I’ve been wanting to write something about Gemma Amor for a while now, and I think her short story “Eggshell” is a perfect opportunity. Originally published in the Human Monsters anthology, “Eggshell” is a personal favorite of mine and I want to share with you exactly why. Here’s a hint: it involves skulls.
“Eggshell” starts by introducing us to Aggie. Aggie is mostly retired from her forensic job. Mostly. But she can be coaxed out of it by the right cold case, which just so happens to include a long-sought serial killer known as “Eggshell.” When her old friend Mike visits with the fragments of a skull police found, Aggie gets to work assembling it piece by piece. The challenge, of course, is that the Eggshell Killer quite literally crushed his victims’ skulls into little eggshell-like pieces to prevent police from identifying his victims (the anthology is called Human Monsters, remember!). But Aggie is good at her job. Very, very good.
I like this story because it feels like a meditation. The level of detail that Gemma Amor puts into the reconstruction process scene is absolutely insane (and entertaining). Aggie is a professional. She’s an expert at what she does:
It took me three weeks to piece together the skull fragments. I used a soft clay base, upon which I gently pressed every tiny sliver and chunk of skull, each neatly numbered, with a pair of tweezers. It was not an easy task. There were many missing pieces. Fragments often crumbled as I placed them. I ended up drawing around each shard and splinter first, so I had a template to use if the bone gave way.
And assembling the skull’s bones is just the beginning. Aggie must then attempt a facial reconstruction:
I sculpted muscles over the top of the scaffolding with clay, molding every single element of the face down to the minute details. I started with the major muscles, including the temporalis, but before that, I did what Mike hated so much: I put the eyes into the skull first. Artificial eyes come in a range of sizes and colors, so to keep it simple I went with gray, because blue felt too obvious, brown too assumptive, and green too close to my own. Gray eyes felt like neutral territory, although I am sure my peculiar internal logic would have been frowned upon by many.
Throughout this process, we’re alone in the room with Aggie, building this skull with her. And part of the horror is the knowledge that this process is required specifically because of the violence of the Eggshell Killer. Aggie is, in a sense, reconstructing the very act that killed this young victim.
Dark Pathway: Building Expertise
Gemma Amor’s knowledge of constructing a skull is … beyond incredible. It lends an authenticity to her story and gives her tremendous freedom to write in-depth about this very specific forensic process. It’s worth practicing!
So try this: buy a lockpicking set. I’m serious! Buy a lockpicking set. They’re ridiculously cheap online. There are only three things you need: a lockpick, a tension wrench, and a practice lock (which is usually clear so you can see the lock’s tumblers). Once you have these materials, we can practice a writing activity:
Step one: Learn the language of lockpicking. Watch a couple Youtube tutorials to get a sense of this, but also look up text-based tutorials. (You’ll quickly learn that a tension wrench can be replaced with a flathead screwdriver, which is why you see screwdrivers used in movies for this process sometimes.)
Step two: Learn how to pick a lock. It’s actually super easy. Practice it so you can do it with your eyes closed. (Again, it’s frightening how easy this is.)
Step three: Put your knowledge to work! Imagine a horror scene where a character needs to pick a lock in order to get out of a life-threatening situation. Toss them in a box sinking into the sea! Throw them in a dungeon! Lock them in the room with a person slowly transforming into a werewolf!
If lock picking isn’t for you, then try this with a skill you already know. The point is to push yourself to become something of an expert so you can transfer this skill to a character. The more details you add, the more believable the story becomes … and the closer your reader will feel to the character.
Ken Brosky is the author of The Beyond, a horror novel available through Timber Ghost Press. His work has been published in Grotesque and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, among others. He’s currently working on a screenplay and a new novel.