“The Magnus Archives'' is a podcast written by horror author Johnathan Sims that features the main character by the same name. It started in 2016, but has risen to wide acclaim within the last two years, mostly gaining traction on social media platforms like Twitter and Tumblr. I discovered it on Reddit during quarantine and decided to give it a chance.
This review will be constructed into three main parts that represent the core aspects of every podcast, graded out of ten stars, the more stars, the better this aspect of the podcast is.
Sound: the overall sound of the podcast, SFX quality, and pleasantness.
Story: the narrative and lore behind the podcast. Spoilers will be indicated!
Characters: the overall likeability and writing of the main cast and how characterization ties into the story.
With the record set, let’s get into the review!
The voice acting in “The Magnus Archives” is stellar–you can feel emotion in every word presented to you. The ambiance is perfectly crafted… until you are listening to one thousand worms squirming in your ears; or perhaps it’s the sound of someone’s skull being smashed in with a lead pipe. “The Magnus Archives” is not for the faint of heart–or the weak-stomached. An overall pleasant listening experience is at times ruined by the occasional strange sound choice or simply by the array of disgusting sounds presented to you. Thankfully, they opted to skip the kissing noises. According to a message sent out by the voice of Martin Blackwood and director of the podcast, Alexander J. Newall, “I want you to really listen to the fish noises in Stella Firma (the comedy podcast run by “The Magnus Archives”s parent company, Rusty Quill). That noise right there? That’s what the kisses sounded like.” Suffice to say, this score would have been much lower if they had opted to keep it.
To say the story is “good” is an understatement. The Magnus Archives is written as a story to be discovered. Its first episode, “MAG001 - #0122204 Anglerfish,” introduces the listener to Jonathan Sims, the predecessor to the head archivist of the Magnus Institute, after the mysterious disappearance of his former boss Gertrude Robinson. The Magnus Institute is a massive archive dedicated to storing the statements of people who have had paranormal experiences, which the surly new archivist casts a healthy dose of doubt upon from the get-go. The podcast does not hit the ground running like many others do, taking time to ease into the plot, but creating intrigue for the listener with Ms. Robinson’s disappearance.
Spoilers ahead! Content warning for bodily horror, insects, derealization, and police brutality from here on out.
Each season presents a carefully crafted story, spun together with the same intricacy as a spider’s web. While the first episodes are nothing more than mundane and mildly terrifying in content, as the story progresses further, even the average listener can recognize key details hidden in every episode. From monsters to cursed books to evil, omnipresent co-workers, the Magnus Institute is chock full of hurdles for our dear protagonist to overcome, whether he knows it or not. The first season presents a fearsome but shallow antagonist in the form of former human, Jane Prentiss. Prentiss’ body became the host of a parasitic infestation of worms after finding a mysterious nest in her home, and as the members of the institute connect her to a series of supernatural happenings, she attacks the archive in a thrilling season finale that kept me listening at the edge of my seat. By the beginning of season two, the listener is introduced to a colorful cast of characters, secret tunnels underneath the archives, and an intriguing plot that leaves you with a sinking suspicion that someone is not who they seem.
While the first season handles Jon’s need to rationalize his decisions very well, the second season brings a healthy dose of paranoia and a lot less explaining behind his erratic actions. As Jon explores the aforementioned secret underground tunnels, more supernatural elements come into play. By the time you are listening to the third and fourth seasons you have abandoned the pessimistic view on the supernatural as you follow Jon through various encounters with otherworldly beings called ‘avatars.’ Avatars are either regular humans granted direct power from or a manifestation of one of the podcast’s fifteen main fears rationalized as entities; the buried, the dark, the corruption, the desolation, the vast, the hunt, the slaughter, the flesh, the spiral, the web, the extinction, the end, the stranger, the lonely, and most importantly- the eye. Avatars are representations of these entities and they tend to imbue one at least one of these fears. Every entity has its place, every avatar has its role.
From here on out, it’s hard to have further discussion of the plot without focusing on the characters in “The Magnus Archives.”
The vast majority of the characters in “The Magnus Archives'' are far more than enjoyable. I think I can speak for the majority of listeners when I say that I instantly fell in love with Martin Blackwood from his first line in the podcast: “I just want to make a statement about what happened to me. I mean, it… it’s what we do.” His doting personality and affection towards tea creates a wonderful character to listen to, especially in conjunction with his co-workers. Jon is a short-tempered and joyously paranoid boss, Tim is the resident clown- the office’s comedic relief, and Sasha is a quick-witted and devoted worker who isn’t afraid of light-hearted conversation. By the fifth season of the podcast, they are no longer the same token group more fit for an office comedy than a horror show. The story utilizes this group of well-intentioned, but ultimately utterly terrified characters to carry the plot. The author does a wonderful job at portraying the humanity of inhuman characters, and manages to tackle one of the many tenants of the modern podcast: queer representation. As a queer person desperate to see more genuine LGBT representation, I was refreshed to not see representation at the expense of these poor characters being subjected to being overused, and to the frankly boring tropes and arcs that we see on TV. We have all seen the “Supernatural” memes:
The majority of the main cast is queer, Jon being asexual and biromantic, Martin is attracted to men, Tim is bisexual, and many other queer characters get their fair share of the spotlight without judgment or immediate death. It’s refreshing to see LGBT characters not be immediately brutalized in a genre like horror. When queer members of the cast die; just know it’s not after a superficial confession to someone of the same sex.
The only short-coming in characterization is the arc of one Basira Hussien. Basira was a police officer introduced alongside her partner: Daisy Tonner. One major plot point between the two involved an entity that directly targeted police officers- the hunt. The Hunt represents the fear of being chased and persecuted; a touchy subject today in the wake of cancel-culture, and police brutality. The issue isn’t the subject of the writing, if anything the writers of “The Magnus Archives” gracefully explore the topic, addressing police brutality not as an uncontrollable and random form of corruption, but as a direct outcome of the power the police are given. Basira is shown as a quick learner, and is very quick to accept the shaky reality of her world. She does what is necessary to not only survive, but thrive (another reason why she was a horrible cop). Yet, when it is revealed that her partner Daisy has been committing acts of police brutality as she and other members of the police force simply look away, Basira does not remain stagnant in her once strong characterization as someone willing to cut anyone off if it means survival. She risks her life for Daisy even knowing that she is in the wrong. While the characterization of Basira became misguided, it was necessary in making a valid point about police violence and the culture around the police that continues to breed rampant corruption.
“The Magnus Archives” is a beautifully crafted tale about fear and what it means to be afraid that utilizes every single bullet in Chekhov’s gun. From unconventional monsters that chill you to the bone to the kind of monsters we see everyday, “The Magnus Archives” is a fresh look into a genre prone to relying on tropes to remain effective. Jonathan Sims does an excellent job in orchestrating a petrifying world with an engaging plot and interesting lore without infringing on the fear that haunts us in our everyday lives. During an indecisive time of political unrest, sickness, and police brutality, wouldn’t it be nice to listen to a podcast about the end of the world based in fiction?