Fiction podcasts, as a genre, are diverse and imaginative. The hard work of their creators is rewarded with engaged listeners who will, given the right story, stick around for multiple seasons. Welcome to Night Vale, one of the longest-running series, has retained listeners over 11 seasons. But they can also be full of tropes. Even the most beloved shows can be hard to tell apart at first, given their penchant for spectacle, first-person narrative, and disembodied daddy voices. With many fiction podcasts taking their cues from H.P Lovecraft, the horror category is thriving. And in true Lovecraft style, some shows don’t bother to explain the details. In season three of Archive 81, a character vomits up a dry cassette tape during a purification ritual. How? “I don’t know dude. We’re doing a goddamn magic ritual, maybe don’t look too hard at the logistical underpinnings…” Ah, the fourth wall. Maybe this episode was penned during the writers’ strike.
We’ve reviewed many fiction podcasts over the years, including Passenger List and Blackout, but have avoided compiling a list due to the scope and highly subjective nature of the fiction landscape. The shows on the list represent a cross-section of categories, with something for all tastes, attention spans, and verbal kinks.
In Case 63, psychologist Dr. Knight starts a therapy session with a new patient who thinks he is a time traveler. Voiced by Julianne Moore and Oscar Isaac, the conversation soon takes on new significance as the patient asks her to help him save the world. Featuring timeline hopping and plenty of sci-fi flourishes, Case 69 is exactly the sort of project you’d want Isaac to be involved in after his role in Dune (or, indeed, Scenes from a Marriage, if you’re a fan of him performing opposite redheads). Not only is the writing good, the acting is excellent. And with Spotify money behind it — what’s left of it, anyway — the production value is nearly cinematic.
Old Gods of Appalachia is a darkly written anthology podcast that explores the past through horror and gore. The story begins with a mining explosion in the early 20th century, an event that tears apart families while highlighting labor struggles and racial violence. The show never flinches from the worst of humanity. (It’s not for the faint of heart.) But even amongst the blood and brutality of an alternate Appalachia, these subjects resonate with our understanding of real events. Most importantly, they are handled with unflinching writing. Compelling, humane, and often otherworldly, Old Gods of Appalachia will transport listeners — not into a dystopian future, but somewhere much scarier: our own history.
Small Victories follows Marisol, a recently recovered drug addict who is taking a second chance on life after a near-death experience. Unfortunately, things aren’t that simple. As Marisol embarks on her new start, including the ups and downs of her relationship with Nina, she continues to struggle with her past and her incessant overthinking. She is a sympathetic and frustrating narrator — much to the show’s credit. We move fluidly between her thoughts and her conversations with friends, lending the show a richly human landscape that paints a portrait of the millennial crisis. With the right balance of humor and depth, Small Victories is a hidden gem in audio fiction.
Malevolent is a dark audio fiction drama often found at the top of ‘Best Fiction’ and fan-favorite lists. It follows Arkham investigator Arthur Lester as he attempts to understand why he has woken up in his office with no sight, a dark voice commanding him, and a dead friend at his feet. Disorientating and Wachowskian, Malevolent can be hard to distinguish from shows like Deviser. It does make you wonder why so many podcasts follow the trope of the sadistic disembodied voice. Between all of the murder and mayhem, many of the actions these verbal overlords command our anti-heroes to do are pretty domestic. We’re getting strong 12 Rules for Life vibes — but that’s an opinion essay for another day. What makes Malevolent so strong in this category is its attention to human psychology. Rarely do you encounter something as consistently unnerving. The show maintains its atmosphere across multiple seasons, keeping listeners engaged through a format that only occasionally feels repetitive.
While many great audio dramas come from independent creators, there is one network that made its name producing high-quality fiction podcasts. QCODE came on our radar because of shows like Soft Voice and Edith!. but it was their speculative series Ad Lucem that caught our attention. Chris Pine and Troian Bellisario carry this nine-part story about a vision of the near future where an augmented reality assistant, known as CARA, is set to revolutionize the way humans and technology interact.
The fact that the series is set in 2032 seems somewhat pessimistic. Surely these advances in technology are just around the corner. Co-star Olivia Wilde brings flavors of her own directorial debut, Don’t Worry Darling, which similarly walked a line between science fiction and thriller. Ad Lucem asks all the right questions about artificial intelligence while leaving enough ambiguity for another series to follow.
The Magnus Archives may be on hiatus for now, but fans of this British show are confident that it is still one of the best fiction podcasts ever made. After nearly two hundred episodes, it’s not hard to hear why. The story follows Jonathan Sims, a slightly mad head archivist, as he starts transcribing the archives of a fictional organization called the Magnus Institute. Every case is an investigation into the weird, mysterious, and esoteric. As the show progresses, the tales get darker and the stakes begin to rise. This show will appeal to fans of classic British fiction, like Sherlock Holmes and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, thanks to its use of detective tropes and bodily horror. Set to return in 2024 with The Magnus Protocol, you still have time to work through the back catalog before the new series starts.
Now time for something a little different. 36 Questions is a podcast musical that follows Jonathan Groff and Jessie Shelton as a couple attempting to save their marriage by asking a series of questions designed to make two people fall in love. Before you write it off for lack of satanic rituals or disembodied monster voices, hear us out. It goes without saying that this show will appeal to the musical theatre crowd, as well as those who still secretly watch Annie Hall and consider Set It Up to be the best rom-com of the last decade. But it will also resonate with those who appreciate audio storytelling, whatever the genre. Simply put, 36 Questions is a strong vision perfectly executed. From the soundtrack to the love story, every inch of this three-part limited series is tightly written and expertly produced by Two Up, the same people who bring us Limetown and The Wilderness. Most importantly, it stands out among all the dystopia.
Alice Florence Orr is a staff writer and assistant editor for Podcast Review. She is based in Edinburgh. You can connect with her on Twitter or read her work on aliceflorenceorr.com