Episodic audio stories, podcasts, are a relatively novel storytelling medium directly a product of the streaming culture of the late 2010s and beyond. Yet oral storytelling is not new and is where all other storytelling comes from. From the first time a neanderthal communicated something they had learned or experienced, humans have translated stories through the voice.
The Magnus Archives is a podcast produced by the Rusty Quill studio, an upstart individual production company based in the UK working with Acast, and it is their most successful title. It is a horror story centering around a fictitious institution in London that catalogs and researches paranormal reports throughout England. It debuted in 2016 and has since gone on to be nominated for Best Arts Podcast from The People’s Choice Podcast Awards, and winning 5 Audio Verse Awards (Writing of an Audio Play Production, Vocal Direction of a Production, Performance of a Supporting Role in an Audio Play Production, Performance of a Leading Role in an Audio Play Production, Audio Play Production), and winner of the Best Audio Drama or Fiction Podcast from the 2019 Discover Pods Awards.
Without giving away spoilers for those who haven’t heard of it, or who are behind on their listening, or who have yet to start, I’ll share my impressions and experience thus far.
First, from a consumer’s standpoint, or listener, the content surprised me. I knew going in that it was a horror podcast, or a series of horror stories, so it’s not that it shocked me any more than what I expected going in. From beyond the first handful of episodes, though, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the stories are not standalone but often interconnected and even featuring recurring characters beyond those who work in the fictitious Magnus Institute.
Jon Sims, the author, and protagonist of each episode rewards the listener for paying attention to the motifs left as breadcrumbs, vague enough when they emerge that the listener who pays attention might pick up on the patterns before the characters do, and feel satisfaction in both being more clever and for seeing their observations reach a head. This is, to me, a sign of a strong writer on its own merit.
But I couldn’t find much of anything about Mr. Sims’ education before signing on with Rusty Quill. It seems he has some experience in game design, and a good amount of novel and short story writing under his belt, but I can’t tell if he’s self-taught or not. Either way, many kudos to Jon for honing his talent and finding a great team with which to share it. He seems to have a great teacher.
The writing of the podcast is exceptional. Each of the interviewees making statements possesses a knack for seamlessly intertwining passive language phrases with active language and emotionally evocative statements. The combination of the emotional grip and the cadence of Sims and other voice actors and actresses makes this work. When people speak, they often speak passively “he was right,” “she didn’t like it,” etc., and in print, this offers little to the reader. In a novel or essay, excessive passive language bores the reader and doesn’t allow them to think for themselves, which is part of the draw of reading at all. This is why “show, don’t tell” is a cardinal rule. But in a podcast, the story is literally being told from speaker to audience, the most natural way of storytelling, and those words convey what they need to and in a fragment of the time that it takes to read the same thing. The writing is subtle and accompanied by ambient music and sound that adds to the experience of putting the listener in the horror mindset. It draws on the traditional sounds that make people anxious or on edge, droning sounds, crescendos, the like.
I would be very interested in seeing how this understanding of language and storytelling translated to Jon’s other work in different mediums.
Having finished more than 100 episodes 30 minutes apiece, I look ahead to the future seasons that have been released and are being worked on. Currently, there are 200 canonical episodes available on major streaming services. Personally, I’m using Spotify.
One of the best qualities an episodic story can have is knowing how many installments it takes to tell. Whatever that number may be, the story should not include more. This goes directly against the current market maneuvered by capitalism and monetary values, and maybe even goes against what fans and consumers might think they want from their favorite series, but how many times have you found that a television show has been bogged down by “filler,” or an ending has left you unsatisfied?
“Filler” episodes pad the show’s episode numbers without adding much substance to it overall and are particularly rampant in television, in part because the goal of every major network is for all of their shows to reach at least 100 episodes and it’s the goal for career television show writers, too.
In many cases, this comes from a story being stretched too long, censored too heavily, and/or catered to the serialized template pushed by corporate media.
I feel that, while this may be important for artists to take advantage of to make a living and get their work wide recognition, it is actually counterproductive to the enjoyment of a franchise and to the integrity of the artist themselves.
And, moreover, writers and artists should be clever enough to use this to their advantage.
Initially, the number of episodes daunted me. As the story started, it seemed like there would be a fair amount of padding, filler, and forced, inorganic storylines that would stack up to that many installments; perhaps intended only for a smaller number of episodes, but with its success, forced to make more to appease fans and studio.
Fortunately, this has not been the case. Each episode has added depth, clues, understanding, and sometimes answers or resolutions. But that still left me with some questions. Was The Magnus Archives intended to be this long, or is it continuing due to demand and popularity? Would The Rusty Quill have cut the cord earlier if not for its success? How much did Jon Sims know about these later episodes when he sat down to write them?
What I know from my education in writing and personal practice and understanding, no part of a story falls together by accident. Maybe on the writer’s end they might spot some connection that they didn’t see right away, but that’s from their own careful work and keen eye and not coincidence. So, I don’t mean to imply that he happened upon his story. I just mean, did he ever think he would get to tell the stories that he wanted to? Did he plan for one or two arcs, and then suddenly have the demand and desire to continue with more?
By his own admission he’s worked on ideas for the Magnus Archives for a long time, as much as a few years, and though he has always known roughly what the ending will be, and the founder of Rusty Quill, Alex Newell, wanted a “meta-narrative,” like most writers, in the actual process of writing he comes across surprises and themes to run with.
As anyone who has worked with deadlines after predominantly having experience on your own, there are a lot of adjustments to make and it can be straining for the writers and producers. The process of editing and fleshing. out(pun intended) a story becomes much more consuming and if that consumption doesn’t happen, things fall through the cracks.
Mr. Sims, though, seems more than eager to have kept himself occupied by the stories that drive him.
There are currently planned 5 seasons of the Magnus Archives. At the time of my writing this review, it seems that the podcast is largely complete or nearing its end. My only regret is that I didn’t check it out sooner, and I can’t recommend this podcast enough to anyone who enjoys the thrill of being spooked and an adventure that will have you seeing the world in an entirely new light.