She wasn't surprised when Costello revealed that he's a horror writer because, as she says, "He may not look like Stephen King, but he's darker than you'd think.

"I have no problem imagining Sam having dark secrets or eerie powers. I've known him for several years and he's one of the nicest guys I know, but he has such a measured way about him . . . He'd be the perfect person to tell your terrible secrets to, as he seems like quite a vault. That's all, really, a certain kind of built-in vagueness that keeps him a bit unknowable."

Like one of those seemingly well-adjusted characters in one of his stories, Costello shrugs at the notion that he's different in any discernible way. OK, so he shares his renovated Victorian home with a black cat named Oni, the Japanese word for "demon." Don't jump to any conclusions; he didn't even name the cat.

Otherwise he's just a single, college-educated (Ithaca College in New York) guy who won't so much as decorate his house for Halloween. His biggest secret seems to be that he's a bit of a workaholic, churning out articles for tech magazines all the time.

"I don't see specific issues of mine being worked out in Split Lip," Costello says. "Certainly some stories are working on individual ideas, but I don't necessarily see my work as being driven on the whole by any particular deep-seated issues. I see my stories as more driven by imagination, questions, and trying to create specific effects or feelings."

His mother, Stephanie, says her son started reading Stephen King and Clive Barker in fifth grade and developed a fascination with Freddy Krueger.

"I was worried that he was too interested in the dark side and that it would make him negative," she says. "He assured me that it was exciting to be scared and he liked the challenge of these ideas."

Still, she assumed Sam would grow up to become a history teacher or a sports announcer, and when he started making horror comics, "I was reluctant to read them because I thought they would be too scary like Nightmare on Elm Street. I don't like that kind of movie.

"But I found his stories to be intellectually challenging and interesting and they made me think."

Costello has won over others. His site gets about 3500 hits per month, and there are pages from new stories being posted as the artists finish them. Some of the stories have been collected and published as graphic novel anthologies, and a new one should be available at splitlipcomic.com by spring.

"Each story is designed to elicit different feelings, though all of the stories are intended to disturb the reader, make them uneasy, make them view things in new ways, give them the sense that the world maybe isn't as sure as they may think," Costello says.

Says Chicago artist Erik Rose, who is in the process of illustrating a story called "Cured" for Split Lip, "Sam is also not sitting back waiting to be discovered. He is really putting his money where his mouth is. His belief in himself and his love for the medium of comic books is impossible to miss. In the process of producing work and publishing his comics both online and in print he has created a niche for himself. In this digital age he has found a way to create his own audience and communicate with them. The fact that all his stories are available online for free is amazing.

"I have no doubts that major comic book publishers will be fighting to work with him and wondering how they missed out on a great talent for so long."

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