A review of Matthew Johnson’s “The Afflicted” in Irregular Verbs and Other Stories (ChiZine Publications, 2014).
By Derek Newman-Stille
Matthew Johnson’s “The Afflicted” levels a critique at older adult care facilities and the general social desire to make the elderly invisible. Johnson highlights the way that we tend to hide older adults away in care facilities that are largely there so that we can hide from the spectre of age. Yet, his elderly population refuse to submit to erasure. Instead, they act boldly, making the threat of age literal by turning them into zombie-like cannibalistic figures.
The first signs of The Affliction are whitening of the hair, memory loss, and some disorientation. The Affliction then proceeds to make the afflicted violent, inspiring them to hunt other human beings and bite their flesh.
The Afflicted have all been taken out of nursing homes and placed in locked, gated facilities deep in the woods where no one can see them or visit their elderly family members or friends there. These facilities are believed to be better for those who are likely to eventually become End Stagers – the final stage of The Affliction when the person loses all identity and becomes a ravenous feeding machine.
It is revealed in the story that The Affliction came from out of the nursing homes, that it originated in these facilities, which allows Johnson to comment on the type of care that is received by the elderly in older adult care facilities. These facilities (before the outbreak) were largely run by machines, limiting human contact between residents and the outside world. Each facility only had one nurse on staff. This lack of contact relates to The Affliction since Kate, the nurse at the facility that The Afflicted takes place in, notes that generally older adults who have regular contact with family and friends don’t go End Stage as early and are able to resist some of the dehumanizing effects of The Affliction. Johnson emphasizes the need for human contact for the elderly and the health benefits of regular contact with family members.
Johnson’s “The Afflicted” brings attention to the way we, as a society, dehumanize the elderly. We turn them into our social fears of death and aging and erase them by placing them in facilities where we don’t have to see them. Johnson powerfully challenges our preconceptions about aging and forces readers to confront the spectre of age and invites readers to question their own assumptions about aging. “The Afflicted” is a powerful reminder of what is forgotten – the people left behind.
To find out more about Irregular Verbs and Other Stories, visit ChZine Publications’ website at http://chizinepub.com/books/irregular-verbs