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The Mistholme Museum Has A Lot To Discuss In It
The Mistholme Museum of Mystery, Morbidity, and Morality is, for one thing, the piece of media with the longest title I’ve possibly ever reviewed. It’s also a podcast series with a premise I love. Though I have no idea how well Warehouse 13 holds up in quality or how well it has aged with its content since 2009, I used to be a massive fan of that series, and The Mistholme Museum feels like its cousin. There’s just something so appealing about the curio shop, warehouse, or museum of weird things aesthetic. Even The Bureau of Magical Things was improved by tying the story to such a fun setting as a magical library. And, compounding the appeal of The Mistholme Museum (no way am I writing out the whole name every time), I’m also a big fan of anthology series. In fact, the podcast is even more of an anthology than stuff like The Twilight Zone or The Magnus Archives. Barring the first episode, each installment has at least two different tales in its short twenty-minute or so, focusing on some magical or otherwise odd item in the museum’s collection.
This storytelling choice does have the negative side effect of coming across as chaotic, though. Each episode is bound together by some level of loose theme hinted at by the episode title, but somehow the most connective tissue of the content is the acerbic, slightly violent style of humor shown by the narrator character. In a single episode, The Mistholme Museum can switch between genres, being any combination of science fiction, fantasy, or horror—and sometimes even throwing in historical alongside those. This rapid change is so ingrained into the structure it’s actually hard to review The Mistholme Museum as one entity. But, before I address that issue, allow me to give my summation of it as a holistic project: The Mistholme Museum is sometimes funny, sometimes absolutely brutal, and certainly full of creativity. The stories’ endings might be predictable after a point, but I can’t say I ever predicted what type of story I was getting beforehand. On the more negative side, it suffers from a frequently slow pace; its unchanging narration style and sparse use of actual dialogue give it the same wall-of-info problem that The Domestic Life of Anthony Todd had. There’s a way to do a somewhat unmodulated conveyance of information without making it a more difficult listen—I Am In Eskew is the best example of this done well I know of—but I did eventually get used to how The Mistholme Museum flows. For maximum enjoyment, I suggest reading along with a transcript. Even if, unfortunately, the ones on the website don’t always match up perfectly.
Looping back, here’s my solution to the multiple stories issue: I’m going to go over some of the more significant sections and review them separately. There are other tales within these episodes, but this should give a good overall impression.
The Singleford Fairies
This is the very first story in The Mistholme Museum, and I wasn’t impressed with it. It is interesting to see a fictional take on the real-world hoax called “The Cottingley Fairies,” though I didn’t look into the event too heavily—so research at your own discretion. But, as a story in this podcast, it didn’t have the wow factor that things like The Magnus Archives hit me with during its first episode. If I wasn’t reviewing this podcast and didn’t have a three-episode rule, I would’ve bounced right out of The Mistholme Museum. The element of tragedy is certainly well-done (and horrific), but the presentation and prose weren’t super noteworthy. It did, however, set up a reoccurring theme of reworking or riffing on conspiracy theories, folklore, urban legends, and other esoteric stories that seem to be somewhat the inspiration for The Mistholme Museum overall—and it wouldn’t surprise me if a lot of these tales had a heavy amount of research underpinning them.
The Guitar Of The Man Who Met The Devil At The Crossroads
Now this story was a lot more interesting, both in presentation and topic. It’s a take on a legend about the real-life Blues performer Robert Johnson and evokes a lot of other “deals with the devil” stories. It also leans way more into horror than I’d expected out of The Mistholme Museum. But what made it more than mostly an exercise in trope repetition was it being the first story to play with the idea of the museum as a physical location with employees, weaving in an almost found-footage approach. The story does, however, have a few potentially problematic elements, including utilizing the “magical removal of a disability” trope.
A Clockwork Girl
Despite being a fairly basic Pinocchio scenario, this story has a lot of subtext to it that mirrors science fiction conundrums. It basically explores cloning, A.I., the human soul, the afterlife, and what one owes to people they’ve lost. It also establishes two more things about The Mistholme Museum. One: that child death is weirdly common in these tales. And two: that the stories can start to intertwine.
A Horn That Grew from The Head Of A Boy
This one definitely could be problematic, and I can’t quite tell what historical or mythological idea it’s drawing from, except possibly the general idea of how circuses used to treat people with disabilities. The ending is also quite upsetting in a gut-punch sort of way. The only semi-positive thing I really have to say about it is that it introduces an element of unreliability to the storytelling and plants the theme of changing stories to suit the teller’s needs. Considering The Mistholme Museum is almost entirely narration about items stored at a (extremely morally gray) magical museum, it would not surprise me if this was a setup for some twist later in the series.
Number stations seem like such an underutilized storytelling idea in the pop culture lexicon, especially with how weird they are as an actual, real-world conspiracy. For those who don’t know, the short version is Number Stations are radio stations that spew out seemingly random numbers for unknown purposes. This story doesn’t utilize this concept in any big, unique way, though: the outcome of what the numbers mean isn’t all that surprising. But it does solidify the interconnectedness of these stories, implying that things can and will overlap in interesting ways.
At the end of this all, I’m left in a bind. Episodic shows are always going to be a complicated thing to recommend or condemn because you never know if a specific episode will have the right combination of tropes, ideas, or pacing style that’ll suit the listener. It’s a big reason why most people recommend only particular episodes of The Twilight Zone or certain installments of Goosebumps. But I did get the general sense of The Mistholme Museum striving for uniqueness, if nothing else. And as a critic, I do have to give that its due. The stories pull from places that you don’t often see in other urban fantasy series, and its framing device of having the listener be a guest at a strange museum with the narration purportedly coming from a possibly self-aware audio tour guide is certainly an engaging usage of the audio format. More podcasts should play around with the medium like this. But the dichotomy between episodes, some being engaging and skillfully written, and others being off-putting or slow-paced or both leads me to a tepid conclusion. Based on the examples I’ve seen, I have every reason to believe that there are really solid stories amongst the later episodes, and maybe even some sprawling late-game storytelling shifts to look forward to. But to find that stuff, if it is to be found, you will have to wade through other exhibits.
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