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—
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
The soldier’s face is never completely described in
the story beyond the camp’s priest’s description—
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.