Good Old-Fashioned Monsters as Sales of Horror Fiction Decline, a Conservative Businessman Thinks He Can Make a Killing with Books Full of Creatures That Thrilled Him as a Child

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Byline: Lisa Friedman Miner Daily Herald Staff Writer

Thomas Strauch grew up watching the classic monsters of horror's golden age - Boris Karloff's strong, silent "Frankenstein," Bela Lugosi's bloodthirsty "Dracula."

In the 1970s, Strauch tuned in to "Screaming Yellow Theater" on Friday nights and "Creature Features" on Saturdays. In his spare time, he'd read comics with titles like "Creepy" and Vampirella."

He came to love horror - the movies, the magazines, the novels.

"I've never really grown out of it," says Strauch, now a 42-year-old businessman and father. "I just got hooked on it from the start. I never gave it up."

Now he doesn't have to.

Strauch's design firm last spring began publishing horror books. Three books - two vampire novels and a horror anthology - came out in March. Three more books are due out next month.

All feature creatures that go bump in the night.

You won't see slashers or serial killers or the kind of psychological horror that shows up so often on best-seller lists.

Instead, Strauch and his firm, DesignImage, will spotlight more traditional monsters.

"We want old-fashioned bogeymen, if you will," says Strauch. "We want the vampires and the ghosts and the witches and the werewolves."

They also want readers. Slowly, Strauch says, they're getting them.

DesignImage sits in the middle of a Burr Ridge business park, the kind of place where suites of look-alike offices face lines of parked cars.

Inside, DesignImage's offices offer a peek into the diversity of Tom Strauch's corporate world. Shelves display the many products his firm has designed: an Entenmann's coffee cake box, Degree Deodorant roll-on, Agree shampoo bottle, Corn Nuts canisters, a Mickey Mouse tea kettle.

Then there are the vampire books.

"The Darkest Thirst" anthology features 16 tales of the "undead," including a 23-page ghost story by Strauch himself, set on the grounds of a retreat for wayward nuns.

"Carmilla - The Return" reworks and updates Joseph Sheridan LeFanu's 1872 novella about the vampire countess. In the modern version, by Kyle Marffin, the temptress stalks her prey in Hinsdale and then finds a new object of obsession downtown at Bloomingdale's.

And P.D. Cacek's "Night Prayers" introduces Allison Garret, a thirtysomething novice vampire on the prowl in L.A. She makes her first kill on page 17; a few pages later, she takes down three more - some 24 quarts of blood, she figures. Locus, a sci-fi newspaper, called "Night Prayers" a "blood pudding whipped to a tasty scarlet froth."

The books - and the others to follow - were published as a side venture, a creative outlet for Strauch and his designers, a break from their "conservative corporate" work.

DesignImage's horror books sell in 250 stores nationwide and on-line. Strauch won't release sales figures, but he says they're doing well.

He has yet to break even on the books and figures he won't for a while. That's OK, he says.

"I like the horror category," he says, "and I want to see it thrive."

Return from the dead?

Horror fiction did thrive in the 1980s. By the early '90s, however, the big New York publishers had largely given up on traditional horror novels. Only megasellers Anne Rice and Stephen King continued to prosper.

Nearly a decade later, horror is still in a downswing, Strauch says.

"The amount of titles being published today is really a fraction of what it was 10 years ago," he says.

And that is precisely why he believes DesignImage has a chance - in a healthier horror market, a small publisher of $15.95 paperbacks would go unnoticed. Now, however, such books have less competition.

"It's the optimal time to come in," Strauch says.

"Night Prayers" author P.D. Cacek agrees. She believes that the thirst for horror lives on, even if big-name publishers disagree. …