Academic Horrors, Visceral Landscapes: On Matthew Cheney’s “Changes in the Land”

"Changes in the Land"

More horror fiction should have footnotes. Bennet Sims’s A Questionable Shape has forever connected the footnote to the concept of the undead, and I seem to recall a few turning up across John Langan’s nestled narratives. Matthew Cheney’s Changes in the Land features a few as well, which is understandable given that one of its characters is, in fact, an academic. “A horror novel with an academic at its core?” you may ask. “What’s so frightening about that?”

Well, that’s the thing. Academics deal, by and large, with knowledge. And if you’re at all familiar with the genre, you know that knowledge and revelation can form a big part of moments of horror on and off the page. And so there’s a give and take here, both in terms of what the characters know and what Cheney himself is revealing and concealing about the narrative.

It opens with a nightmare: a man named Elias Thornton dreaming about plants tearing him apart. Cheney adds in a few other details: Elias is a widower and a father of two grown children; there’s also a mention of a woman named Valeria Adams. Just who Valeria is isn’t yet clear — but the next section in the book is presented as a report by an academic, Steven A. Baird, in which he discusses a private game park in New England by the name of Adams Park.

Gradually, more details emerge: Elias works for Valeria, whose family established the park in the 19th century. Her age and the dynamics within her family are among the matters that Cheney gradually reveals — as is how Steven relates to all of this. Valeria is looking to leave the estate for the first time in many years, a plan to which Steven plays a central role, though he himself is unaware of it. Gradually, too, we see how Elias and his family play their parts in drawing Steven to Adams Park.

It’s worth stating here that this is a Gothic tale with supernatural flourishes; that dream that Elias has early on is a dream, but the imagery of the landscape itself turning hostile will recur later in the book. But for all of its supernatural menace, Cheney keeps Changes in the Land rooted in recognizable human emotion — whether those are the familial bonds within Elias’s family or Steven’s search for both emotional connections and financial stability.

Changes in the Land is largely set on an estate founded by a supremely wealthy industrialist, and Cheney doesn’t stint on the economic critique that emerges here. This is a book where class plays a significant role, both in the dynamic between the Thornton family and their employer and in how Steven’s circumstances push him towards a decision that could work out badly for him. There’s a running thread in the novel to the effect that the Thornton family, though less powerful than Valeria, also bear knowledge that she is unaware of — and could never be aware of.

Changes in the Land is a short novel, but it contains plenty. The footnotes early on and the weaving together of traditional narratives with found documents all go a long way towards suggesting an even larger canvas here. Cheney also embraces the found-document aspect of this book for one especially devastating twist late in the book that prompted a gasp as I read it. At times while reading this, I was reminded of Charles Palliser’s The Quincunx, another book about family fortunes and intricate deceptions. This one does plenty of things well, and ends on an appropriately chilling note — a stunning moment that suggests Cheney may have more tales of Adams Park to tell.


Changes in the Land
by Matthew Cheney
Lethe Press; 90 p.

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