The Rich Man’s House
Andrew McGahan’s first novel was not, in fact, Praise, that best-selling classic of Australian dirty realism. According to a Sydney Morning Herald interview from 2011, his first book-length fiction was actually a thriller in the style of Stephen King that was never published.
There is, then, some three decades later, a sense of things coming full circle. The Rich Man’s House, completed just before McGahan’s death earlier this year at the age of 52, is a fascinating and grimly effective supernatural page-turner. And the influence of King is unmistakeable because this latest McGahan novel has the same mix of horror and relentless creeping dread you find in books such as The Shining and Pet Sematary.
It’s almost as if, at the very last, after a writing career that has spanned everything from crime fiction to young adult fantasy, Andrew McGahan has finally come home. As well as being compulsively readable, The Rich Man’s House proves how much he could make a virtue of his deficiencies as a writer: his unabashed embrace of spectacularism is the condition of this book’s success.
The Rich Man’s House proposes a world in which the highest mountain is not Mount Everest but an island behemoth somewhere south of Tasmania. The Wheel, as this unlikely spire is known, is absurdly tall: it goes up some 25,000 metres, a pillar of stone knifing through the stratosphere. Everest, for comparison, is a little less than 9000 metres above sea level. Surely this is the sort of immoderate fantasy that could only have been invented by someone born and bred in a place as flat as Dalby, Queensland.
The only man to have reached the summit of the Wheel is Walter Richman, an unlikeable billionaire industrialist who headed a massively expensive expedition in the ’70s involving thousands of support personnel. Richman has now bought an island in the shadow of the great rock and, as if to make tangible his mastery of the Wheel, has built an extravagant new home that calls to mind the museum that Nonda Katsalidis built for that other rich man, David Walsh.
As it happens, the Wheel is not merely the world’s tallest mountain, it’s also the world’s meanest. This stone can feel and scheme, and its sole desire is to avenge itself on Richman and all who abide with him. Now, at last, Richman is within striking distance. Of course, the story sounds utterly ridiculous when described in the cold light of day; but, make no mistake, The Rich Man’s House is a hell of an addiction and quite a chilling one.
The novel is told from the perspective of Rita Gausse, the estranged daughter of the architect who designed Richman’s extravagant underground villa. She has a gift for sensing out and communicating with presences in the landscape. In her 20s, before she went off the rails with drugs and liquor, she made a living exorcising malign spirits, and even wrote a book about it. But never has she come across anything as vast and implacable as the Wheel.
McGahan is a concise and direct storyteller, and The Rich Man’s House, despite its 600-page length, is remarkably streamlined. It’s free from the sort of junk mythology and laborious mysticism that slows down many popular fantasy and horror novels. In short, we are told, invisible non-human forms of consciousness are created whenever something unusual happens in a landscape or an environment, whether it’s the sudden appearance of a storm or the slow rise of a mountain range. Because the Wheel is the most unusual thing on the planet, it also has the most profound consciousness.
And that’s it. That’s all we get. No supernatural kitsch, no elaborate lore, no Halloween phantasmagoria. Only the silhouetted mystery of otherworldly presences hovering beyond our ken.
McGahan is not so laconic when it comes to the physical features of his Wheel. He has always worked hard to give his fictions, no matter how weird, the rough grain of facticity. This book is no exception: there are long passages on the Wheel’s geology and geography, its effect on the weather, its discovery by humans and its eventual conquest by Richman. All this is pretty enthralling stuff, particularly the descriptions of what it’s like to climb this remotest crag.
Meanwhile, as if in counterpoint to all this vertical sublimity, we get Rita Gausse, wandering the almost deserted passages of Richman’s mansion with its not-so-distant resemblance to the Overlook Hotel. She’s oppressed by feelings of imminent doom but can’t see the trap she’s fallen into. When the moment is ripe, however, the Wheel reveals itself in the most breathtaking way.
McGahan has tried in the past to conjure eerie presences from mountain landscapes. Think of those weird hills at the back of Kuran Station in The White Earth, or the volcano in Wonders of a Godless World. But here the Wheel is a more fully realised and more vivid character, with a personality of its own. It’s cruel to the point of sadism and jealous of its uniqueness in the world. The Wheel demands humility from the humans scrabbling up its icy slopes by threatening the destruction of those interlopers. It is, in other words, the perfect villain.
And do we empathise with this Lovecraftian Old One, pulsing in its stony world? Perhaps we do, and not just because Richman is such an obvious scoundrel. Humanity has intervened in practically every landscape and environment on the planet. There are no more wild places we fear to tread. And the outrage of the Wheel is like a moral judgement on this – our lack of reverence.
Taken as the airport thriller it resembles, The Rich Man’s House is a hell of a lot better than it needs to be. But of course this is not just any airport thriller. This is the final work of an author who won nearly every writing prize in the country, from the Vogel to the Miles Franklin, the Ned Kelly to the Aurealis. Yes, The Rich Man’s House is trash, but it’s very, very good trash. And had McGahan lived, and had he written more such books, who knows what sort of global phenomenon he might have become.
Allen & Unwin, 608pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 7, 2019 as "Andrew McGahan, The Rich Man’s House". Subscribe here.