Steinem doesn't, and Friedan may not, but I do, and you might, from time to time. In fact, quite a number of publicly liberated women would have to admit, if forced, to a very private habit. In the closet or under the blanket, by nightlight or flashlight, bleary-eyed and teary-eyed, a great many of the sisters read romantic fiction. We're not proud of it, we know that the experts have determined that the stuff is hazardous to our intellect, but we can't help it. We're hooked on the opiate of the Ms.'s.

Not the paperbacks. We haven't sunk that low (except in emergencies). Even sinners have standards, and one fairly reliable rule is to stay with the hardcovers. They usually offer a sound product, uncut and unadulterated, and the automatic assurance of at least the minimum requirement of reality-warp necessary to escape real life for a cozy couple of hours. It's a victimless crime, and, over the holidays and through the weeks, it accounts for more relaxation than Sominex.

"A Cry in the Night" is made to prescription for this purpose. In her earlier books, like "Where Are the Children?" and "A Stranger Is Watching," Mary Higgins Clark has leaned toward modern suspense fiction--horror, terror and psychological perversion with the woman's touch -- but "Cry" inclines unmistakably toward suspense with a dollop of romance added. In fact, it's well on its way to modern Gothic -- most of the ingredients are there.

For starters, there's the Pure Heroine. Well, Jenny's divorced from a ne'er-do-well husband and has two small daughters, but she's pure in essence. She's also the living image of the mother of Wyeth-like painter Erich Krueger, and his whirlwind courtship sweeps her from her Manhattan art gallery job to the Big Brooding House in Minnesota (depicted on the jacket by an inattentive artist), where the plot slickens and formula sets in. Bewildered by mercurial, perfectionist Erich, Jenny muddles along, doing some things right, like wearing designer clothes (often green -- a favorite color, for some reason, of most Gothic heroines) and other things original, like having a baby (not a standard Gothic behavior pattern).

On the other hand, in the aggravating tradition of the dumber Doras of this kind of fiction, she rarely explains misunderstandings when it would do the most good, and she's unbelievably naive, for a modern city girl, of the implications of having to wear his mother's nightgown whenever her husband wants to make love to her. She experiences the usual Mysterious Night Visits, and the classic Savior Male waits in the wings to provide aid and comfort, once the Frightful Secret comes clear.

Savior Males are always professional men, and back in the Gothic heyday of the '60s and '70s, archeologists were the reigning favorites. Mark Garrett is a veterinarian, but any doubt the reader might have that this is a romance and that he is its hero dissipates at once upon Jenny's reaction to him: "He's so big, she thought, so overpoweringly, comfortably male." Every veteran of the genre knows at once that Erich, who is merely "marvelous-looking," will never make the cut.

"A Cry in the Night," with its incomplete echoes of "Gaslight" and innumerable lesser romantic suspense stories, is divertissement at its most mediocre. It's not a superior Gothic (and there are some), or even one of the author's better suspense novels, which characteristically drag the reader breathless into the action. This one simply enlists her among the mildly interested onlookers. Clark pulls her punches like organ stops, and the end is predictable from the start.

Still, liberated women are free to ignore all the confining strictures of common sense and sophistication, and we will read our romances. No one ever promised us "Jane Eyre" every time around, and if "Cry" isn't up to the big time, like, say, Christmas vacation, it'll do for Halloween, maybe, or Veterans' Day Eve. Curl up for an hour or two underneath the clothes hangers and have a go at it. If escape is inevitable, why not relax and enjoy it?