In his lifetime, Australian novelist Andrew McGahan won just about every literary award there was to win. His first book Praise won the Vogel Award for an unpublished manuscript. It went on to win the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize and McGahan’s screenplay for the screen adaptation of the book then won an Australian Film Industry Award. Since then McGahan has won a Ned Kelly Award for crime writing (Last Drinks) and an Aurealis Award for science fiction (Wonders of a Godless World). And his book The White Earth won, among other things, the prestigious Miles Franklin Award. McGahan died at 52, on 1 February 2019, from cancer. The Rich Man’s House, is the book that McGahan wrote and edited in his final days. It begins with an apology that due to his illness it is “not quite the book it would have been had not cancer intervened”. But despite this it is still a towering achievement of imagination and writing craft.
The Rich Man’s House takes place on what can only be described as a slightly alternative Earth. On this planet, there is a mountain that dwarfs all others on the planet. It is called the Wheel, for reasons that are explained in quite a bit of detail, and is situated between Tasmania and Antarctica. The Wheel is twenty-five kilometres high, far higher than any other mountain on Earth, its peak which is shaped like a fist in the very upper stratosphere. Walter Richman is the only man to ever reached the summit of the Wheel in 1974 at the end of a lengthy, expensive campaign that involved hundreds of people. He could do this as he is also one of the wealthiest men on Earth. Years later, Richman has now built a magnificent house, carved into the top of a two thousand meter high rock spire on Theodolite Island, a speck of land that overlooks the Wheel, so that he can view his conquest.
When the book opens, Richman has invited Rita Gauss, the daughter of his world famous architect to visit the house before its opening. Her father died during the construction project, as did a number of other people. But Rita finds out that she has not been invited as a representative of her father. She has been invited due to her now disowned belief in “presences” – spirits of place that may be malevolent but which she believes can be placated. As things start to get serious out of control in the house she comes to realise that perhaps her beliefs were not that far-fetched after all.
There is plenty to enjoy in The Rich Man’s House. McGahan builds an entirely believable world, describing the way the Wheel was formed and the way it affects its surroundings, its discovery and the attempts to climb it, and altering details to fit with the fact that Everest was never seen as the tallest mountain on Earth. His descriptions, particularly those of Richman’s luxury house built into the peak of a mountain are vivid and sublime.
And then, about half way through the narrative goes into full horror mode. This is not a book for the faint hearted. McGahan often pauses to relish in lengthy descriptions of a number of gruesome, drawn-out deaths, usually involving the person being kept alive in some way and in pain while their life ends. And it works as a horror novel it works. The build up is slow, creepy stories are interspersed with the narrative while all of the main players get settled and the rules are laid out (but of course knowing those rules does not stop anyone from dying). The tension builds effectively but McGahan cannot escape from the haunted house tropes he has fallen into in the second half of the book as, one by one, a cast of fairly disposable characters meet their grizzly fates.
While The Rich Man’s House can be read as a straight horror narrative, there are messages about the evils of conspicuous consumption, the need to respect for the environment and the self-defeating nature of hubris. But they are a little muddied and the links between Rita’s beliefs and other belief systems are strained. The Rich Man’s House is clearly not completely the book that McGahan wanted it to be and needs to be read in that light, but it still stands a vivid, visceral work by one of Australia’s best writers.