Review: “Aunt Dimity, Vampire Hunter” by Nancy Atherton



Final Rating: onecupcropped1 cup of bitter, gaslighting-flavored tea.

The scene: A young woman stands in her local library, idly browsing the Mystery shelf for something that isn’t Sherlock Holmes, has a sense of humor, and (hopefully) won’t involve any gore. After a few minutes of searching, the young woman’s eye catches the phrase Vampire Hunter, and she knows immediately that she has to get this book. An Aunt? Who hunts vampires and solves mysteries? What could be better!?

Alas, the true mystery is why someone decided to nickname this series “The Paranormal Detective” when, in point of fact, the only remotely paranormal thing that happens is Aunt Dimity herself, who turns out to be a disembodied voice inside of a blue journal. Yes, you read that correctly, children: The Aunt is not actually a character in the book. She has no agency or, in fact, any physical form. She exists solely to recite things we already know back to the protagonist, Lori, with the occasional added suggestion. And hey, sometimes a quick recap can be useful: Problem is, this is a book, not a weekly television series. I haven’t gone anywhere, and my memory isn’t that short. So why do I have to relive things I literally just read?

By itself, Aunt Dimity’s diminished presence in the tale that bears her name might be a livable compromise. Unfortunately, things get much, much worse from here.

My first sign of trouble was Lori’s husband, Bill. Not only does Bill have a robust sense of “humor” that seems to center entirely around him making fun of his wife’s anxieties, but he also does things like never letting Lori forget that one time she drove the car into a ditch. Before you call me oversensitive, I have been on the receiving end of this before, and it is awful. Repeat after me, children: Men. Demeaning. Women. Is. Not. Funny. Sadly, no one in Lori’s life tells her this, which means she spends the whole book internalizing these jabs and ends up demeaning herself when Bill isn’t around to do it for her. Great.

This is a trend which continues with the other male protagonist, Kit. We’re introduced to Kit via Lori’s glowing monologue about what a saint he is (this is the actual word she uses several times) and how much everyone wants him to marry his 18-year-old riding student, Nell. (More on her in a bit) Kit can do no wrong: He’s had a tough life but he hasn’t let it get to him, he’s great with horses, he’s great with kids–he’s just friggin’ great. Except he isn’t. Much like Bill, Kit loves to demean Lori at every given opportunity and also sees no problem emotionally blackmailing Lori into learning how to ride horses, of which she is terrified. Yes, you read that correctly: When Lori asks him for help, Kit sees no problem with insisting Lori “face” her worst phobia, because in his mind this is a fair exchange for the use of his time. What’s worse, is that this scenario is framed as something which is “good” for Lori, because of course isn’t the sink-or-swim approach to phobias and anxiety always the best one?

Kit continues to be The Literal Worst by hijacking almost the entire book: Lori’s personal quest and desires are set aside over and over again until the book literally becomes about Kit’s past and family. Um, excuse me, I thought I was going to read about vampire hunting? Not some shitboy’s sadfeels? Even the ending (spoiler warning, I guess) revolves around him finally proposing to Nell. Speaking of whom: She’s 18. He’s 34. (36? I forget. 30-something) Everyone seems totally fine with this arrangement, except me. Large age differences are negotiable, I guess; but when one party is barely an adult, I worry. A lot. That’s a huge gap of maturity and experience, on both sides. I remember what I was like at 18, and I was nowhere close to having the maturity or self-knowledge needed to be in a relationship with someone that much older. Moreover, what does someone’s Kit’s age get from dating someone so young and comparatively immature? Considering how he treats Lori, it’s far too easy to imagine the reason he really wants someone like Nell in his life is because she won’t know any better when he devalues her constantly.

Speaking of Nell, (who is described by Lori as “ethereal” and “like Botticelli’s Venus” because aren’t all white, blond and blue-eyed women gifts from God?) let’s take a moment to discuss how every single character in this book is a Mary Sue. I’m serious. You might, if you squint really hard, be able to make the argument that Lori isn’t a Mary Sue, but I don’t believe it because her major flaw seems to be “clumsiness” and we all know that old trick when we see it. Even her twin 6-year-old sons are Mary Sues, with their perfect behavior and inability to lie. Oh sure, we’re Told that they’re “spirited” from time-to-time but we’re never Shown it. Lori is constantly comparing herself to the other characters and finding herself inadequate, which is sad because none of the other characters actually have any, y’know…character? They’re all pretty flat, and the ones we do get to spend time with (mostly Kit) totally suck. Not much here to be jealous of.

As if all of this weren’t awful enough: Did I mention this book is chock full of ableism? (As well as Romani slurs, yippee) Oh yes. Lori herself frequently likes to describe things as “insane” and spends a great deal of the book assuming that the “bad guy” must be a madman locked up in an attic because his family couldn’t bear to turn him over to an asylum. There’s also another character, Lizzie Black, who is way cooler than everyone else in the book (she should be the protagonist, imo) that everyone describes as a “mad old woman” simply because she dislikes people, is a strong proponent of living on your own (sign me up), and believes in things like vampires and ghosts. (Which, um, this is The Paranormal Detective, supposedly; why is this a bad thing!?) Kit gets his two-cents in here too, because he firmly believes that “madness” is a genetically inherited trait. After all, his father committed suicide, therefore he is doomed to the same fate–which, um, maybe you should talk to a psychologist about? Or read about? Or do a quick Google search about? Or not believe in the first place because who the fuck still thinks this way???

Finally, we come to the final chapter of the book, which is where my heistant 2 1/2 star rating plummeted to a 1 star in the space of a few sentences. Spoiler warning for those who care: In the end of the book, Aunt Dimity reveals that she and Bill (Lori’s husband) have been in cahoots the whole time. Over what, you may ask? Why, they’ve been conspiring to make sure that Lori goes on her little “vampire hunt” so that she’ll be too distracted to keep worrying about the safety of her sons. After all, she’s started neglecting her duties as a good neighbor and wife. How dare she! Thus, Bill and Dimity decide to use Lori’s deep anxiety that an actual fucking vampire is stalking her sons as a way to, I dunno, teach her to loosen up a little? But of course, to her face, Bill straight-up gaslights Lori by telling her there’s absolutely nothing wrong, while Aunt Dimity encourages Lori to search for the vampire when Lori inevitably feels devalued by her husband and seeks someone she can trust to just listen to her for once. They both abuse Lori’s trust in horrible ways, but the whole thing is framed as something the reader is supposed to laugh at.

Yes, that’s right: The moral of Aunt Dimity: Vampire Hunter is that it’s fun to laugh at women who are manipulated and lied to by the people they trust. Har-dee-har-har.

You may think I’m taking things way too seriously right now, but thing is, these things actually happen to real people. They have happened to me. (I had several uncomfortable flashbacks whilst reading, actually) They should not be normalized. They should not be treated as a joke,  and they should not be treated as “we did this for your own good”. Lori is portrayed as feeling real guilt over having “failed” her neighbors and family, and that’s really fucking sad. She did nothing wrong, and yet everyone was eager to punish her for it because the spigot from which the emotional labor and attention flowed was briefly turned off.

In conclusion, Aunt Dimity: Vampire Hunter is a mystery that left me with more questions than answers. Why is Aunt Dimity just an exposition machine, instead of the protagonist?  Why is this series called The Paranormal Detective when nothing paranormal actually happens? (Besides Dimity’s existence) Why were there so many chapters devoted to explaining vampire lore when this book was published in 2008? Why, why, why.

Maybe someday, I’ll find out. Or, more likely, I just won’t ever read anything in this series ever again.


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