The October Country: Oct. 15th: “The Raft” by Stephen King

In celebration of the month of October, I’ll be sharing 31 of my favorite spooky, eerie and creepy stories, one per day. The stories will range over an array of genres: horror, suspense, science fiction, mysteries and dark fantasy.

The October Country

that country where it is always turning late in the year. That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights stay. That country composed in the main of cellars, sub-cellars, coal-bins, closets, attics, and pantries faced away from the sun. That country whose people are autumn people, thinking only autumn thoughts. Whose people passing at night on the empty walks sound like rain…

— Ray Bradbury

October 15:

The Raft by Stephen King

Found In:

Skeleton Crew

Opening Line:

It was forty miles from Horlicks University in Pittsburgh to Cascade Lake, and although dark comes early to that part of the world in October and although they didn’t get going until six o’clock, there was still a little light in the sky when they got there.”

Choosing a single story from Stephen King’s prodigious output is rather daunting. Some writers excel at hitting a single note again and again (Lovecraft for example). Others have slightly more range, but still work within narrow boundaries (Poe).

And then there are writers who roam all over the damn board, churning out stunning work in multiple categories. King resides squarely in this latter category.

The Raft is a horror tale, one that Joe Lansdale likely would have described as a story that didn’t blink. King wastes little time setting the scene and getting the ball rolling: four teenagers take a late-fall trip to an isolated lake for a final cool dip before the winter chill sets in for good. Deke and Randy are roommates: Deke clearly the good lookin, popular jock; Randy the skinny, less-alluring bookworm. Rachel and LaVerne, the girlfriends, mostly mirror their boyfriends.

Cascade Lake doesn’t have much going for it, but what it does have is a floating wooden raft way out in the middle. The two couples intend to swim to the raft and lay out in the sun, then swim back to shore and head on home. It’s the kind of nostalgic silliness you go for when you’re nineteen.

“Rachel said that summers had seemed to last forever when she was a girl, but now that she was an adult (‘a doddering senile nineteen,’ Deke joked, and she kicked his ankle), they got shorter every year. ‘It seemed like I spent my life out at Cascade Lake,’ she said…”

Seems simple enough. They hop into Deke’s Camaro, speed on outta town, park at Cascade Lake and strip down to their swim suits. They’re the only people at the lake this time of year.

But they aren’t entirely alone.

“Randy was halfway to the raft when he sat the black patch on the water. It was beyond the raft and to the left of it, more out toward the middle of the lake.”

This black slick is no ordinary bit of grime. Faster swimmers, the boys arrive at the raft first. As the boys make hoist themselves out of the water and onto the raft, Randy takes another look.

“Randy glanced to the side and saw that odd dark circular patch was even closer–ten yards now, and still coming. It floated on the water, round and regular, like the top of a large steel drum, but the limber way it rode the swells made it clear that it was not the surface of a solid object. Fear, directionless but powerful, suddenly seized him.”

And with good reason. Though the others are skeptical at first, it becomes clear in short order that they have good reason to worry. The black slick rides up close to the raft, and while Rachel leans over to get a closer look, it washes over her hand and yanks her clean into the water.

“The black, viscous substance ran up her arm like mud…and under it, Randy saw her skin dissolving.”

In one horrifying moment, Rachel is gone.

And this, friends and neighbors, is why you don’t go swimming alone in a deserted lake in late October.

The three remaining teens are, as they say, in deep shit. At first, they attempt to wait it out, hoping the black slick will go away. But it turns out this particular bit of flesh-dissolving goo is more sentient than they imagined. It slides under the raft and waits for the opportune moment.

No big whoop. Surely they’re safe as long as they’re not in the water. Right? Wrong.

The slick bubbles up through the cracks in the boards, latches onto Deke’s foot, and gives an encore performance of melting flesh and bone. The black sludge kills Deke as efficiently as it did Rachel. He dies bloodily, and with much screaming.

LaVerne and Randy, now thoroughly terrified and stupefied by shock, decide to take turns keeping a lookout. One lookout while the other sits and rests. The black slick, perhaps satiated, floats away from the raft, keeping its distance. LaVerne and Randy wait and wait as the day falls away to dark and the cold sets in. Finally, they decide it’s safe to sit together and hold each other, as long as they keep watch.

Which is when things take a turn.

“They sat together, arms wrapped around each other, and something happened–natural or perverse, it happened. He felt himself stiffening. One of his hands found her breast, cupped in damp nylon, and squeezed.”

Even amid horror, nature takes its course. Soon, the two teens are making love on the raft, while Randy swears to keep an eye on the man-eating goo. Not the smartest plan. The goo, aware that its moment has come, speeds back to the raft and claims LaVerne.

“Randy scream. He screamed. And then, for variety, he screamed some more.

“Some half an hour later, long after the frantic splashing and struggling had ended, the loons began to scream back.”

Needless to say, Randy’s own fate isn’t much better.

As always, where King excels is in his flawless execution of character and his well-crafted narrative voice. The story surges right along, never slowing. And it’s a testament to his skill as a storyteller that even when the horror gives way to a horny, prurient moment (the story originally appeared in Gallery magazine, after all), it doesn’t seem bizarrely out of place.

Few tales in the genre are as effective and memorable as The Raft.

More October Stories

For the month of October, you can download

Tyler Miller’s The Other Side of the Door 

FREE.

In celebration of my favorite month, I’m giving away my collection The Other Side of the Door. These are stories inspired by so many of my favorite writers: Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, Richard Matheson, Shirley Jackson.

Stories like the award-winning Til Death Do Us, about a man who believes he’s gotten away with his wife’s murder…at least until her severed finger is delivered to him in a box. Somebody knows the truth…

Or another first-place winner: Not Dead, Not Even Past, the story of a small-town sheriff confronted with a string of suicides he can’t explain. Each of the victims share a disturbing trait: no matter how they died, all of them have lungs full of water.

I loved working on these stories, and I truly believe that you’ll enjoy reading them just as much as I enjoyed writing them. Check them out. For the entire month, they’re free. What have you got to lose?

Except a little sleep…

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