In his acknowledgements section of My Heart is a Chainsaw (which I reviewed here yesterday), Stephen Graham Jones writes: “Next I want to thank some writers who are involved with [my novel], though they don’t know it. The first is, once again, Stephen King. His story ‘The Raft’ is shot all through Chainsaw. I may hold the record for having read that story the most times.” Jones’s comments struck me as curious, since I remembered the King story as more of a cosmic horror tale (the monstrous, shimmering “black thing” lurking atop the lake like some sentient and carnivorous oil slick seems a literary descendant of Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space”). The avowal of influence prompted me to go back and reread “The Raft,” to gauge its slasher qualities.
Upon further review, “The Raft” (pub. 1982) does contain many of the now-familiar components of slasher narratives. The plot presents an inciting transgression: four college students venture out to Cascade Lake knowing full well the beach has been closed since Labor Day but planning to bid a frolicking farewell to Indian summer with a late-October swim out to the titular float. The students also conform to slasher character types, with roommates Deke and Randy self-aware of their status as “the Jock and the Brain.” Meanwhile, Rachel is the relatively good girl (no final girl, though), and LaVerne the mean/slutty girl (with her witch-like cackle and unabashed stealing of Deke right in front of Rachel). LaVerne’s frank sexuality is signaled by the nearly transparent state of the bra and panties she strips down to before diving into the lake.
“The Raft” also features some gruesome set-piece kills. First, the mesmerized Rachel is engulfed by the lake monster’s viscous viciousness: “Randy could see it sinking into her like acid, and when her jugular vein gave way in a dark, pumping jet, he saw the thing send out a pseudopod after the escaping blood.” Even more unforgettably graphic is the demise of Deke, sucked down through the raft after the creature catches hold of his foot by bubbling up between the wooden boards. King methodically details Deke’s crushing plunge–“the wishbone crack of his pelvis,” the “sound like strong teeth crunching up a mouthful of candy jawbreakers” as Deke’s ribs “collaps[e] into the crack,” the grotesque way “Deke’s eyes had bugged out as if on springs as hemorrhages caused by hydrostatic pressure pulped his brain.” For certain, it’s as grim a death to be found anywhere in the King canon.
Perhaps most tellingly, “The Raft” also evinces the conservative morality of the slasher film, which typically mixes raging hormones with homicidal maniacs. Here, too, premarital sex precipitates violent death. Yielding to primal urges amidst their dire entrapment, the last two survivors (LaVerne and the appropriately named Randy) lie down and lovelessly fornicate. Their horizontal boogie, though, only attracts the bogey, which interrupts the coitus when LaVerne’s hair happens to slip into the water (Randy “pulled back suddenly, trying to pull her up, but the thing moved with oily speed and tangled itself in her hair like a webbing of thick black glue and when he pulled her up she was already screaming and she was heavy with it; it came out of the water in a twisting, gruesome membrane that rolled with flaring nuclear colors–scarlet-vermillion, flaring emerald, sullen ocher”).
LaVerne’s obliteration is the last (but not least) of the story’s spectacular splatter effects. All told, “The Raft” is a macabre masterpiece, a frightful tale of reckless teen behavior and terrible predation. King scripts the darkest and bloodiest misadventure ever experienced while floating atop a lake–at least until Jones ups the ante and enlarges the carnage in the wild climax of My Heart is a Chainsaw.