Review: The Magnus Archives

Review: The Magnus Archives May 6, 2021

The Magnus Archives

The Magnus Archives is a horror podcast produced by Rusty Quill, a British gaming and fiction company. I hadn’t come across Rusty Quill before, nor any previous work of Jonathan Sims, the writer of Magnus; I think I originally heard about it through the Overly Sarcastic Productions YouTube channel. In any case, I decided to give the first episode (“MAG 1: Anglerfish“) a try, and I was immediately hooked—pun not intended, but honestly called for.

Magnus starts out as sort of a more contemporary The X-Files. The fictitious Archives are a London-based organization that researches claims of the paranormal; the principal narrator is Jonathan Sims, the Magnus Institute’s head archivist. The episodes begin as recordings of such reports, taken from eyewitnesses. Each statement includes a different weird, creepy experience somebody had, and there’s not a dud among them, in my opinion.

As the series goes on, especially after season one (the first forty episodes), a wider universe of the eerie begins to manifest itself. Individual horrors start forming patterns, and human—or ex-human?—servants begin to appear.

The Strong Points

I can hardly speak highly enough of this podcast. Most podcasts are badly (or at best unevenly) written, if they’re scripted at all. Moreover, horror as a genre often tends to rely on jump scares and other cheap tactics, which Magnus avoids almost entirely—creepiness rather than shock permeates the atmosphere, which I consider the finest kind of horror. This is one of the tightest and most satisfying examples of horror I’ve ever found, in both its singular episodes and its overall arc. The variety of stories Sims came up with is really amazing, too. And there’s a nice spectrum of LGBTQ representation in both the main cast and the one-offs.

I also have to applaud the acting. I listen to a decent number of podcasts and watch a lot of animation, so I pay attention to voice acting. It’s easier to pass off bad voice acting in animation, but impossible in a podcast. Magnus has excellent casting and almost impeccable execution here. And, another rarity, they don’t overdo the music (one of my least-favorite common features of horror—it was the one thing I didn’t like about The VVitch, for example).

The Weak Points

(Spoilers in this section)

There are very few of these! Magnus has five seasons total, and seasons four and five feature a romance subplot between two of the principal characters. I found this arc really unsatisfying; it wasn’t distracting, I just didn’t find it credible. One of the two (Y) had been in love with the other (X) for some time, but the idea that X would reciprocate Y’s romantic feelings didn’t really feel plausible. X had been set up as too much of a cool, detached, fairly ornery asexual for them to seem like they’d want anything more than friendship with Y. This wouldn’t have mattered much, except that the emotional climax of the finale occurs in the context of X and Y’s relationship, so I felt like I was being asked shell out on a bet I hadn’t even made. It didn’t ruin the finale, but it seriously weakened its impact.

The other weakness is a missed opportunity. The show classifies fears, to an extent: fear of the dark, paranoia, claustrophobia, fear of sudden violence, etc. But one fear they did almost nothing with was the fear of being guilty, responsible, or in the wrong. They come close to this fear in a few episodes; cults play a role in a lot of the show, which I’d have thought would be a natural prompt for this theme; and a few of the monsters make a point of telling the main protagonist that he isn’t “better” than they are, so the theme isn’t entirely absent. But I thought this was a rich vein of fear which Magnus, to my disappointment, left mostly un-mined.

Should You Give It a Listen?

If you have any taste for horror at all, I strongly recommend The Magnus Archives. Even its shortcomings (if you skipped the section above) are more missed opportunities than flaws, and everything else about it is amazing. I look forward to Rusty Quill’s further material, and if there’s ever an adaptation of Magnus in any medium, I will be all over it!

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