Ed Gorman is one of the most undervalued writers of his generation. His work, at its best, is seemingly simple, but has a subtlety and power rarely approached in genre fiction. His characters tend to the real rather than the flamboyant and caricature. His 1990 story “The Face” won a Spur Award for best short story, and it truly deserved the honor.
“The Face” is a Civil War story. It is the first-person narrative of a young Confederate doctor who can see the end of the war, and the true situation of the decaying Confederacy—
“As a young doctor, I knew even better than our leaders just how hopeless our war had become. The public knew General Lee had been forced to cross the Potomac with ten thousand men who lacked shoes, hats and who at night had to sleep on the ground without blankets. But I knew—in the first six months in this post—that our men suffered from influenza, diphtheria, smallpox, yellow fever and even cholera; ravages from which they would never recover; ravages more costly than bullets and the advancing armies of the Yankees.”
The Confederate army is disintegrating from the costly war, and its men—in fact mostly young boys of 13 or 14—are beginning to desert. The narrator’s camp is different; none of the men have deserted and its preparations for war continue. This changes when a single soldier is brought into camp. He has no visible wounds, but he is comatose with a disconcerting look on his face. When he is brought into camp the commanding general physically flinches at the sight of his face and immediately puts him in quarantine.
The soldier’s face is never completely described in the story beyond the camp’s priest’s description—
“It’s God’s face. I had a dream last night. The man’s face shows God’s displeasure with the war.”
The men of the camp sneak into the tent to look at the face, and each sees the horror of the war on the soldier’s face. The men begin to sabotage the camp and desert. The doctor, whose name we never learn, also begins to dream about the battlefields he has witnessed and worked.
“The Face” is a difficult story to categorize. It is certainly a historical story, which captures the ugliness of war, but it is also something akin to straight up horror—its soft edged, almost dream like setting creates an atmosphere of the purely gothic. It is also reminiscent of a superior episode of The Twilight Zone, but it is also as much a piece of literature as anything currently being written and published.
“The Face” is a story that will survive the ages. In a brief note included in The Moving Coffin collection, Mr. Gorman explains, “The Face” was inspired by a Civil War surgeon’s journal. It is also the most reprinted of all his stories. It will surely continue to be anthologized long into the future because it is truly one of the best short stories written in the past twenty years; genre or literary.
“The Face” was originally published in the 1990 anthology Confederacy of the Dead edited by Richard Gilliam, Martin H. Greenberg, and Edward E. Kramer. It has been reprinted numerous times in both anthologies and author specific collections, including The Moving Coffin (PS Publishing, 2007), and The Long Ride Back (Leisure Books, 2004). It is currently available in an eBook collection titled Dead Man’s Gun & Other Western Stories (The Western Fictioneers, 2013).
This review first appeared in slightly different form on June 16, 2013.