Angela Carter, The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories
I first came across these stories when I was seventeen; they were utterly unlike anything I'd ever read before, and in a sense were my introduction to the thrills of grown-up contemporary fiction. In them, Carter retells the fairy tales of Perrault and Grimm, but returns the stories to their often violent folk-tale roots to transform them into parables of sexual desire and maturation. Her style is extravagant and irreverent, and her technique is brilliantly eclectic. When she died, tragically young, in 1992, the UK lost an energetic feminist literary voice that has never been replaced.
Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
'Ours was the marsh country, down by the river...' I admire all of Dickens's novels, but Great Expectations is the one that has stayed with me the most - becoming part of my mental baggage, so that I regularly find references to it creeping into my own books. For me, it's the most concise and well-crafted of Dickens's fictions, and contains some of his most memorable characters: Magwitch, Jaggers, Wemmick, emotionally-arrested Miss Havisham in her spidery bridal dress. I love the Gothic intensity of it all; I love the edginess and guilt with which the narrative is saturated.
Patrick Hamilton, Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky
I'd recommend all of Hamilton's fiction, but this trio of linked novellas from the 1930s is a great example of his work. It's set in and around an imaginary London pub, The Midnight Bell, and its characters are ordinary people of a slightly depressed and shabby type: barmaids and prostitutes, waiters and drinkers. Hamilton explores their ambitions and frustrations with seriousness and respect, but also with an eye for the farcical: the result is fiction that is at once heartbreakingly bleak and extremely funny - fiction that will literally have you laughing at one page, and weeping at the next. I can't think of any other writers who have affected me quite like that.
Sylvia Townsend Warner, The Corner That Held Them
It always dismays me that Sylvia Townsend Warner isn't better known, and more widely read: she's one of the greatest British writers of the twentieth century - at least as good, say, as Evelyn Waugh, who's very solidly fixed in the UK writing canon. All her novels are small masterpieces, but The Corner That Held Them impresses me for all sorts of reasons. A study of a Benedictine convent over two centuries, it's a novel without a hero - a novel of community, of landscape, of time. For a book with no real plot, it's amazing that it manages to be so compelling; what urges you through it is the quality of its writing, and the compassion, wisdom and humour of its overall vision.
Mary Renault, The Persian Boy
I read all of Renault's books in my twenties, and they were partly responsible for my attraction to the historical novel as a writer, for Renault has to be one of the greatest ever exponents of the genre. The Persian Boy has always been my favourite of her novels. It's the story of Bagoas, the slave and lover of Alexander the Great, and like all Renault novels is takes the past seriously as a properly foreign place. Her characters are never simply modern people in togas and robes, they belong to a richly imagined world with complex social and cultural rules. Renault's skill is that she manages to bring this world to life for us in all its strangeness, yet lets us find points of meaning and emotional identification inside it. That's a rare and wonderful skill.