Podcast Review: The Magnus Archives

Magnus ArchivesI DO LOVE a good fiction podcast. When I started doing podcast reviews I actually originally intended to only ever review works of fiction, mostly because that is what I had experience with and felt the most comfortable doing. However I was forced to diversify after I started finding it difficult to find new fiction podcasts, and the rest, as they say, is history. Recently I have recently discovered some new fiction offerings, and fortunately one of them is The Magnus Archive.

The Magnus Archive is a new weekly supernatural horror podcast from The Rusty Quill. The podcast itself takes the form of audio recordings of the disorganised cluster of witness statements that seems to make up the majority of the Magnus Archive as a new archivist attempts to make some sense of the jumble. This setup allows for what is essentially a series of mostly unconnected horror short stories told in first person, and provides a reason for all of the stories, told by a diverse range of characters to be read by a single voice actor.

While this is certainly a clever setup, and Jonathan Sims voice work is dripping with talent, its not always ideal. It can be slightly jarring when a character, who due to the voice one is lulled into assuming is male, is revealed through context to be female. While the names of those giving the statement are made clear at the beginning of each episode, they can be fairly easy to forget allowing this weird form of gender drift to set in.

That said, the weird, disorientating moments may not necessarily be a bad thing, in fact they may be in aid of what The Magnus Archive seeks to accomplish from the start. While they do occasionally deal with familiar territory, alarming curses or eerie impostors, the stories of The Magnus Archives are at their strongest when they are being uncanny and disquieting through the odd disconnectedness of their reality. Much as one may experience the weird “gender drift” phenomena when listening, the stories from the archive are a form of reality drift. Because the archive is just a collection of statements, rather than investigations and conclusions the stories have a form of dream logic, where horror can come not only from alarming things happening, but from having odd things happening which are alarming almost solely because they are inexplicable.

The obvious comparison is to The Black Tapes, a similar podcast about the fictionalized process of its own making dealing with paranormal investigations. Both are well made horror podcasts, but despite their theming they are fairly fundamentally different. While The Black Tapes focuses more on drama between characters The Magnus Archive chooses to focus far more on the disconnected stories. While we do get some information about the Magnus Institute and its operations, these are very much in the background and drip fed over a number of episodes. While this will hopefully be woven into an interesting arc or series of arcs of their own, its quite clear that The Magnus Archive is far more interested in being more of an anthology series, with the Archive itself serving mostly as a framing device.

While both podcasts deal with the horror of the unknown and uncertainty, they do it in very different ways. The Black Tapes is themed mostly around ambiguity, and while this is certainly mentioned in the Magnus Archive, and the archivist as a character is very interested in determining if the stories have any factual merit, the show seems more interested in the horror of the uncanny itself. Rather than horror from uncertainty, the stories of The Magnus Archive seem more focused on horror from the everyday made uncanny. Rather than focusing on pre-established elements of culture like the black tapes did, dealing with demonic possession and poltergeists among other things, The Magnus Archive seems to prefer dealing with more stripped down, almost primal horrors. The feeling of not being able to trust your own eyes, the unease felt around strangers, the fear of being buried alive, of being alone, of seeing the familiar in a different light and the simple fear of the totally inexplicable are made manifest in compelling and chilling stories all of their own. Small fears we all deal with in our everyday lives, little uneases, are exaggerated a thousand fold to produce shirt, snappy and delightfully creepy stories. Both the Black Tapes and The Magnus Archive are great podcasts, but they are totally different and, despite both trying to deliver on horror, approach it with very different aesthetics and styles in mind.

Sound design is a key element in a horror podcast. Especially with the approach The Magnus Archive takes, which is essentially a reading of a new short story every week rather than the more traditional audio-drama approach, sound and music are crucial in delivering the sense of unease that can hugely elevate anything attempting for a horror or horror adjacent aesthetic. Fortunately The Magnus Archive handles this expertly, with sound cues coming at just the right moments to escalate the sense of unease provoked by the narration. That said it does seem to re-use the same cues multiple times, so after a number of episodes it can become somewhat familiar which reduces the impact somewhat.

In terms of aesthetic The Magnus Archive actually reminds me less of a podcast, and more a collection of short horror stories, often referred to as creepypasta, online. In particular it reminds me of the SCP Foundation. The SCP Foundation, located here, is a collection of short works of fiction all taking the the form of descriptions of various items, and sometimes persons, collected by the eponymous foundation as it seeks to investigate and secure items, people and occasionally places linked to unexplained phenomena. While The Magnus Archive doesn’t tend to focus on items, rather it tends to deal with weird experiences or incidents, one cant help but find both the style of the stories, delivered as reports and statements in an archive, and the framing device, that of a foundation investigating the unexplained, to be somewhat similar.

So, should you listen to The Magnus Archive? I tend to recommend listening to pretty much anything at least once, just to see if it is to your personal taste, but I would like to give The Magnus Archive a special recommendation. Its a top notch effort from a fairly new production company and its worth listening to on quality of the stories alone, and the possibility of the framing device developing its own sub-plots is the icing on the cake. Thoroughly recommended for any fan of that sort of horror, its a delightfully spine tingling experience.