Assemble a group of teenagers, isolate the youths in a remote location, and have a blade wielding maniac poach them one by one. This simple formula worked well for the Friday the 13th films as well as other summer camp-themed slashers such as Body Count, The Burning, and Madman. These early 80’s horror entries established an effective template allowing for copious amounts of substance abuse, sex, and gruesome bloodshed. Genre titan Stephen King made his contribution to such fare with “The Raft,” a short story originally published in the November 1982 issue of Gallery; before appearing in his 1985 collection Skeleton Crew. Granted, King tweaks the paradigm, replacing the aforementioned maniac with a mysterious “black patch” floating on the surface of a lake. It’s a nifty trick, a playful merging of creature feature with hack and slash terror that was ultimately adapted for film in 1987’s Creepshow 2.

It’s October at Horlicks University and snow has been predicted for the following day, a source of much disappointment for students Randy, Deke, Rachel, and LaVerne. Having diminished their inhibitions with a case of beer, the foursome flee their campus in Deke’s Camaro and drive to nearby Cascade Lake for one final Indian summer bash. The plan is simple: swim to a wooden raft in the middle of the lake and swim back. Getting there is easy enough; it’s the return trip that proves to be most difficult as they find themselves stalked by the strange black substance.

Deke’s premed roommate Randy (think a male Laurie Strode) is the first to notice the ooze: “A sudden fear, directionless but powerful, suddenly seized him.” And with good reason, as the aquatic blob makes a beeline for the slow-swimming girls. Rachel and LaVerne make it just in the nick of time, but now they, like their boyfriends, are trapped. All eyes remain riveted to the black patch as they try to figure out just what in the hell it is. Toxic waste? Alien creature? Scientific experiment gone apeshit? Doubtful of its sentience, much less malevolent intent, football player Deke thinks it might be nothing more than an oil slick, but Randy is convinced of its sinister nature.

Rachel’s is the first snuff as she falls prey to the creature’s hypnotic color scheme, which mesmerizes potential victims, lulling them into a vulnerable, dreamlike state: “Her eyes stared at the black patch on the water with blank rapture, and for just a moment Randy thought he saw what she was talking about—colors, yeah, colors, swirling in rich, inward-turning spirals.” Despite his protests, Rachel has been duped; she reaches for the thing with childlike curiosity, only to discover its true intent. The black goo devours her arm before pulling her into the water where it consumes her in grisly fashion, “sinking into her like acid.” Rachel’s death prompts Randy to punch himself in the face whenever he feels the colors working their sinister magic on his psyche, a defensive strategy that takes on marked significance late in the narrative.

Deke is next, his demise showcasing the glob’s ability to attack from beneath the raft as it seeps through the narrow gap between boards to latch onto the doomed football player’s foot. What follows is the story’s most protracted and gory death; Deke is literally yanked through the miniscule space, down he goes, until only his head remains visible:  “Blood was pouring from Deke’s eyes…from both of Deke’s ears. His face was a hideous purple turnip, swelled shapeless with the hydrostatic pressure of some unbelievable reversal.”

Of course, no horror yarn with four college kids would be worth a piss if it didn’t include a sex scene. After all, this thing was published as an insert/booklet within the pages of a stroke mag, stapled and wedged in there between glossy beaver pics. Not to be outdone by his photographer competitors, King delivers some titillating action between Randy and LaVerne. While keeping a watchful eye on the viscous mass, Randy screws her good and proper: “He slid upward, forward, into her. Warmth. God, she was warm there, at least. She made a guttural noise and her fingers grabbed at his cold, clenched buttocks.” Perhaps LaVerne’s tight honeypot has scrambled Randy’s brain, or maybe it’s those blasted colors that tricked Rachel. Either way, he just keeps pumping away, failing to act as the creature approaches and snatches LaVerne by her hair. She is quickly dispatched, leaving Randy little choice but to kick her mangled corpse into the water.

And that leaves Randy—the final boy, as opposed to girl—left to battle the unspeakable evil. Night falls. He sleeps without incident before rising at dawn to be tormented by the light of Deke’s Camaro on the river bank. So close, yet so far away. By that afternoon, his strength and resolve are all but gone. Randy has resorted to crying and pleading with the thing to leave him alone. Being October, the lake is a desolate place. Summer is over. Nobody has any reason to visit the area. Resigned to the hopelessness of his situation, Randy opts to commit suicide using the only weapon at his disposal. He stares at the thing’s colors without looking away, refusing to strike himself, hoping against hope that his acquiescence will grant him a painless death.

One wonders why King didn’t give us a collegiate swimmer as this would have made for one hell of a finish, a hair-raising race to shore more aligned with the film version. A missed opportunity, perhaps, but nothing major; as is, the story ranks among his absolute best.