Thomas Sipos – a libertarian
MARK WEGIERSKI profiles one of America’s most distinctive horror writers
Thomas M. Sipos must be one of America’s most unusual libertarian-conservative ‘culture warriors’ – notable for his ‘paleolibertarian’ views, his chosen career, his lifelong interest in pop-culture, and his baroque literary tastes.
His mother was an Hungarian Catholic and his father a Lutheran, who fled the country to escape communism. Their son, who was brought up as a Catholic, earned a bachelor of fine arts in film and television at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. He became heavily involved in the peace movement during the George W. Bush era, grounding his opposition (especially to the Iraq War), on paleoconservative and paleolibertarian critiques that sadly were generally little-noticed in America at large. He has also been active in the U.S. Libertarian Party, a pragmatist who advocated a Republican Romney/Paul ticket in 2012. Sipos was appointed editor of the California Libertarian Party newspaper in 2007, and gave it an anti-war focus. He was Los Angeles County Libertarian Vice Chair in 2006-2007. He also served as a delegate to various local, state, and national conventions, from 2004-2009. However, it is chiefly his views on culture that make him interesting, and important.
He has long argued that libertarians and conservatives need to be making some of the mass-market cultural productions that make up pop-culture. To this end, he has worked as both an actor and a screenwriter in Hollywood, focusing especially on the horror genre. Although his ‘big break’ has not yet come, his sitcom and horror scripts have won awards. He has also professionally published a number of short stories – which allowed him to become a full member of both the Horror Writers Association, and the Science-fiction and Fantasy Writers of America – and has extensive non-fiction publication credits in both professional magazines and a huge variety of ‘semi-pro’ zines.
In 1999, he published his first novel, Vampire Nation (the short story version had appeared in 1998) through the XLibris on-demand publishing house. The premise of the novel is that the members of Romania’s Communist elite under dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu were actually vampires. Sipos’s book was partially inspired by his visits to relatives in Romania in the 1970s. The work hammers home the real evil of Communism, which was in some ways not that far removed from Sipos’s gory renderings. In 2000, Sipos launched his website – www.communistvampires.com – which he continues to maintain.
In a 2012 interview, I asked Sipos to expand on his reasons for writing Vampire Nation.
Vampire Nation is the only novel I ever intended, from the beginning, to have a message, which is anti-communism. It is not pro-conservative, or pro-libertarian, or pro-anything. Unlike Ayn Rand, I specifically avoided advocating a belief system. It’s intended to be an exposé of Communism. An entertaining lesson about Communism, much like Maus is for Nazism. Part of the strength of George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm is that they advocate nothing. His satires expose and attack, but offer nothing in their place. That’s a good thing. His books aren’t weighed down with ideological baggage. It’s why conservatives and socialists still argue over who can claim Orwell.
Vampire Nation began as a short story for a Barnes & Noble anthology, Horrors: 365 Scary Stories. The story was about a vampire who wakes up in communist Romania. He’s thrilled at awakening in a nation of atheists, because the vampire’s strength is that nobody believes in him. He thinks he’s among easy prey. Instead, Communism sucks him of his drive, so that he becomes an inept, shiftless vampire, unwilling to expend much effort at hunting prey. I thought the idea was strong enough for a novel.
I’d visited Communist Hungary and Romania as a child. I now spent 1997 researching Ceausescu and Romanian communism. I created a skeleton outline, listing the events to showcase: the painted trees, Securitate tunnels, devastated Bucharest, the orphans, etc. One event per chapter. As I fleshed out the novel, I didn’t know what would happen in the next chapter until I wrote it, only its event.
One critic suggested that my heroine, Countess Anya Amasovich, is named after Ayn Rand. Because, I suppose, they’re both Russian, both anti-Communist, and have similar names. These similarities never occurred to me. Not even subconsciously. I know this, because I know where my Anya came from. She is inspired by KGB Major Anya Amasova, from the James Bond film, The Spy Who Loved Me. I read the entire Fleming series at age 13. Barbara Bach’s Anya Amasova was my favorite Bond girl. But I couldn’t accept her as a Communist — too evil. So I re-imagined the film’s Anya as her mirror opposite. Instead of a Red Russian, I imagined her as a White Russian. A Tsarist aristocrat. Every writer’s head is full of characters and ideas he might use someday. When I decided to expand Vampire Nation into a novel, I knew it was time to cast Anya. My Anya resembles a cartoonish Bond movie spy. Like Bond, she is all perfect. Impeccably dressed, even in grimy tunnels. Knowledgeable in all things. Skilled in all weapons. Sophisticated. One of her day jobs is that of fashion supermodel (an homage to Barbara Bach, who was a model before she was an actress). Anya also wields a cross, something Rand would never do.
Vampire Nation has a linear plot, and is focused on only one character, Henry. We meet Henry already on his journey to an exotic foreign land, with a flashback as to how he got his assignment. Then some early brushes with danger, a meeting with locals, meeting The Girl, several extended car chases and battles, culminating at the super-villain’s lair. I didn’t know how to end the novel until shortly before the final chapter. My outline only said that Henry and Anya meet Ceausescu, and Something Big happens. I considered killing Ceausescu, or Anya dying heroically, or everything destroyed by fire, or who knew what.Instead, the ending grew organically from my research. I’d learned that Ceausescu had a summer place near Dracula’s grave. Also that Ceausescu had a curious habit of twitches, of glancing about a room, looking at apparently nothing. My outline only said that Henry and Anya go to Dracula’s grave (the event) where Something Happens and then they go to Ceausescu’s home, where Something Even Bigger Happens. Only as I wrote of them going to Dracula’s grave, did I conceive of what they did there, and how it was to affect Ceausescu. Most readers like the ending, but a few complained that it stuck too close to history. Yet that was my intent. Vampire Nation is not alternate history. I call it parallel history, in that I maintain all the key historical facts — dates, places, quotes, events — and only add on a fantastical layer that provides a supernatural ‘explanation’ for historical events.
Anya’s aristocratic nature is her fatal flaw. She imagines that aristocracy matters, and that therefore, Prince Dracula’s ghost will aid her. Instead, Dracula assists Ceausescu. If anything, Vampire Nation takes a swipe at the silliness of aristocratic heritage. What Kurt Vonnegut calls foma. That said, Anya is the only (close to) perfect character I’ve ever written. Most of my characters are antiheroes or villains. My novels are full of self-deluded, status-hungry people pursuing false gods: careerism, consumerism, fame, communism. The vampires are delusional. They believe their motives are sincere, and that they’ve achieved paradise on earth.
Also in 2000, he published Manhattan Sharks – not a horror work, but a satire of corporate life and personal greed set in 1980s New York City. Serving as coda to the novel are two acerbic short stories, “Career Witch” and “Spirit of ‘68”. The latter – a mournful lament on the loss of the true Sixties’ idealism – won a well-deserved Honorable Mention in the 1996 Writer’s Digest fiction contest. In 2001 came Halloween Candy, an anthology of horror fact and fiction – including a never produced screenplay of the same title. In 2010, Pentagon Possessed: A Neocon Horror Story appeared – a screenplay portraying the run-up to the war in Iraq as a parody of an X-Files type conspiracy tale. Also that year, Sipos achieved his first professional book publication (with McFarland) – Horror Film Aesthetics: Creating the Visual Language of Fear. He followed quickly in 2011 (again with McFarland) with his book, Horror Film Festivals and Awards – one of the most thorough guides to these events ever written.
In 2010, Hollywood Witches was published – a satirical urban fantasy (with elements of horror). The book is very ‘adult’ in content, sometimes decidedly grotesque. The main message of the book, however, is a send-up of various New Age-type ideas – as well as of ‘political correctness’ in general. The heroine, Vanessa Cortez, uses her Catholic faith to fight against New Age occultists. She is helped by Hank Willow, her ex-boyfriend (also a Catholic) and co-worker at a tabloid newspaper. Sipos tellingly catches some of the irony of our modern times when he mentions that Hank ditches his extensive porn collection in order to consider himself as worthy of Vanessa. Multifarious aspects of Hollywood are also satirized – such as the mistreatment of ‘extras’ on the sets of movie productions, and there are quite a few passages that are very funny. The book is also fascinating for its descriptions of various sub-cultures, such as that of tabloid newspapers. The rock concert which occurs towards the end of the book is exceptionally well-rendered.
Sipos again, from the same interview:
Hollywood Witches is largely about the quest for social status. Diana Däagen is obsessed with projecting the correct image, to show that she ‘belongs’ to the industry, and has a high status within it. Many of the characters are similarly obsessed. I didn’t plan it that way. The themes just emerged.
In 1997 I was commissioned to write a sitcom for National Empowerment Television (NET), a conservative satellite network no longer on the air. I called it Washington Tricks, inspired by Yes, Minister. The main character was Cameron Cortez, a Congressional intern. (Monica Lewinsky was in the news.) I put Cameron on the cusp of identity politics. A Latina, yet Cuban-American (hence, more politically conservative). A woman, yet devoutly Catholic. Named Cortez because it was Latin, yet the name of a European conquistador. I figured her character would make for a good ideological tug-of-war in future episodes. The president of NET (Paul Weyrich) liked my pilot script, but was fired before my deal was finalized. Washington Tricks won its category in the Writers’ Foundation/America’s Best contest, and was thus supposedly read by a development executive at NBC, but nothing came of it. I later adapted it into an animation pilot, but nothing came of that, either. I put Cameron Cortez into Hollywood Witches instead, renaming her Vanessa, and changing her to Mexican-American, socially conservative, but pro-union Democratic. I considered making Vanessa a Wiccan, but kept her Catholic, not so much for ideology, but simply because I’m neither a woman, nor of color, nor a Wiccan. Making Vanessa a Catholic gave me something to identify with. When I transported Vanessa into Hollywood Witches, I also transported the issue of diversity, and in this new context, Hollywood’s hypocrisy on that issue. I also gave that issue to Diana, primarily to give her an ideology to motivate her.
Strong villains need some justification for their evil deeds. And ideally, their justifications should make some sense, at least on the surface, but are then warped through their actions. Good ends, bad means. In The Spy Who Loved Me (the Bond film), Stromberg wants to end human greed, hypocrisy, hatred, and war. He wants to do this by cleansing the earth through nuclear war, wiping the slate clean, and starting afresh. Hugo Drax in Moonraker (another Bond film) has a similar goal. Diana wants to bring fairness and diversity to Hollywood. Good goals. She wants to do this by killing thousands and enslaving millions. Bad means. Like Ceausescu in Vampire Nation, Diana is a utopian. I’d also had trouble with Hank in the earlier versions. Today, tabloid editors come from the Ivy League. Movies still often depict the stereotypical tabloid reporter, but I tried to show them as they are. I also changed Hank from an ace celebrity reporter to someone near the bottom of the tabloid food chain. These changes gave my characters moivation. Diana now had an ideology – diversity. Vanessa had a moral core – Catholicism – and Hank a goal – tabloid success (and its social status).
In 2013, Sipos wrote an introduction for Contentious Minds: The Mary McCarthy, Lillian Hellman Affair, by Ben Pleasants, a noted playwright. It draws attention to Hollywood celebrities covering up Stalin’s crimes. With this leitmotif of anti-communism, it seemed natural to ask Sipos about his attitude to Ayn Rand, with whom he has sometimes been compared.
I’ve never read The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged. I’ve had sections read to me by boorish Objectivists, so I’ve some idea of their contents. I received a FREE hardcover Atlas Shrugged that I kept on a shelf for ten years. I flipped through it on occasion, but never read it. I eventually sold it for $20 on Amazon. So I guess I’ve mooched off of Ayn Rand’s estate. The only Rand books I’ve read – back in high school – are Anthem, The Night of January 16th, and The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution. I saw The Fountainhead movie a couple of times. An unintentionally funny film. I saw the Atlas Shrugged Part 1 DVD (rented for FREE from the public library – more mooching by me), and thought it was a bore.
Like Nietzsche and Camille Paglia, Rand excels as a polemicist. Her powerful prose sarcastically and cleverly sledge-hammers away at her opponents. If you hate Rand’s targets, you’ll enjoy her vitriolic bon mots. But remove the polemics, as in the Atlas Shrugged film, and you’re left with cardboard characters and a dull story. Manhattan Sharks’ Golda Grandman caricatures the Rand cultist. Just like Nathaniel Branden changed his name from Nathan Blumenthal to incorporate “Rand” — “B-rand-en” — so Golda changes her name to “G-rand-man.” Also “Grand Man.” And “Golda” incorporates Gold. Golda is a typical Rand cultist. A self-delusional, non-entity who imagines herself “a man of great creative genius,” despite any achievements. Most likely, she thinks she’s “on strike.” Rand creates unintentionally funny, cardboard heroes, whereas I strive to create funny, self-deprecating anti-heroes.
I prefer Vonnegut to Rand. Although he’s a man of the left, and an atheist, a strong paleo-nostalgia runs through much of his earlier work. He recognizes America’s faults (slavery being among the worst), yet also regrets that something precious about America has been irrevocably lost in modern times. Like Bradbury, Vonnegut hankers after slower, simpler, more honest days (though when in one of his cynical moods, he might have denied that such days ever really existed). I wrote this about Vonnegut, which explains. I end that article by saying: “Like many satirists, Vonnegut is better at identifying and ridiculing a problem than in offering a solution”. That’s also true of Vampire Nation. It might have been true of Rand, had she a sense of humour and an ability to laugh at herself.
Thomas M. Sipos has certainly been carrying out a long-term guerrilla campaign of cultural endeavour in hostile territory. It remains to be seen if he can ever score some truly great successes that might make him a household name in America.
MARK WEGIERSKI is a Toronto-based writer and researcher with a special interest in horror, fantasy and science-fiction