well, there are four short stories, each more uninteresting than the last. According to Holt, Pym "never felt comfortable in the more rigorous confines of the short story," and her instincts were right.

Civil to Strangers closes with a brief radio talk which Pym recorded for the BBC in 1978. Called "Finding a Voice," it is her own eye-view of her career -- where it began, where it faltered, how "marvellously encouraging (it was) to be brought back from the wilderness" the year before. (Forgotten and unpublished for almost two decades, in Pym's last years -- she died in 1980 -- she was triumphantly rediscovered.)

As always, it's fascinating to read exactly whom a loved writer considers his influences. Pym cites Huxley, Elizabeth von Arnim, Ivy Compton-Burnett, John Betjeman, Stevie Smith, Trollope. Yet, though she reveres Jane Austen, she implies that it would be sheer presumption to do anything but "try" to be influenced by her genius.

"Finding a Voice" would be a fitting conclusion to a better book. As it stands, it seems to me to be truly sad, to come upon Pym's cheerily forthright assessment of her literary life (she went on writing for herself, "even in the face of discouragement") after so much unsatisfying prose. Holt pronounces Civil to Strangers "a final selection"; unless an unknown Pym treasure has somehow escaped her notice, let us hope she means it. :: Michele Slung is the author of "Momilies" and "More Momilies."