This is part of an ongoing series about relistening to The Magnus Archives, a weekly horror podcast with a slowly uncoiling overarching plot. This is full of spoilers, so make sure you’ve listened up to at least episode 67 before reading!
Before we dive into The Magnus Archives episode 2: “Do Not Open”, I want to take a moment to appreciate the title.
When have the words ‘do not open’ ever been used in a fun situation? (Okay, maybe in relation to presents for a specific holiday or celebration.) This title creates immediate tension by immediately revealing the episode’s central problem: keeping the damn thing shut, whatever it is.
But even if you’re being told to keep your mitts off an item until a specific time, who hasn’t wanted to open it anyway? If there’s a big red button that will unleash hell if you press it, wouldn’t you be at least a little bit curious to see what it does?
And that’s another thing: it’s such a concrete title that with zero context, it works as an incredible open loop. If I was reading this instead of listening to it, I would be tripping over sentences to find out what it is that has to stay shut.
So yes, I love the title.
And the story. Unless you count the Institute’s employees, this second episode immediately introduces some recurring characters — or at least a recurring organisation, namely Breekon & Hope. (I initially thought it was ‘Beacon & Hope’ but the wonderful Magnus Archives Wiki set me straight.) But let’s not get ahead of ourselves and begin at the beginning.
Like I said in my article on episode one, “Angler Fish”, The Magnus Archives has a wonderful sense of place, and a knack for quick and effective characterisation. However, as a Brit living in the Netherlands, Joshua Gillespie was immediately recognisable to me: a drugs tourist from the UK. The sheepish way in which he describes his trip to Amsterdam, and his inevitable sampling of our local specialties, shall we say, isn’t the first time I’ve heard this story.
However, as easy as it would be to paint him as a daft tourist and leave it at that, listeners are immediately shown that there’s more to him than that. His clearly somewhat introverted streak is illustrated well in his initial meeting of the man who would ruin his life for almost two years — and carried through well in the rest of the story.
John, an Englishman ‘inside a foreign land’ (the phrasing is emphasised — will this be relevant later?) gives Joshua £10,000 to take care of a package. No actual package is given before Joshua returns to England, where he is too nervous to spend the money for a long time.
Until he grows a beard.
That’s obviously not the whole story — he has to move to a completely new town for an entry-level job and can’t afford rent by himself. But, as we’ve seen, he’s something of an einzelganger, so he decides to use his ill-gotten funds because it’s been such a long time since he saw John, John doesn’t have any of his personal details and…
He’s grown a beard.
Not a week passes and John finds him — or at least two of his associates do. A Breekon & Hope van turns up, and leaves him a very odd consignment: a coffin, secured with a chain, and emblazoned with the words ‘DO NOT OPEN’.
He doesn’t open it. And it’s just as well, as whatever it contains moans when it rains, and scratches at the lid whenever something touches it.
What follows is an unsettling account of how Joshua lives with the coffin and its unknown inhabitant for almost two years. He doesn’t make any friends, as he doesn’t want anyone to visit his house. He spends most of his time in his bedroom, reading — with music on when it rains.
And he spends his nights trying to outwit his awake self and open the padlock on the casket.
The way the statement describes it is all very matter-of-fact — as if having the coffin there is no more of an inconvenience than having an annoying relative stay for a weekend. But, as Joshua himself notes, fear can become as normal as hunger.
Eventually he receives another visit from Breekon & Hope, with John in tow this time, and after a rather grisly encounter, he’s rid of his burden.
Like with “Angler Fish“, what I like about this story is that it doesn’t rely on a huge twist: it’s not about working up to a revelation, but about exploring a disturbing situation. However, there is something of a sting in the tail here: in his afterword, Jonathan (lots of J’s in this episode) reveals that during those two years, Joshua was the only person living in his entire apartment building — and after he moved out, the entire thing was destroyed.
On the one hand this episode is about a creepy McGuffin, a fear of the unknown (or at least the unfamiliar, as represented by the unsavoury encounter in Amsterdam) and the terror of not being able to control yourself. It’s more than enough to pack into a 25-minute episode (though I have to say, this one felt longer — in a good way! It’s incredible how much story The Rusty Quill and Jonathan Sims managed to pack into this one short episode).
But for me there’s more. That reveal at the end drives home just how alone Joshua was, how the coffin managed to utterly consume virtually every aspect of his life. He was alone by choice whenever he could be. Every night he would find himself trying to do something that would undoubtedly end very badly if he were to succeed. Didn’t his colleagues sense something was off?
How can someone fall through the cracks like that?
Either way, this story hit the right notes for me, even if they are melancholy ones.
Up next is one of my all-time favourite episodes: “Across the Street“.