(Preliminary note: I’m not much of a drinker, but no judgement is implied in this post. It’s simply not a habit that I’ve developed. My own life-coping strategies, which include the consumption of problematic volumes of coffee and books, are not above reproach. This discussion starts and ends with the stories, and the narrative function of the behaviours described in the stories.)
Self-medication describes any behaviour undertaken by an individual to alleviate mental distress (stress, anxiety, boredom, psychological trauma, mental illness, etc.). It is a type of coping strategy. This can describe behaviours as varied as meditation, exercise, recreational drug use, alcohol use, tobacco use, eating comfort food, and other forms of consumption.
Not all instances of these behaviours qualify as self-medication. People engage in these behaviours for other reasons as well. The aspect we are examining here is limited to those instances in which the behaviour is used to produce a specific effect. I think that Laird’s fiction provides numerous instances where the self-medication aspect is clearly present. In these instances, the behaviour (typically drinking or smoking) is not engaged in for pleasure, social acceptance, or to ease physical pain. The behaviour is instead used as an effective way of showing that a character is undergoing mental distress.
Consider this passage from “Old Virginia”, from which I’ve removed a few sentences:
Hatcher kept some scotch in the pantry. Doctor Riley poured—I didn't trust my own hands yet. He lighted cigarettes. (…)
I sucked my cigarette to the filter in a single drag, exhaled and gulped scotch. Held out my glass for another three fingers' worth.
Divorced from their context, the narrator’s actions are still easy to interpret. Whatever just happened, it has rattled his composure. He is sucking on the cigarette and gulping the scotch in order to restore some inner equilibrium. From personal experience or observation, we understand his actions, whether or not we have ever heard the words “self-medication” or “self-soothing”. Whatever our own habitual means of dealing with anxiety or stress, it is easy to empathize with the character.
Another illustrative passage, from “The Procession of the Black Sloth”, once again shortened:
Royce swallowed hard and wondered briefly if he was going to be sick. He chewed on his knuckle. (…) He decided to fix a drink, but the scotch was gone and the last beer too; even the mini bottles of Christian Brothers he kept in the pantry, with the oatmeal, flour, and mouse traps.
Royce walked downstairs without recollection of forming the intent to leave his apartment. Full dark had come and the sodium lamps kicked on, masking the faces of the guests in shades of red and amber. He scooped several glasses of champagne from an unattended platter, retired to one of the small tables, and drank rapidly and with little pleasure.
Barron is obviously not the only writer to present us with characters in need of a drink. Fiction is full of such characters, horror fiction perhaps more so than any other genre. H.P. Lovecraft*, teetotaller though he was, did not refrain from using the technique on occasion:
Following me clumsily to the study, he asked for some whiskey to steady his nerves.
("The Thing on the Doorstep")
Here—have another drink—I need one anyhow!
Lovecraft is more blunt. He explicitly draws the reader’s attention to the purpose of the action. Barron is more descriptive. The details he adds lends the actions more weight, and he leaves us to draw the inference ourselves.
Wallace waved him off, awkwardly poured a glass of milk with his left hand, sloshed in some rum from an emergency bottle in a counter drawer. He held his glass with trembling fingers, eyeballing the slimy bubbles before they slid into his mouth; poured another. (“Hallucigenia”)
Why is alcohol consumption so prevalent in Barron’s stories, and in fiction more generally? It may a narrative necessity more than a reflection of anything else. Drinking fits neatly in a story in a way that other coping strategies do not. Avoidance, for instance, seems far more common in life than in fiction. When confronted with stressful situations, characters do not seek distraction in television, or social media, or decide to take a nap, or a brisk walk, with nearly the same frequency as the readers do. These would divert the narrative flow; drinking and brooding channels it.
By reaching for a bottle, the character is being proactive, resourceful. The action may be short-sighted, but it keeps the character in the game, so to speak. Like smelling salts on a dazed boxer, it’s a way to keep the character in the fight until the concluding knock-out. The self-destructive aspect of the behaviour fits hand-in-glove with a certain type of doomed Barron protagonist. The impairment of the character’s judgement may also play a role. Self-preservation instincts compromised, the character agrees to go on, to meet with his (nearly always his) fate.
* Note: The references to H.P. Lovecraft’s work, here and elsewhere, are used for three reasons. One, if there is such a thing as a universally known “weird fiction” writer, it must be Lovecraft, for better or worse. I believe he’s a common point of reference for many Laird Barron readers. Two, I’m very familiar with his work. Three, his entire work is available online, and is therefore easy to search and reference.