Stephen King’s story “The Raft,” published in Skeleton Crew in 1985 and part of the horror anthology Creepshow 2 (Michael Gornick, 1987), is deceptively straightforward. Near the end of October, four teens—Deke, Randy, LaVerne, and Rachel—have a few drinks, smoke some pot, and decide to swim out to a raft in the middle of a deserted lake. Once they’ve all reached the raft, Randy sees a strange black shape in the water: it looks like oil—an oil slick is the closest he can come to naming it—but it’s not an oil slick; it’s too perfectly formed. Randy tells his friends that the one oil slick he has seen was “just this big sticky mess all over the water. In streaks and big smears.” He insists it did not look like the shape that is lurking on the lake: “It wasn’t, you know, compact.” This strange mass, which seems to sense their movements and their vulnerabilities, is a dense blackness—and the story tells of its relentlessly oozing over the teens, one by one, dissolving their flesh, pulling it off their bones, until only Randy is left.
This simple story, rendered very faithfully in Creepshow 2, is actually, I think, saying some complex things about our relation to our environment. Indeed, “The Raft” reminds me why I have a deep and abiding interest in the horror genre: there are very few ideas about the world and about humans that aren’t to be found somewhere in a horror film. Horror films not only confront us with all the things that terrify us, but they make us think about those things, if we’re willing to take up what they have to offer.
For me, “The Raft” presciently anticipates Timothy Morton’s Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World (Univ. of Minnesota Press, 2013). Morton’s work is dense (as theoretical books should be), but it’s saying something that’s of importance to everyone—and King’s story helps makes a part of its message clear.
Hyperobjects—the subject of Morton’s book—are the “enormous entities” in which humans are trapped, within which we’re enmeshed. We’ve always been so, but the fact is becoming increasingly clearer as hyperobjects get closer. Some of the examples Morton gives of hyperobjects are black holes, the climate, oil fields, the Florida Everglades, capitalism, Styrofoam containers, plastic bags, the sun, the biosphere. These objects are often far away and sometimes rather elusive (“the climate” isn’t an object you can touch), but at the same time they constantly impinge on us—profoundly affecting our bodies. They are durable and will be here long after we aren’t. They humble us. Morton even says they “humiliate” us, making us aware of exactly how insignificant we are.
If you want a bit more, here’s Morton’s summary of his book on his blog, Ecology Without Nature:
The one particular characteristic of hyperobjects that I’m concerned with here is what Morton calls their “viscosity.” Hyperobjects, he writes, stick to “beings that are involved with them” (1) which is all of us. Hyperobjects may be far away, not directly perceptible in and of themselves, but they are also close and they envelop us, stick to us, trap us. “We find ourselves caught in them” (32).
This stickiness and this entrapment are a large part of what I take to be the point of talking about hyperobjects. In their stickiness, they reshape the world and our place in it. We (human subjects) are no longer separate from, enjoying mastery over, a (natural) world of objects. We are instead intertwined with proliferating manifestations of hyperobjects: they stick to us and we dissolve into them, making evident our diffusion into not distinction from our environment.
The gut-churning descriptions of teens being dissolved by the strange mass in “The Raft”—rendered visually in Creepshow 2—press home the fact that we (humans) are caught up in our natural world, that our subjectivity (which we like to think of as separate, autonomous) is enmeshed in and dissolved by that world.
King even brilliantly attributes agency to the deadly oil mass. Randy thinks that the oil slick he saw on the Cape “looked like an accident.” But this thing that confronts them on the waning October lake “doesn’t look like an accident; it looks like it’s on purpose.” We may move blithely among the objects of our world, and they may seem to be lifeless and inert and far from us. But they wind their way onto, into, and through us, entering our bodies, penetrating our skin, changing our DNA. By having the oily mass alone be the deadly monster in “The Raft” (it doesn’t conceal any other more conventional horror creatures), Stephen King reminds us of the power of our object world to change and even destroy us.