Stephen King Short Story Project, #6: “The Raft”

The story: “The Raft,” collected in Skeleton Crew. First published in 1982. Wikipedia entry here.

Spoiler-filled synposis: Four college students pay a visit to an isolated, tranquil lake to live up the last days of summer. Alas, they’re trapped out on the lake by a strange creature and are killed off one by one in excessively gruesome ways.

My thoughts: Ewwwwwwww.

I suspect this is what people who haven’t read Stephen King’s work, imagine that all Stephen King’s work is like: weird, lurid, and horrifying.

So far in this little October short story project, we’ve read Stephen King short stories that fit a number of classic horror sub-genres: we’ve seen the Lost Travellers and the Town with a Dark Secret; Lovecraftian Horror; the Faustian Bargain; and the Three Wishes. “The Raft” fits neatly into another familiar theme: Hormone-Addled Teenagers Engage in Forbidden Activities and Die Horribly.

The first few pages of this story are spent getting to know our doomed protagonists: Randy (the nerd), Deke (the jock), Rachel (the sweet girl), and LaVerne (the mean girl). As I’ve noted in discussing other stories, King writes personal interaction well, and he’s got his finger on the pulse of teenage social dynamics. Even as horror envelops the protagonists, they’re evaluating relationships, competing for social status, and thinking about sex. In the brief time we have to get to know these kids, Randy and Rachel come across as the most sympathetic; Deke isn’t a villain, but he’s got a streak of the Stephen King “bully” archetype running through him, and LaVerne comes across as a bit of a boyfriend-stealing jerk.

Actually, it’s the portrayal of the two women in this story that stands out most strongly to me, reading it now. To put it bluntly: there is a weird and uncharacteristic amount of violence directed at the women in “The Raft.” I do understand the rather over-the-top situation they’re in, what with the flesh-eating oil-slick monster that has them trapped in the middle of the lake. But it’s nonetheless not very fun to read about male characters either striking, or thinking about striking, the women, one of whom dies early in the story and the other of whom is quickly reduced to a gibbering, fainting wreck. All of the characters, but especially the women, lack agency; with little prospect of escape, they’re mostly just passive victims. This seems a bit out of character for King, who is actually known for his strong female characters to the point that several of his later books could probably be described as feminist empowerment tales. “The Raft” is not really long enough for me to figure out whether King’s doing something deliberate with genre conventions or is simply being thoughtless here.

And of course, that violence all seems rather moot in the grand scheme of things. Three of the four protagonists are snared by the monster and die awful, luridly-described deaths; one of them is, in my opinion, one of the most gruesome deaths to be found in any King story or novel. (The fourth death, that of the narrator, is strongly implied but not described in the story’s final sentences.)

Apart from the over-the-top violence and the treatment of the female characters, one other element of “The Raft” stands out. If you’ve read much Stephen King, you’re certainly familiar with one of his trademark writing gimmicks—the use of italicized, parenthetical text to communicate what his characters are

(subconsciously thinking)

subconsciously thinking. While King sometimes over-uses this trick, it works reasonably well, and is effective here in supplying an otherwise trashy story with a bit of emotional weight. The curious phrase (do you love) pops up here, as it does in one or two other places in King’s work, as Randy, left alone at the end, contemplates his inevitable fate.

Apart from this, I don’t have much else to say about “The Raft.” It’s gross, it’s lurid… and it works alright. Certainly it works well enough that 20 years after I first read it, I could vividly remember the exact manner of Deke’s death. I wouldn’t recommend this story to somebody exploring King’s stories for the first time, but it does represent a strain of King’s writing that you’ll eventually want to confront.

Next up: “Trucks,” from Night Shift.

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